The Promise of Shabbat
I was stunned the first time my then-8th grade daughter Rebecca called me on a Friday afternoon to inform me that she wouldn’t be home for dinner. Yes, she knew it was Friday night. And yes, she understood that it was Shabbat. As I hung up, I comforted myself by chalking it up to the beginning of adolescent rebellion.
I hadn’t witnessed much adolescent rebellion growing up with my six sisters. None of us would have dreamed of not being home on Friday nights, a time when no one took babysitting jobs or asked to eat at a friend’s. We gathered as a family every week to “make” Shabbat.
I grew up in the suburbs on Long Island, where my mom ran an organized household and had Shabbat dinner cooking early Friday morning. There’d be a chicken turning in the old-fashioned rotisserie or roasting in the oven above a tray of baked apples. She made baked potatoes or rice pilaf, sometimes chopped liver (heavier on the egg than the liver) and a big salad.
My younger sisters and I waited impatiently for my father to get home from work on Friday evenings. The minute we heard the door opening, we’d race over, trying to be the first one to reach him. Before all nine of us sat down at our Formica-topped dining room table, there were last minute moments of chaos – putting out drinking glasses, folding paper napkins in a fancy style to hold the forks, finding wine, and making a pitcher of lemonade.
I relished my weekly job of going to the garage to fetch our homemade papier-mâché Shabbat candlesticks, spray-painted dark copper and slightly charred at the edges, and standing next to my dad at the head of the table. As I struck the match to light the Shabbat candles, the past week lifted and time shifted. Shabbat arrived in our home.
My father would lift the glass and lead us in singing kiddush, then pass the glass around for everyone to take a sip, even the youngest girls. He had a beautiful singing voice, and I privately admired how perfectly he sang the kiddush without having to open a siddur.
Just in time, the doorbell would ring, and our neighbor Charlie Wasserman would be standing under the porch lights, delivering a gorgeous, poppyseed challah sent from Uncle Hymie. Even with our hungry crowd, we could barely make a dent in that gigantic braided bread, and we’d feast on it all weekend.
Our family Shabbats set the rhythm of our lives. By the time I turned 15, my three older sisters were away at school, and only six of us gathered to make Shabbat. By then, my three younger sisters took turns standing beside our father on Friday nights to light the candles. I had turned my attention to baking challah and using the dough to try and duplicate Bubbe’s apple dumplings the way my mother described them.
I was in 10th grade, and that spring I practiced my Torah portion for my upcoming confirmation. I was secretly proud that my dad, our temple president, would be sitting up on the bimah for the occasion. Many nights, he came into my room to listen as I chanted the 10 Commandments, and by the time I finished, he was asleep in the chair! Shavuot was late May that year, and two weeks later, my dad had a massive heart attack. His death was sudden and unexpected. My mother was 48, my youngest sister 8. The funeral was standing room only, and both the rabbi and cantor’s voices cracked with emotion as they each recited my father’s Hebrew name. The shivah seemed endless until finally the house was hushed, and you couldn’t escape the overwhelming grief. My mom couldn’t bear to sleep in her room or sit at the head of the table in my father’s customary place. And she couldn’t stand being home without my dad on Friday nights.
So we’d pile into the car, me and my younger sisters, with my mother at the wheel, and head into Brooklyn to my Aunt Frieda and Uncle Hymie’s apartment. My mom wasn’t used to highway driving at night, and as she’d cautiously drive onto the entrance ramp of the Southern State Parkway, it was my job to look back and tell her when she could merge into traffic. I would exaggerate a full-body turn to look back, and when I saw a good-sized gap, I’d scream out an authoritative, “Go!” Our car would lurch out as shocked laughter momentarily filled the air.
Frieda and Hymie’s Brighton Beach apartment felt worlds away from suburban Long Island. The new weekly Shabbat ritual started with a press of the buzzer of their apartment complex gate, announcing our arrival into the intercom, and pulling into the designated parking spot. Shabbat meant going up the elevator, marching down the hallway, and wandering out onto the balcony to look at the ocean. Aunt Frieda lit the candles before we arrived; we sat quietly as Hymie recited the kiddush and motzi by rote in his Russian/Yiddish-accented Hebrew. The new Shabbat meant being the responsible older daughter who resolutely stood up after the blessings and went into the tiny kitchen to help serve the first course. I remember watching as sweet Aunt Frieda put a spoonful of thin egg noodles into each soup bowl and ladled the most delicious chicken soup on top.
Today, I wish I knew if Aunt Frieda and Uncle Hymie understood that those Friday nights were a lifeboat for my mother and for us girls. We couldn’t have kept Shabbat without them, though Shabbat kept us.