‘To Build A Palace...’
Tue, 12/08/2009
Special To The Jewish Week
On Saturdays, I often wake up in a grumpy mood. I know it is Shabbat, a day for synagogue and siestas, for refraining from the frenzy of the workaday world, for building what Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called “a palace in time.” But in my apartment, the only castles under construction are the kind we tend to trip over, those erected from blocks by my 5-year-old son and my 7-year-old daughter. In my home, Saturday has long been simply the day before Sunday. And that makes me grouchy. That makes me irritable both because I’m yearning for a true Day of Rest — and also because I’m not, though I wish I were. And so, when I was asked to consider a journey for this magazine, I knew just where I’d like to travel. Shabbat-land, here we come! As you might guess, I carted along some baggage on my trip. A few things I packed: 1) Indifference. I still remember the claustrophobia, the sense of the castle walls closing in on me, the few times I experimented with a fuller Shabbat as a college student in Israel or in the years soon after. Don’t tell anyone, but I may have accidentally flicked on a bathroom switch once or twice, and oh how I resented the guilt that followed. 2) My husband. Raised in a liberal Jewish household not so very different from my own childhood home, Jeremy treasures our Friday night dinners, but would like Shabbat to end when the last dish is cleared. “This is my synagogue,” he’s said more than once, smiling wryly, gesturing around the Cuban restaurant on the Upper West Side where we sip frothy café con leches almost every Saturday morning, nodding our heads to the beat of Latin tunes while our children color on the paper tablecloths. 3) More indifference. This dining establishment, where the waiters know our order, where friends so often pull up a chair, serves a sacred purpose in my week too. Getting Ready I don’t inform my son Joel of our family’s destination, as he’s so young, but I do include my daughter Talia. It is the second morning of the Jewish New Year, and the cantor is belting out prayers through the grand sanctuary of Rodeph Sholom synagogue. I’m in the mood for resolutions. Talia meanwhile, who recently began second grade at a public school after years at a Jewish day school, is proudly puzzling over the Hebrew words in the Machzor. I lean down, push aside her long blond curls, and whisper: Would she like to be my Shabbat partner this fall? Would she come with me to pray at different synagogues on the Upper West Side? It is as if I proposed we slip over after services to Dylan’s Candy Bar, the Upper East Side shop devoted to sweets of every variety, and worshiped by New York City children. She smiles. She glows. “Yeahhhh.” I’m less surprised by Jeremy’s response. His eyes don’t light up. “I’m getting nervous,” he tells me. And when the golden autumn foliage beckons, and I tell him to rule out Saturday hikes, he groans. But because it is for a writing project for The Jewish Week, because he is ultimately a sweet and generous husband, he complies. Perhaps he’s not so very worried because we’ve been on this trip before, and we didn’t make it so very far in the past. I’m determined to do things differently this time around. A few years back, when I attempted to enhance our Saturday observance for a month, 3-year-old Talia danced through Tot Shabbat services, my then Baby Joel tried to gnaw on the Havdalah candle and we seldom returned to either practice after the assigned period was up. This year we will do better. During our season of Saturdays, our itinerary will include savoring long, lazy, afternoon lunches and exploring the rich tapestry of Upper West Side Jewish life. Maybe I will even attempt to follow all 39 restrictions of the Sabbath day. We Hit Turbulence! I find excuses, week after week. We have scheduled a weekend, planned long ago, with non-Jewish friends at my in-laws’ beach house; we have a Saturday morning invitation to the home of friends we’d like to get to know better; we tackle the trick of managing a Shabbat that coincides with “Challoween.” Jeremy dubs the pagan holiday as such when Talia innocently asks whether we might shape our challahs into Halloween symbols. It reminds me of Jews who adorn Christmas trees with Stars of David. It reminds me of how Talia as a toddler wanted to learn the blessings for Halloween, since there seemed to be distinct rituals for so many other holidays. This is Week 5 of my project, and that Saturday night, when I mention it’s time for Havdalah, Jeremy groans. But Joel pipes up in his high-pitched voice, “It’s time to do Havadalah; otherwise we’re Christian.” Later, while