A Norman Rockwell Shabbat
By Madelyn M. Katz
I had the good fortune to grow up in Monroe, New York – a town which, in the 60s and 70s, was about as close to “Leave it to Beaver” as a real town might be. Life was good. Simple. Monroe was truly a “Norman Rockwell” type existence. And his artistic renderings of his community made life seem “perfect.” I grew up looking at life through a “Norman Rockwell lens”– a “feel good” but unrealistic way to approach life!
I used that “lens” even as I anticipated building a Jewish home. What would a Norman Rockwell Shabbat look like? During my studies at HUC in Jerusalem, I thought I had found it – friends and food in abundance, everyone sharing the same enthusiasm for Shabbat and everyone “knowing all the words!” That worked for many years, while I was single. However, in the pre-wedding counseling session my fiancé and I had with Rabbi Lennard Thal, he wisely challenged me with “OK, Madelyn – how will you deal with a husband who is less observant than you?” That husband and the very real, “non-Rockwell” children—from the crying baby and fidgety toddler to the “Why do I have to be home on Friday night?” adolescent—challenged me to rethink my expectations for Shabbat. Add to that two full-time working parents neither of whom was a particularly good cook. All of these factors made that perfect Shabbat dinner experience a real “dream.” My reality led me to think about these questions: What is the real essence of a meaningful Shabbat observance? Does Shabbat have to include chicken eaten in the dining room? Could Shabbat still be Shabbat if I pick up a pizza on the way home from my office? And what if the kids always giggle during the blessings because my musician husband insists on “harmonizing” to the blessing melody (even though he can’t sing!)?
Let me back track for a moment as my childhood Shabbat was clearly not “Rockwellian!” I grew up in a Reform Jewish home, where I was active in our synagogue, supported the URJ camps and NFTY, and was committed to keeping our movement strong for the Jews in the future. However my parents always said theirs was a “mixed marriage.” My mother was raised in an observant Orthodox family. My father’s parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants who fled Poland and an oppressive Jewish family. Two very different upbringings with equally strong commitments to Jewish life.
Shabbat was foreign to my father. My mother, on the other hand, knew Shabbat was coming when she saw her older sisters mopping the kitchen floor and putting down newspapers so she wouldn’t step on the wet floor. Yet somehow my mother and father compromised and made Shabbat a special part of our family life. On Friday afternoon, our house smelled like hairspray (from my mother’s trip to the beauty parlor) and paprika (from the Friday night chicken). We ate in the dining room on the “nice” dishes. We lit candles (apparently singing the blessing to the Hanukkah melody). I never knew it was the wrong melody until I was a grown up! When dinner was over. our Shabbat celebration continued. In the winter that meant piling into the station wagon and going to the high school basketball game! Yes, often our Shabbat observance included rituals ranging from candles and “Friday night chicken” to community and basketball—melding different values into one Shabbat celebration. And it worked. We knew that Shabbat meant a time for family, a time to stop and to appreciate what we had, albeit in a rather unconventional way.
After many years, I came to see that Shabbat in the home I was creating might sometimes include chicken on our special dishes and a relaxed mom. Other times, it might include “take out” on our best paper plates with at least one adolescent daughter “in a mood” and the trials and tribulations of work coming to the table with us. What makes it Shabbat, though, is the fact that we stop and watch and look at each other, making sacred even those few minutes available to us. Those moments—which over the years ranged from blessings and basketball to ten minutes with a fidgety toddler to a leisurely hour with NFTY kids around our table—were set aside for us to shamor v’zachor, to guard and remember Shabbat. Making that time sacred is what makes for a Norman Rockwell Shabbat.
Dr. Madelyn M. Katz is the Associate Dean, HUC-JIR Jack H. Skirball Campus, Los Angeles.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah