In the Gemara, Shabbat is defined by the work that surrounds it and goes into preparing for it. We light the Sabbath candles to mark the beginning of Shabbat and light the Havdallah candle to mark its conclusion. Shabbat, therefore is book-ended, suspended in time between these two rituals of light. Interestingly enough, lighting a flame is the only Continue reading
I remember a late, late Shabbat night conversation several years ago on a street corner in Dupont Circle with a friend of mine. We were standing outside of a bar, as people walked by us, in and out, in and out, not heeding us in the slightest, just as we didn’t pay them any heed. We were living in the ‘Shabbat dimension’ – parallel to the bustling dimension of D.C. yuppie life.
Several weeks later I sat next to somebody on a collapsed couch at a party – our eyes level with the other partygoers’ knee caps. The party continued above us, as if we weren’t present, and we philosophized about the Muppet Babies cartoon, in which the character of ‘Nanny’ was shown only from the Babies’ perspectives – up to her waist. In a sense, children also live in a dimension parallel to the adults who operate around them, much like my Shabbat experience, apart from the denizens of Dupont Circle.
Nowadays, in Jerusalem, my experience of Shabbat has shifted, as much of my city shifts weekly into the ‘Shabbat dimension’; and I perceive the bustlers as operating beyond. I feel that when our non-observant friends join us for Shabbat meals, they shift into Jerusalem’s ‘Shabbat dimension’. And when they get into their cars to return home, I know that I will not be shifting back out of Shabbat with them – the bustle of humanity will wait for havdallah.
Originally posted on CowBird.
Har Nof, Jerusalem: a village of the black-hatted and side-locked sort of faithful, and these are the people we pass this Saturday evening. We walk through the middle of the street, knowing there will be no cars, that the stores will all be closed. I turn to my brother-in-law, his black hat tilted up by the pace at which we walk. I turn to the watch on my wrist. When does Shabbas end? “8:26pm.” My brother-in-law says. Pressed for time to catch my bus back to Haifa, we set out for the station with the intention of making Havdalah en route. I do not turn on my cell phone. I do not bite my nails. I carry my backpack, but my eyes trace the erev line, cautious not to wander beyond. Cautious to keep this Shabbos until it ends.
“There’s a park this way,” my brother-in-law says, “perhaps there will be flowers.” So we turn from street to concrete lane, to park benches, to children who scream and chase each other through the grass. At 8:26pm we find a rose bush. I pull from my backback the water bottle of wine, the matches, and the two birthday candles that will serve as a double-wicked flame. The wine comes first: “Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, King of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.” This is the first step.
The second step is what the flowers are for. Eyes closed, I press my face into the rose bush. “Blessed are You, HaShem, our Lord, King of the universe, Creator of the different spices.” I gulp them through my nose, hold the scent in the back of my throat, exhale slowly through my taste buds. I open my eyes.
It’s windy in Jerusalem, so it takes two strikes to light both birthday candles. The wax drips and stings my fingers as I tilt the candles to hold the wicks together. The one flame is larger than the separate two, and hisses in the wind. I say: “Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, Creator of the fire’s lights.” I cherish the flame, imprint it on my retina, were it will burn and blur together with every other light I’ve watched for too long. My hands sense the flame.
A year ago I was searching for light or something like it, and happened upon my first Shabbat in Har Nof. As the darkness settled in, I searched for candles, braided wicks, twine: anything I could ignite in one breath and extinguish in the next. But the woman’s hand was on my shoulder, telling me to hesitate, telling me someone else should make Havdalah: “My husband,” she says. “Women bring light into home. We should not take it away.”
A year later with this rose bush, with this water bottle empty of wine, with two birthday candles holding this flame, I look to my brother-in-law, black-hatted, side-locked, faithful. He does not hold up his hands. He does not offer to make this Havdalah himself. I take air into my lungs and hesitate. “Blessed are You, HaShem, our Lord, King of the universe, who separates between the holy and the profane; between the light and dark; between Israel and the other nations; between the seventh day and the six days of the week. Blessed are You, God, who separates between the holy and the profane.”
The birthday candles burn in blessing, the wine sits there sanctified. I hesitate. It’s not good wait on such things. You do not sip blessings. You do not wait for its flame to fade. You engulf them both yourself. Immediately. You draw them in before their holiness fades. I draw breath, but the wind picks up, the fire vanishes, and the day is over as if it had never existed at all.
I close my eyes. My retinas burn.
Rob Murstein comes from a ‘very liturgical’ family; they attend Shabbat services every Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon until havdalah. Rob’s father is a regular Torah reader at shul, his brother studied chazzanut with their cantor, and Rob himself read Torah at shul for the first time when he was six years old; and then again at age seven when his brother and sister became b’nai mitzvah. The Mursteins also enjoyed their long Pesach seders, reveling in singing Birkat Hamazon.