I brush Joel’s teeth, I ask him about his favorite part of my niece’s bat mitzvah, which we attended that day. His face crumples. He winces, making it a struggle to keep the toothbrush inside his mouth. “You know what? I didn’t like it. It was so boring. I’m not going to Talia’s.” Though he has six years to change his mind, I feel sad. The next week, on Friday, Oct. 30, I bring the children to an evening costume-birthday party, as I don’t want Talia to miss an opportunity to socialize with her new classmates. But since I want to have my Halloween and eat my challah too, I snatch my giggling children just as the hired storyteller has begun to weave his narrative. Joel throws a tantrum on the sidewalks of Central Park West, and when we arrive home it is already dark. But when I smell the wax of the candles, and I bless the warm heads of my children, massaging the tousled brown hair of my affectionate, sturdy boy, and the softer golden locks of my sweet, delicate girl, I’m struck by the sanctity and sanity of Shabbat. I’m so glad to have pulled them away. “And hey, guess what everyone? I’ve got a surprise!” The children consider what sort of sugary treat it might be. “I learned the longer form of the Shabbat kiddush,” I tell them, and watch everyone’s face fall. “I see what you’re doing,” says Jeremy grimly. “It’s this covert plot to introduce more Judaism into our lives. The Havdalah, the longer kiddush, the synagogue.” What I’m doing, what I hope to be doing, is giving my family a “taste of the world-to-come,” that only Shabbat offers. In her book, “The Tapestry of Jewish Time,” Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin describes this Day of Rest as “a magical, holy place that opens its doors once a week inviting us to enter...” I don’t want to depart from that place so quickly, at least not every week. But I also relate to a passage in “The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat,” where the author, Meredith Jacobs, writes that “sometimes it feels like giving up a day of work is more stressful than relaxing.” She writes, “We’re like a toddler who ... struggles and fights against taking a nap. But he needs rest and once he quiets down, he sleeps.” Jacobs, who, like me, struggles to transform Saturday into Shabbat, says that there can be middle ground for Jews like us who straddle two worlds. You can choose “not to log onto the computer, or if you log on, you don’t do work,” she says. Or you might undergo a more complete technology fast, but not attend synagogue services. Or you might choose to avoid all shopping, but make an exception for ice cream. When I express disappointment that I haven’t traveled farther in my Shabbat journey, Rabbi Anne Ebersman, Judaic studies programming director at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, advises that “it takes a long time to build a palace. And the best way to build it is brick by brick.” Arrival (Sort Of) After dinner one night on Week 8, Talia surprises me. “Mommy,” she says, “Can we go to synagogue together every week?” I gather her up in my arms. “Yes, my sweetness.” “You got one,” Jeremy says, when I recount this conversation. “She likes the special time with you.” I wonder if maybe there’s something about the services she might like too, about singing along with a community of Jewish children, about learning the ancient stories of her heritage, about the challah at kiddush afterward. The following week, Jeremy removes a cranky Joel from our Saturday evening Havdalah ceremony, the ritual that separates the profound period of the Sabbath from the prosaic of the everyday. Joel has intentionally knocked over a silver cup of grape juice. Twice. He’s installed in our bedroom with Jeremy as guard and guardian. Left in the shadowy living room, Talia clutches the long, rainbow-colored Havdalah candle while I chant the blessings. It is one of those serene moments that I like to return to later in the week, when I’m overwhelmed by deadlines and school pick-ups and schedules: Our eyes resting on the flickering flame; our noses inhaling the sweet, pungent scent of cinnamon and cardamom; our fingers stretching toward the warmth of the fire. We are keenly aware that on the other side of the bedroom door, our boys are listening, waiting. When Talia and I begin our off-key chorus of Eliyahu Hanavi that ends the ritual, Jeremy and Joel return to the scene, begging for sniffs of the spices, the besamim. My husband holds the small aromatic jar to Joel’s nose, and then he too takes a long, deep sniff. “It smells so sweet,” he says, inhaling a second time. “Just like apple cider.” A new week has begun. Elicia Brown writes the All She Wrote column for the paper.