Judith Shulevitz’s ‘Sabbath World’ offers a thorough examination of Judaism’s weekly ritual.
In New York City, we have neither the siren that sounds in Israel on late Friday afternoons, nor the town criers who would yell “Shabbos” adamantly into the streets of Eastern European towns. But there’s a certain quality of light, the glow before twilight, which signals — confirmed by a glance at a clock — the onset of Shabbat, no matter the season. For those who begin to shift their lives into a different gear, it’s a time of shutting down electronic devices, adjusting ovens that will stay lit for the next 25 hours, setting tables for guests, lighting candles and, for some, weeping in silent prayer.
In her new book, Judith Shulevitz captures the poetry, power and necessity of Shabbat. In the spirit of the day, “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time” (Random House) is a contemplative book, and readers will enjoy slowing down to take in her beautiful prose. Impressively, she interprets the vast literature on the Sabbath, including Jewish and Christian sources, and she shifts from Kierkegaard to the prophet Nehemiah to the Gospel of Mark with ease. Into the narrative of history, religion and philosophy, she tucks in her own memories of Sabbaths past, and explores her own religious path. This is a book about modern Jewish life in the thicket of ever-beeping technology.
For many years, I’ve recommended Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work, “The Sabbath,” as an introduction to Judaism and to concepts of time. Shulevitz’s book is very different, more intimate and more wide-ranging. Those approaching Judaism for the first time or re-encountering a religion they lost interest with will find much to engage them, as will those who are well-versed in the laws and practice of Shabbat.
About 10 years ago, when she felt that something was missing from her career-oriented life, Shulevitz began thinking about ways to meaningfully mark the Sabbath. As is her way, she began reading everything she could find on the subject and her list was huge. She was sparked to write a book on the subject through a conversation with her then soon-to-be husband Nicholas Lemann, who is now dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, about what it means to keep the Sabbath, why it mattered to Jews and why it once mattered to American Christians. Then he, a secular Jew with a background in American history, took an immediate interest in the subject and reframed the conversation to the “social morality of time.” The book took seven years to complete.
Shulevitz, a literary critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate and The New Republic, greets The Jewish Week in her airy living room overlooking the Hudson River. The space is well-ordered and attractive. A long narrow table stretches from east to west, where the author and Lemann host weekly Shabbat dinners they enjoy cooking themselves.
The mother of two young children who attend the pluralistic Heschel School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — and the daughter of a woman who became a Conservative rabbi in her 50s — Shulevitz is quick to point out that her own observance is not necessarily halachic, but she makes efforts to be authentic and serious, and is accepting of different kinds of Shabbat observance.
She grew up in a Jewish home of religious difference; her mother was passionate about observing Shabbat, her father was uninterested. An early Sabbath memory is when her family moved from suburban Detroit to Puerto Rico, and she would secretly nestle, on Saturday mornings, in the small space between a file cabinet and the extra freezer kept in the sunroom to store several months’ worth of kosher meat, flown in from the United States. She recalls the sound and vibrations lulling her into “a prayerful self-pity.” After creeping out, she and her siblings would attend synagogue with their mother. Shabbat was a time of loneliness and solitude.
Later on, she would frequent Jewish summer camps in New England, where the Sabbath felt much more real than any she had experienced before, with everyone around her also observing. While a student at Yale, she dated an observant guy, and tells of spending Shabbat with him at the home of an Orthodox family in New Haven. Only decades later would she understand why her hostess deflected every one of her offers to help, lest she unwittingly perform some sort of forbidden work.
While Shulevitz may have been ambivalent about the Sabath, she pursued it. She had some real longings for Shabbat, which she now attributes to picking up on her mother’s emotions. While living in Brooklyn some years after college, she started attending a synagogue and for the first several weeks would cry in the back row. Later she would participate in a study group that engaged her. When she first married and moved to Westchester, she found a shul there, and now she attends Minyan M’at at Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side. In the summers, when her family spends weekends upstate, she goes to an Orthodox shul, and she finds that sitting behind the mechitza can be peaceful.
Shulevitz discusses the origins of the idea of the Sabbath and its development, as well as the nature of time and calendars. She looks to the Torah and the Talmud, as well as to the work of poets, psychologists and religious figures. Along the way, she recounts rich historical stories of Christians who observed the Sabbath on Saturdays, like that of the Transylvanian Szombatosk, or Saturday people, who survived into the 20th century, through a baroque history, as she writes, “complete with freethinking religious intellectuals, Judaizing diplomats, court intrigues, harsh persecutions, forced conversions, secret rituals, and, finally the Holocaust.” During World War II, Nazi collaborators rounded up the Sabbatarians — many of whom had actually converted to Judaism — along with the rest of Transylvania’s Jews. A priest tried to help them escape with forged baptismal certificates; those who were not willing to deny that they were Jews were killed at Auschwitz.
She also describes the Puritan experience of the Sabbath — on Sunday — with its “carefully choreographed plainness” along with “high drama and sensual joy.” While work ceased, inner work on the soul and time with God was mandatory. During the course of the day, the Puritans attended two different four-hour sermons in unheated meetinghouses. People who broke the Sabbath were publicly flogged, branded, put into stocks or fined. For the Puritans, their Sunday “served as a doorway into something the Puritans held dearer than just about anything else: the Bible, the revelation of the Word and the Will of God.”
For Shulevitz, the Sabbath keeps giving off new meanings. At first, she thought about her own attempts to keep the Sabbath, albeit in an isolated way. One of the things she has learned in the course of writing and experiencing this book is the importance of community.
“Jewish law is like a musical notation; it gives meaning to the stuff of life by regulating it in time. The Sabbath is its most sacred interval,” she writes.
Judith Shulevitz will speak about “The Sabbath World” at a Jewish Week community forum, “Rest and Restlessness: Faith, the Sabbath and How to Live a Meaningful Life” along with Dani Shapiro, author of “Devotion,” on Tuesday, May 25 at B’nai Jeshurun, 257 W. 88th St. in Manhattan, 7 pm. The event, moderated by Jewish Week book critic Sandee Brawarsky, is free but reservations are suggested, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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