At age 11, the young man began to study Chumash, Mishnah and Gemara with his rabbi, which whetted his appetite for Jewish learning, and he increasingly grew to wonder about Judaism beyond his affiliation with the other members of his family’s Boca Raton country club. Rob’s five summers at Camp Ramah Darom also gave him exposure to many empowered, inspiring staff members; and sharpened his sense that there was something more to Judaism that he wasn’t finding in his home environment.
Then – not long after Rob’s bar mitzvah – Continue reading
I wrote this upon exploring the Israeli narrative with Perspectives Israel:
I made aliyah 2.5 years ago. Someday (G-d willing) I will be a mom – a mom to sabras. It will be my turn to directly shape the next generation of Israel.
What will I say when they ask about the Separation Barrier? What will I say when they ask about a 1 or 2 state solution? What will I say when they ask me to recall my thoughts on the disengagement to Gaza and what happened to the former residents of Gush Katif? What will I say when they ask me how I felt about the Kasam rockets that fell on Sderot? What will I say when they try to understand why we need a fortified room built into our home and to know where a nearby bomb shelter is? What will I say about the people of Gaza and the West Bank and the concrete slabs separating us? What will I say about traveling in Gush Etzion?
Will my children be safe? Will my children have a stronger connection to their Judaism because I chose to make aliyah when I was 25? Will the violence of my nation’s country jade me? Will there always be a Jewish and democratic state? Will there continue to be mistrust and hate and war? Will I always have hope for a better future? For peace? Will I be as strong and hopeful as the voices I heard on my Perspectives Israel trip in March 2012?
How will I raise my children to understand nuance? How will I raise my children to keep opening their hearts in the face of adversity? To be strong? To have faith? How will I be a contributing member of society and help shape Israel – the one and only Jewish state, that I happen to love – for a better future?
All of these thoughts whirl in my mind as I walk home from Havdalah at shul starting my next week after a Perspectives Israel trip and a lovely Shabbat with my love in his childhood neighborhood of Gilo -overlooking Bethlehem. Contradictions, hopes, fears, and harsh realities hit me as I grapple with my recent experiences. Experiences that I hope will only be another important step along my journey of becoming an educated, impactful citizen of Israel.
-Jackie Frankel, Pardes Year Program 2011-2012
Facinating article for discussion from Reform Judaism Magazine (for the record, I stumbled upon it via a positive review on an Orthodox site): http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2854
For the past week, my alarm has gone off every morning at seven—the click of the radio calling me to another day of altered consciousness. I have risen and washed my hands, recited b’rachot, and—covering my elbows, knees, collar bones—snuck out of the sleepy silence of my bedroom into the briskness of an autumn dawn.
For seven days, I have davened (worshiped) shacharit, mincha, and maariv. I have categorized my food, separating meat and dairy, and offered thanks after meals. Most of all, I have kept close watch on myself, pausing to take the pulse of my religious identity, as I’ve tried, for a week only, to experience a different way of being a Jew.
Having been raised in a committed Reform household, I’ve long known that being a Reform Jew allows me a great deal of personal autonomy in Jewish practice. But…with freedom comes the responsibility of choice. To fulfill myself in a Reform context, I don’t need to observe every commandment, but I do need to know the answer to a very important question: Why? Why do I choose to observe one ritual or commandment and not another?
In college, the why problem magnified. More options for Jewish practice existed than I’d ever realized. And I no longer had to be wedded to practices just because they were “the way I was raised.” How, for example, could I be sure that I was the type of Jew who prayed only on Shabbat, if I’d never tried anything different?
And so I came up with “frum week.” For seven days, I would do every Jewish ritual I could think of—big or small, no exceptions—to see whether rituals I had never tried or been mindful of would be meaningful to me.
Frum week required much more diligence and mental exertion than I’d anticipated. I’d thought studying for Organic Chemistry exams was hard, but nothing gets those brain cells firing like trying to figure out how to eat without violating the rules of kashrut. A previously unknown state of hyper-consciousness was required before I could touch anything on my tray. I found myself in Catch-22 situations daily: If I didn’t eat bread with my meal, I had to figure out four separate blessings before I could start; but if I did, I had to recite the motzi (blessing over bread) at the beginning and the long birkat hamazon at meal’s end. Did my quinoa with roasted peppers count as a grain or a vegetable? My roommate brought home cookies—were they hekshered (determined to be kosher)? If so, were they dairy? If dairy, when was the last time I had eaten meat? And how was I to categorize various soups? I would stand in the lunch line, chatting with someone about how I had to say a b’rachah before I ate anything, and only then realize I’d been picking string beans off of my plate for a full minute without a second thought. I had never realized how mindless eating could be for me until I was suddenly forced to think about everything I put near my mouth.
