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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

April 16, 2019 by

A Secular Feminist Embraces Shabbat

The first time I observed Shabbat according to the laws of the Torah, it snowed in the desert.

There was a certain degree of irony there—that hell had frozen over, and now I was celebrating the Sabbath in the home of an Orthodox friend. 

I was anxious in the hours leading up to sundown, watching large, wet snowflakes blanket the cactus in my front yard. It was the kind of anxiety that comes with imposter syndrome—all my Jewish celebrations had thus far involved a wide margin of error. My partner and I didn’t worry much about saying all the right prayers in the right order, because our practices were secular expressions of our shared culture, not an expression of religious devotion.

The summer after my partner and I first moved in together, I read Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. While I found the rest of the book generally dull, I latched onto the main character’s description of the “religion for two” he and his wife practiced. They would share food and run a bath and make love together on Friday nights, blocking out the rest of the world and turning inward. This appealed to me endlessly. 

For a stretch of time, Max and I almost made it work—Fridays, by default, became the period of time each week where we caught up with each other, shared a meal, and watched the shows eating up space on the DVR. I wanted a ritual that belonged to us, something to serve as the foundation for our joint life. I wanted to get out of obligations to go out to overcrowded bars with my peers by texting, “Sorry, it’s Shabbat, you know how it is.” I wanted us to be known as a couple unreachable when the weekend rolled around.

Life got in the way of this plan—we succumbed to listless scrolling on our respective phones, working on the weekends even though we weren’t getting paid overtime, and generally forgetting to carve out the space necessary for 48 hours of detachment from the rat race. Like many Americans, we had forgotten to lay claim to the rest that labor organizing had earned us. Our workweek was a hamster wheel that couldn’t stop. 

All of this is to say: I found the idea of a mandatory break welcoming. Whether that break was mandated by God, our friends’ schedule, or otherwise—I wanted an outside force to command me to stop working and focus on what was immediately in front of me: a meal, Max, and the wide, expansive sky over Tucson. 

We arrived shortly after sundown, bearing a store-bought babka. I normally baked myself for dinner events, but as I didn’t keep a Kosher home, I reluctantly sought out the most homemade-looking dessert I could find at Trader Joe’s. I had spent a frantic six minutes with my cart pulled to the side of the aisle, Googling to double-check eggs whether counted as dairy or not. I was too embarrassed to ask my friend to remind me what was pareve or not—it felt like cheating on a test I should have the answers to. 

My first real blunder came during the hand washing. I wasn’t sure how many seconds I needed to run my hand under the water for it to count as washed, and felt the eyes of my hosts on me. I moved quickly from the sink, then tried to recover by commenting on how lovely the linens I’d been handed were. I got no response—it wasn’t until we were all seated at the table and the challah had been served that conversation resumed. I was informed, discreetly, that no one spoke between the washing of the hands and breaking of bread. I had disturbed the palpable peace that permeated the space we sat in. I gnawed at my cuticles.

As we slipped into the meal, though, my shoulders relaxed. The truth of the matter was, my friends were ecstatic that Max and I had joined them in their home for Shabbat. The academic community we belonged to here in the desert was not built around the religious observances of Jewish people—department events almost always conflicted with the commencement of the Sabbath. Each week, our friends were absent at potlucks, cocktail hours, and book club gatherings. They left their door open for any acquaintance to drop by, because everyone knew where they would be, each and every Friday evening. Prior knowledge of Judaism wasn’t really required—for them, it was about prioritizing community as a bulwark against creeping isolationism. I felt pressure to perform the rituals of their Shabbat perfectly because I claimed Jewish heritage, but this was a self-imposed pressure.

 

We ate fish and pot roast and challah and took long, deep sips of white wine, and didn’t look at the clock once. We left sometime after eleven—long after the candles had burned down and out and the lingering snow had solidified into ice in the dark. When Max and I arrived back at our empty, quiet apartment, we talked about how nice it was to have someone’s full attention. We talked about how we hoped our future family would prioritize sharing meals, cooking slowly, and good conversation. We fell asleep without setting alarms on our phones, because we had abandoned them in our pockets and purse.

It would be poetic to end this reflection with a proud report on my success in implementing a secular Shabbat into my weekly routine, where I eschew the trappings of the modern world for a meditative retreat into my own sense of self.

 

But would not be a completely honest ending: I am guilty of checking my work phone at the weekend dinner table, feeling my pulse race with each news alert flashing on the screen. Sometimes, Max and I have prior commitments, and we get into bed without having shared our days with each other. But we are more conscientious of our habits—we have a desire to be present in our relationship, and to protect our downtime from the capitalist drive to produce, even off-hours. We may not celebrate Shabbat with the proper candles and prayers and bread, but we do see the value in carving out dedicated time each week to doing what makes us happy. I can’t think of a family that wouldn’t benefit from a Shabbat—secular or otherwise—when Shabbat can mean a chance at renewal in the face of a societal expectation of exhaustion.