“Does your mother cook on Shabbat?”
“Do you turn the light on? Watch TV or play the radio?”
I was six years old, riding the bus home from Jewish day school. Barry and Norman, two boys in fourth grade who ride the bus with me, were setting up an inquisition. Normally they’d be fighting, pulling each other’s ears back and pinching noses until one or the other screamed. But for some reason at this point, they had decided to focus on me.
“Yes,” I said.
All hell broke loose.
I was not raised in a religious home and my father hadn’t been either. My mother’s family may have kept kosher in Russia, but once they emigrated I don’t believe they kept it up. We went to synagogue a few times a year, for High Holydays, Passover and select events and bar mitzvahs. I doubt that the meat we ate was kosher and I certainly remember a few cheeseburgers eaten in restaurants. I even remember a time my mother served something she referred to as “Virginia corned beef.” It turned out to be ham.
I didn’t much like it and never had much of a taste for ham or pork; but knowing my home-life was anything but exemplary according to my schoolmates made me feel torn and ashamed for many years.
“If your mother cooks on Shabbat and you watch TV, you’re not being Jewish,” Barry says. “You’re not being the kind of Jew HaShem wants you to be.”
I stared at the boys, having no idea what to say. They had barely talked to me for most of the year, and I still have no idea why they decided to question me. Finally, I told them I didn’t know the answer to their questions, and for some reason, that satisfied them and they went back to torturing each other. Yet this episode has stayed with me; reminding me I am still wrestling with my own notions of Shabbat and how I grew up.
When I got home that day, I tried to ask my mother why we weren’t good Jews, and then to persuade her to observe Shabbat and keep kosher. She was, however, having none of it.
“God cares about whether or not you are a good person—not about whether you cook on Shabbos or eat special food.”
“But why are you sending me to an Orthodox day school if you don’t care about the Torah or Jewish laws?”
“Because it’s a good school and you are getting a good education. End of story.”
So there we left it, or she did. I began to lead a double life, steeping myself in Jewish culture like a tea bag every morning and leaving it after school. At home, I left things that didn’t seem kosher on my plate (or spit them out in a napkin when no one could see). On Shabbat, I said prayers in my room or tried to wheedle my mother into taking me to synagogue.
My dad worked every Saturday until four in the afternoon and slept most of Sunday, so I never expected he would go to services and didn’t ask. Both parents were very proud of the way I could speak Hebrew and we always celebrated Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Yet somehow, Shabbat and all its rules—along with lots of other rules and precepts—were not on the radar.
When I left day school in seventh grade, I went to a secular school where kids grew up in homes like my own; but it wasn’t long before I started missing my old friends, who were funny and tough but who would never give a thought to how you looked or dressed. Though I never matched their level of observance, I wasn’t a princess/Valley Girl like the kids in my new school either. In fact, I didn’t really belong anywhere.
At the new school there was no talk of Shabbat; but everyone wanted to know what you were wearing to school dances on Friday night. It made me think of the stories of my first-grade teacher about families dressing in their best clothes on Shabbat and gathering for a special dinner. Though we had a lot of holidays, the teacher said, Shabbat was the biggest one of all.
Yet my family didn’t celebrate.
By the time I went to college, I had more or less forgotten about Shabbat; but years later, my actor husband decided to become a cantor and I came face to face with the holiday once more. Though there were a lot of rules and I sometimes struggled with them, I started to love the feeling I would get on Friday nights; one of celebration and peace.
When the marriage was over, I struggled to create a Shabbat that would bring me that same feeling.
My first foray was an evening with my Catholic friend John and my three-year-old son, who watched me cover my eyes, light the Shabbat candles and say the blessings. My friend said it seemed that when I started the first blessing, the walls of our house melted and we were in an open field under the stars. That always made me think of the perfect Shabbat.
Some time later I invited my new boyfriend over and lit candles for the holiday. By the time we got married two years later, we had shared many Shabbatot—with my son Josh and alone—and my husband had developed a taste for Challah by candlelight.
Thinking back on this now, I still remember my discomfort as a child in the presence of two holier-than-thou terrors on the day-school bus. My Russian émigré grandparents fled a country that despised them as Jews; and their children likely absorbed the shame of their own parents’ experience. Yet here were two Orthodox children doling out shame to someone who they didn’t think was Jewish enough.
Can we ever stop blaming each other?
If Shabbat is a day of rest, maybe it can also be a rest from judgment.
If I saw Barry and Norman now I would tell them to stop asking me what my mother was doing on Shabbat and grow some manners. If my parents were here, I would ask them to come over for Shabbat and wear my best clothes to welcome them. Because the school they sent me to brought me a new way of looking at our traditions, and now I know that. In their own way, they were trying to give me pride they never had in being Jewish; lighting candles—and melting walls.