Girl covering challah bread for Shabbat meal
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personal essay

How the Pandemic Reconnected Me to Shabbat

published Jun 26, 2020
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Despite being born and raised Jewish, I rarely celebrate Shabbat. I had a bat mitzvah and I serve a Seder every spring, but the weekly holiday fits poorly into the life I chose, where Friday nights (until recently) tend more towards cocktails at the bar than saying prayers over wine. But since the coronavirus pandemic kept us all stuck at home, I found myself gravitating toward the tradition, learning what people have known for thousands of years. (Yes, I should have paid more attention in Sunday school.) The ritual started to mark the end of the work week for me in a way that modern life had mostly obscured.

When I was growing up, if my family all happened to sit down together on a Friday night, we bought a challah and lit candles, but with three kids and two working parents, that rarely happened. We tended to observe Shabbat to mark rarer occasions: when we visited Grandma or the day before a big holiday.

Then, the first week my two toddlers stayed home from preschool, back in mid-March due to the pandemic, and before the sourdough starter we created as a science experiment reached baking-ready ripeness, I suggested we spend our Friday morning making challah. Like so many of those dinners early on, I chose it as much because the preparation time matched the attention span of a 2-year-old and the result fit the pickiness of a 4-year-old’s appetite. But kids catch on quickly and love fluffy white breads, and soon it became habit to start Friday mornings with the whir of my mixer and a serious debate, only sometimes punctuated by sibling hair-pulling, over sesame versus poppy seeds.

In the evening, we sit down at the dining room table, over which hangs an olive wood frame around the image of two intertwined trees — our modern version of a ketubah, the traditional Jewish marriage contract. I am Jewish, yes, but more in culture and heritage than by any measure of devoutness. Before agreeing to marry us, the rabbi had asked us to commit to two things. One, raising our children Jewish, which we had already agreed on; the other, celebrating Shabbat, had never occurred to me. I shrugged a “Yes,” assuming, like my parents, I would do it when it was convenient or for special occasions. 

All week, we eat often distinctly un-Kosher meals like honey walnut shrimp or bacon breakfast sandwiches with the ketubah hanging above us, but before we slather butter on challah, the ketubah nudges me to grab candles from the back closet. Saying the prayers over the candles and bread reminds me to bring out the third of the weekly holiday’s most basic traditions: wine.

As the days and weeks pile up like a run-on sentence punctuated only by an endless stream of commas, Shabbat is a period.

Suddenly, Friday isn’t just another day of trying to keep my children from running down our sidewalk without any clothes on or trying to maintain a modicum of focus on work while turmoil and uncertainty try to crawl in through the door the kids left open on their way to play (naked) in the dirt.

Without the markers of time programmed into us our entire lives — go to school, go to work — the days and weeks become both squishy and bloated, pushing up against each other until it’s hard to draw distinct lines. I can’t make plans to see friends next week, I can’t look forward to a trip next month. But Friday night has become a centering force — a night that’s different than the others (I know, wrong holiday).

Now my family looks forward to the commitment of preparing a festive meal: smoking a whole brisket or making a superlative seven-egg-yolk challah and using the whites in a giant Pavlova with the first of the summer strawberries. The tumult of going over the top once a week only draws a starker contrast to the calming glow of the candles and the comfort of the familiar prayers when we finally sit down to eat. 

I feel connected to my roots when I make chicken soup with matzoh balls, just like my Grandmother would do on Friday nights when we visited her as kids, and am a little bit proud that for the first time in my adult life I will use up the matzoh meal in my cabinet before Passover rolls around again. But mostly I’m glad to have found my way back to Shabbat because now I see so clearly its necessity. 

As the days and weeks pile up like a run-on sentence punctuated only by an endless stream of commas, Shabbat is a period. It’s a time to take a deep breath. It’s hard to make plans when I don’t know what next month will bring, so I can’t say with any certainty that I will keep celebrating weekly when the world opens back up and I can again explore exclamation points and question marks. But I do know that for now, when Friday rolls around, I’ll wake up and flip on the mixer. My kids will fumble with little balls of dough as I braid a big one. And when I pour the wine and light the candles, I’ll once again find my own bit of meaning and stability in an old tradition — a wave of relief strong enough to erase any concern about the now hours-old challah dough still in my daughter’s hair.