Friday Night In

Did I tell you how we've started doing these little Shabbat dinners lately? Very informal. Wally loves it, though, and keeps getting disappointed that no one else (that we know) does them. 

"She's not lucky" he'll say, about one friend or another.

"Why not?"

"Cause she doesn't do Shabbat dinner."

Whoops. I guess maybe my explanation about feeling grateful was a little oversimplified. We are lucky, but others are, too. 

It sometimes cracks me up that I have suddenly become this uber-Jew (no offense meant to actual practicing Jews who might find the application of such a term to describe drinking grape juice on Fridays outrageous). I was not raised with anything but a vague sense of disdain for religion. I'm trying to remember how it even happened. I guess as I grew more interested in simple living, I started gravitating to a formalized day of rest, an idea which only stretches back...oh 3,000 years or so. But for most of us it's really grown out of style. This site, Sabbath Manifesto, sums up the goal of a Shabbat dinner pretty nicely, with 10 principles including "avoid technology", "light candles", "connect with loved ones" and "give back". When it comes to unplugging, a day of rest follows naturally. It's obvious, I suppose, but also not. Unplugging sounds modern, forward looking. First you have to plug in (technology revolution) to choose to plug out. Religion sounds backward. Unenlightened. Something we as a species have grown out of.

But, there may be a lot of good advice maybe mixed up with things with which we no longer agree, codified in a form we can no longer abide by. A day of rest--essential for Jews--is essential for Christians and Muslims as well. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Wise men and women in the past may have known that we can't function well without a break. That somewhere along the line it turned into a commandment was just a way for it to be systematized. Still, there are the other parts of the Sabbath Manifesto that were ringing around in my head. Finding more time for nature, less time for commerce, more time for quiet, family and giving back.

And then I read Wendy Mogel's Book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to raise Raising Self-Reliant Children which I've mentioned really was the best parenting advice I've read anywhere. Accepting your child's nature (recognizing that his/her greatest strength will manifest as a wacky, difficult energy). Teaching gratitude and self-control. Giving your child time to grow. Not overprotecting him or her. Encouraging debate and discussion. Committing to serving others. Letting kids learn to tolerate disappointment and frustration. And all that got me to thinking about the Jewish teachings themselves. (To be honest I did largely ignore the last chapter, the one with a more serious approach to faith. But the underlying injunction from God "Justice, justice shall you pursue" does seem to dominate and drive all other areas of the tradition, so that part, I held onto.)

The more I read about modern Judaism, the more it occurred to me that you don't have to be religious, necessarily, to follow what's essential in religion, or at least in Judaism. As Benjamin Efron and Leonard A. Schoolman write in Transition and Change: the Prayer Book and Synagogue in Modern Times (this wonderful, dusty, musty book my grandmother left behind):

"Questioning is an important part of the Jew's life, especially in our time. He can no longer accept ideas simply because they are ancient or part of tradition. On the other hand, it is not necessary for modern man to desert concepts simply because they stem from antiquity."

Next I read The Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat: Connect and Celebrate -- Bring Your Family Together with this Friday Night Meal by Meredith L. Jacobs. I don't think I'll ever get to the point where I make my own challah. But celebrating the good things about the week, connecting with family, taking time to rest, to say thanks, to unplug (that doesn't take time, actually, it saves it), making it a ritual, it all just started to appeal to me. If we don't ritualize things, they tend not to happen. If we don't insist on a time when we will be purely in the moment, the moments will keep getting swept out from under us. 

So a few Fridays ago I bought a challah bread, grape juice and red wine. (I always buy red wine.) I dug out some old candles. (There are special Shabbos candles available, but for my purposes, any kind will do.) I just made for dinner whatever it was I was going to make--I can't remember now. I set up a jar (a pushke in Hebrew or tzedakah [charity] box) for money for the poor. At first it struck me as semi-weird to make a show of dropping money in the jar before dinner, but then I thought about how most of our donations are done by credit card online, in a rather cold, anonymous way. Why not make it a part of family life, and let Wally grow up knowing that giving to the poor is something you do weekly, not just at holidays or when someone hits you up for a donation to a fundraising 5K?

