For the first time in my life, I’ve got that Shabbat feeling.
Well, to be more precise, I’m basking in the afterglow of that Shabbat feeling. This past Friday, my in-laws invited my three children to their home (which is on a moshav about 30 minutes drive from us) to spend the afternoon, and sleep over. Since we arrived in Israel, my in-laws have been enormously generous and helpful. They’ve had one or both of my boys to sleep over; they’ve helped us out with childcare; they’ve hosted us for Shabbat dinner; they’ve helped us ease into this new culture and lifestyle with love and support.
But this weekend they granted us the wish my husband and I have been salivating over since we made Aliyah: They took all three kids off our hands for Shabbat.
And by Shabbat, I mean the weekend.
Here in Israel, Shabbat is the weekend and the weekend is Shabbat. In the States, Shabbat was something other Jewish people observed. The ones who wore kippot all the time and went to the grown up services, not just the occasional Tot Shabbat. Shabbat was for rabbis or rabbinical students or “real Jews.” More Jewishy Jews. People who kept kosher in the house and knew the entire Birkat HaMazon. People who weren’t us.
We were Jews with one foot in and one foot out the door. To be fair, I always liked the “idea” of Shabbat, but never could fully commit. And my husband, a Solomon Schechter graduate and therefore a much more learned Jew than I, would accompany me to the occasional Family Friday Shabbat Dinner at our synagogue kicking and screaming. As for Saturday, there was always too much to do. Birthday parties, laundry, errands, and soccer games. Saturday required too much attention.
Not so here: I learned very quickly that keeping Shabbat is much less a challenge in Israel. For the simple reason that there is nothing to do on Saturday.
There’s nothing to do on Friday night either. Sure, there are a few bars open here or there, a few Arab restaurants or markets. But, pretty much from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, the entire country is observing Shabbat by default. Most stores and restaurants are closed. No birthday parties are scheduled. Weddings and other big events take place on Thursday nights. By Friday afternoon, the country shuts down.
Which means that while not every Israeli is at home lighting candlesticks or eating roasted chicken on Friday nights, they’re certainly not at Target either. The observant Jews are doing what observant Jews do in America: They’re praying, eating dinner with family or friends, and resting.
The secular Jews, though, don’t have much choice but to honor Shabbat, as well. They just do it a little differently. Some have Friday night dinner as a family, either minus the prayers or with a token kiddush. Others spend Saturdays hiking or playing together as a family. A lot of the secular folks I know use Saturday to go on walks, picnics, jeep trips or bike rides. They travel to see family and friends in other cities. Or go to the beach. No one I know is spending Saturday divvying up errands or soccer games.
At first it felt really strange for me. Saturday felt empty. Almost boring. Sometimes I got a little agitated, even. But soon enough I started to get into the routine. And I started to enjoy it.
On Friday mornings, we bring the little ones to Gan and often spend the morning tidying the house or doing some last minute food shopping. In the afternoons, we relax, the kids nap or play quietly until the early evening when we clean up and put on our “handsome clothes.” As the sun starts to set, we leave the house together as a family and walk the path up to the Beit Knesset, the small synagoague on Hannaton. My kids look and smell of summer camp. We all do — the kibbutz dirt wiped clean off our bodies; our fragrant wet hair parted to the side. The sun slowly falls over the lake behind our home and we hear the crickets chirp.
It’s an essence I only read about it books before I moved to Israel.
We sit down for Kabbalat Shabbat services. For a few minutes, our littlest ones even join in the sing-songy prayer. Before long, they’ll be joining their friends outside to run around like maniacs, but for a few minutes they’re little angels.
Our big kids sit on their hands waiting for the end of Lechah Dodi, when they will be allowed to exit and meet up on the playground. At the end of services, we exchange “Shabbat Shaloms” with the friends we’ve seen all week running in and out of drop off. Many Friday nights we share a meal with those same friends. Or with extended family. Each Friday night, though, we’re together, the five of us, at a table sharing a meal.
Which is a funny, yet lovely surprise for this “Jew in Progress.”
Me: The American Jewish girl who went to Hebrew school, but still feels awkward at services because she can’t recite the Amidah by heart with her eyes closed. Me: The girl who grew up in a Jewish suburb, among Jewish kids, but only went to Shabbat services when it was someone’s bar mitzvah. Me: The girl who didn’t eat ham sandwiches, but certainly ate bacon at home. Me: The girl who swore she would marry for love, not for religion. Me: The girl who still isn’t sure she believes in God, and if she does, she’s not sure he’s a Jewish kinda God.
I never in a million years thought Shabbat would be something I would be able to commit to on any level, let alone enjoy. And yet, I do. I am. I am not only at peace with the idea of keeping Shabbat, but I am finding peace because I keep Shabbat.
So much so that when my in-laws took our kids off our hands for a night, my husband and I didn’t take in a movie. We took in Shabbat.
And it was perfect. We sat through the hour-long service without interruption. We walked down from the Beit Knesset hand-in-hand. We made a late dinner, which we enjoyed over candlelight and wine. We slept in. We had a lazy morning at home. We drove to a nearby national forest and went for a scenic drive and hike.
By the time we picked up our kids, I felt relaxed, rejuvenated, and ready to take on the week ahead of me.
If that’s not the Shabbat feeling, I don’t know what is.
Sure, it’s not going to be that awesome every weekend. (I think my in-laws will need a few weeks/months before they’re rejuvenated enough to take on my little monsters again.) But, keeping Shabbat, at least on some level, is a shift that’s been healthy for me. I can sense it. I crave it now. I look forward to it.
It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Jen Maidenberg is is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/.