The Holiness of Separation
by Stacey Zisook Robinson
As a kid, Shabbat meant brisket. I loved that. Every once in a while, my mother would get inspired and feel the need to… cook? No, she always cooked in those days. It wasn’t until many years later that dinner was more likely to be ordered than made.
But every so often, as a kid, dinner wasn’t just thrown together from whatever was in the refrigerator. Candles were lit. There was no real ritual there, and the melody we used was likely to be the one from Chanukah (because that’s the only one I knew, and I was the designated candle-lighter/singer in those days), but those thick, squat white candles that came in boxed of 48 would be given a place of honor on the stove – just in case, because you didn’t want them to fall over in whatever tumult might arise after dinner.
My bubbie (z”l), who was either prophet or witch, said to my mother in that distinct and scratchy-voiced Yiddish accent, ”You’re going to burn the house down with those Shabbes candles,” and sure enough, the candles did fall over the next time we lit them. They did a slow burn on the harvest gold Formica countertop, leaving an oddly shaped, flaky mark the size of an orange, or maybe a baseball, as a permanent reminder of her powers – which we kids were never quite certain were always used for good, even though she was our bubbie. Maybe it had something to do with the eyes, or the accent, or her refusal to talk about her life in the before – when she lived in Poland, or Russia, or whichever principality claimed the shtetl that was a pawn in skirmishes far removed from the realities of shtetl life, but seemed to impact illusory allegiances and political borders.
I am almost convinced that it was because of my bubbies that we celebrated Shabbat at all. And because of their bubbies. And theirs. And theirs again, down a long, dusty and twisted road of generations, a collection of bubbies stretching back a few millennia. It is a small taste of infinity, a forever line, connected by flame and sweet wine, by twisted bread and a thousand generations, all of whom danced on the head of that same sacred pin: a pause, an inward sigh of breath, just as Friday’s sun kisses the western horizon. They gather us all in, just as they gather in the light around them, their hands circling over and around the candles they light to usher in Shabbat. Those flames flicker and stretch and reach upwards – to God, to heaven, to separation.
One heartbeat to the next. One moment from the next. An endless next, that leads us all to that sacred space: Shabbat.
They kept it, watched over it, guarded it, remembered it – that liminal moment of joy. And in their watching, in their remembrance, they passed it on, one to the next – one heartbeat, one moment, one candle flame, one breath. Down and down, their fingers wove a prayer, and they gathered us all in. They knew, every one of them, as they stood on the threshold of that endless moment, knew and understood the holiness of separation.
It was not the brisket that made it Shabbat when I was a growing up. What mattered was the separation – the fact that my mother knew, somewhere in her heart and hands, to gather us in and surround a moment. And that moment was separate from, distinct and different from, all the other moments that led up to it. It was space, not time. It was holy, and it was Shabbat.
And for that moment, that breath, that heartbeat, we all of us danced on the head of that pin.
And today? No brisket. But there are candles and flowers, sweet wine and twisted bread. As my hands pass over the small flames, I chant an ancient blessing in an ancient language, gathering in the light, gathering in family and those I hold dear, gathering in hope. I watch, from one moment to the next, and remember, from one heartbeat to the next, and welcome in Shabbat, giving thanks for the holiness of separation.
Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. She blogs at Stumbling towards meaning: Stacey’s Blog.