When Alex got home we turned out the lights, lit the candles, put money in the jar, said things we were grateful for--hokey, I know (but reference in high places like The Times last week), drank wine and grape juice, broke bread (how come most of the time you eat bread but when it's a festive occasion you "break" it?) and ate dinner. Time felt drawn out. I was present, but awash in memory, too. Afterwards we played music. Meredith Jacobs in The Modern Jewish Mom's Guide recommends that. Playing and singing or just putting music on in the background as you play games. 

Many people discuss a passage from some great Jewish book...the Talmud, the Torah, the Midrash -- are any of them the same thing?How do they relate to The Old Testament? -- apply it to current events and debate the morality of the choices made. "Torah portion" maybe it's called. Okay, so it's obviously from The Torah. I haven't gotten to that yet.

And pronunciation is still a mystery. Shabbat, emphasis second syllable, my dad says makes me sound super serious. But to my ears Shabbos sounds really authentic, feeling like a pretense when I saw it. 

Since we started this new tradition, Wally brings up "the people who don't have enough food" fairly often. He's equally worried about the people who "don't have enough trains". So there's lots of room for growth there, to broaden his perspective on what it means to have enough. I'll keep watching him for signs of how best to do that. And listening I am not writing here enough these days, but I am listening more. 

Three weeks ago I went with a friend (who comes from a Buddhist background but is not religious) to a Friday night service at a local synagogue, the first service I'd ever attended, outside of a Bat Mitzvah or wedding. True to the idea that Judaism is open to questioning, instead of a formal speech, the Rabbi talking about the Bible's most famous phrase "Love thy neighbor as thyself," opening the floor to discussion about what it means (changes a bit when you see it the context from which it's so often removed) and encouraging suggestions for how best to practice it. 

That synagogue's prayer book was full of wonderful poetry. One poem/prayer in struck me in particular. I wrote it down on the back of the handout. It felt so hopeful until the last line, which feels a little bit doomed. I am still wondering about it. Not sure I fully get it. Maybe you will.

Dayeinu: If We Speak Truthfully

By Tamara Cohen

If we speak truthfully about the pain, joys and contradictions in our lives,
If we listen to others with sensitivity and compassion
If we challenge the absence of women in traditional texts, chronicles of Jewish history, and in the leadership of our institutions, dayeinu.
If we continue to organize, march, and vote to affirm our values,
If we fight economic injustice, sexism, racism, and homophobia,
If we volunteer our time and money, dayeinu.
If we break the silence about violence against women and children in the Jewish community and everywhere,
If we teach our students and children to pursue justice with all their strength,
If we care for the earth and its future as responsibly as we care for those we love,
If we create art, music, dance, and literature, dayeinu.
If we realize our power to effect change,
If we bring holiness into our lives, homes, and communities,
If we honor our visions more than our fears, dayeinu v'lo dayeinu.
It will and it will not be enough.


  1. What a wonderful, lovely post.

    My take on the last line:
    Dayenu is most well known from the Passover song, where it celebrates the things God did for the Jews. For each thing done, the people were grateful --it would have been enough. More was just heaping blessing upon blessing. However, the current poem indicates what we can contribute to others and the world. As such, we (like Schindler) can always strive to do more.

  2. Thank you for the post. "Friday Night In" is a really nice idea.

  3. we're a part, a piece, of the whole. we're never "enough" but it is what, all, we can do.

    we do what we can for what's important to us. that's enough.

    will the world be different? change? maybe, maybe not. the world is not our toy, we are not the sole creators, contributors. not individually, collectively, nor as a species.

    "there are more things in heaven and earth...."

    I love rituals, feeling rhythms, cycles, too! So glad you're listening for and creating them!

  4. Wally cracks me up. i am going to say a prayer for the people without enough trains :)

  5. Thank you Hawkeye- really appreciate your take on that line. I suppose you're right -- even if, collectively, we did all that, it still would not fully repair the wrold. There's always more to be done.

    Thank you "Anon".

    Linda - great advice...I keep re-reading that line "we do what we can for what's important to us. that's enough." thank you for all you wrote.

    Bearette -- i know. crazy kid.


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