Though I had twenty years of practicing my way, in the span of only a week I adapted to a new pattern. One day I got the blessings completely right, and I felt like a champion. And by day five I’d cut two minutes off of the time it took to recite the birkat hamazon.
One of the surprising side effects of being aware all the time was never feeling like I overate. It’s so easy to sit in the college dining hall for an hour talking to your friends and constantly refilling your plate. But during frum week I had to say something to mark when my meal started and when it ended. And in that blessing, I was thanking God for satiating me—not for giving me too much, not for a mountainous abundance of chocolate chip cookies, but for being satisfied. I had assumed that thinking about food constantly would make me want to consume it all the time, but because eating was framed by something meaningful, it had the opposite effect.
The new rules I chose to observe also increased other people’s awareness of me. I’d like to think that before frum week I wasn’t parading around campus in overly revealing clothing, but still, wearing long skirts, cardigans, and crew neck tops represented a recognizable change in my wardrobe. Inquiries from friends about my new “uniform” often elicited explanations about my project. As for strangers who passed me in the street, no one treated me any differently, but I felt different, knowing that they recognized that I was, if not certainly Jewish, then at least a member of a community that required modesty of women. It was disconcerting for me to so publicly manifest a normally internal part of my identity. My male friends who wear kippot validated this feeling of hyperconsciousness. Some said wearing a kippah made them reluctant to act inappropriately, for fear of feeding negative stereotypes; others commented that it gave them the incentive to do something nice for others. Throughout the week I remained ambivalent on the clothing issue. On the one hand, being so easily singled out by appearance made me feel unique and important. On the other, I felt that displaying my Judaism so prominently caused others to see my identity along only one dimension.
Prayer was by far the most challenging part of my week. It wasn’t carving out the time from a Yale academic schedule that was so difficult; in fact, having those necessary breaks and seeing the same people at the same hours every day because of a prescribed rhythm was incredibly calming. What was hard was figuring out how to have some sort of meeting with God on a fixed schedule instead of coming to it on my own. I was going to have to pray shacharit each morning at the 7:30 service whether I was ready to or not, so how was I going to make the experience spiritually meaningful? Also, the mode of prayer made me feel disconnected. There was just too much I didn’t know—I was using an unfamiliar siddur, and even though I’m fairly fluent in reading Hebrew, I could barely keep up with the pace set by my peers, who had a lifetime’s experience of saying the same words day in and day out. I was constantly trying to figure out how many pages I was behind or which prayers I could skip. It was a good day if I could make it through the Amidah once before the leader finished his repetition.
I did, however, gain a very important understanding from davening with others. Before frum week, I had assumed that more observant Jews were just speed reading through the prayers, as compared to the Reform Jews in my home congregation, who actively participated in musical prayer services—the kind of service which often helped me feel connected to God. But after spending so much time experiencing this different style of prayer, I begin to sense that the “mumbling” was really its own type of music, with its own rhythm, its own voice rising and falling.
The new level of observance I experienced during frum week also gave me a different way of connecting to God. Previously I believed that some undercurrent of Divinity was in the world around me; to experience it I simply needed to enter the world with open eyes and wait for God’s presence to appear to me. During frum week, each action I took was a forced pause of mindfulness of the Divine, an awareness that my every deed was meant to advance me toward God, regardless of how I was feeling at that moment.
As the week progressed, it became quite clear that I had embarked on a personal test—an experiment of trying out a lifestyle that ultimately was not for me. On one level I recognized that the painful, exhaustive reality of getting so little sleep overshadowed the wonder of walking out into the dawn for shacharit. But on a deeper level, it was unsettling to know that as a woman I simply did not count. However warm a community I had found in those shared, carved-out hours of the day, I would not be able to continue praying in it.
Now that an extinguished havdallah candle has marked the end of my altered lifestyle, my clavicles once again see the sun. And with the return to the comfort of familiar words, familiar prayers, familiar orders of the day, my former why? has been replaced with: What do I continue?
I still don’t have an answer. I am unsure.
Here is what I do know: I will always welcome the opportunity to share in another person’s reckoning with the Divine. I will always continue to ask questions of others and of myself.
While this week may have appeared the very antithesis of Reform Jewish practice, it would not have been a success without the strength I have gained from my own denomination. This week gave the informed choices I make as a Reform Jew renewed depth and meaning.
Whether I choose for my alarm to go off tomorrow morning at seven or at nine, I do know that a world filled with God, and with people doing their best to reach God, is what I will be waking up to. For me, all the rest of Judaism—the ritual, the prayers, the understanding of Torah—is built around this one unchangeable truth.
—Emily Langowitz, a senior at Yale University and member of Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, Massachusetts