Beginner Bound: Sanctifying The Shabbat From Israel And Japan

Shadows of twilight descend upon Pittsburgh in mid fall 2016. I light two candles, representing two commandments: zakhor, the Hebrew word for remembering the significance of Shabbat, both as a commemoration of creation and of our freedom from slavery in Egypt, and shamor or observe the Shabbat by sanctifying it.

I add three more, five candles in all, one for each family member, including our latest addition, a twenty-year-old Japanese homestay named Yuki who’s studying at the University of Pittsburgh, making our family officially multicultural. She’s unaware of the almost Herculean feat lying ahead of me – my first Shabbat undertaking. From sundown tonight to sundown tomorrow, I won’t check my phone, turn on and off lights, cook, or work.  I’m obsessed with calling out all the things I won’t be able to do as “restrictions.”

This spiritual undertaking is entirely new for me. The idea of giving up my scheduled Saturday activities, which to me represent freedom, in exchange for spirituality and God feels liberating. Haim, my husband who already prays three times a day by observant Jewish standards, knows that prayer is not what distinguishes Shabbat from the rest of the week. For him, taking on the Shabbat is an opportunity for more spiritual enrichment.  I look up at his face, fixated by the glow. He’s the one person who has a natural spiritual affinity and yet he accepts me where I am and never makes me feel left out. Now I linger for a moment longer, taking in the warmth of the candles, breathing in a sigh of relief: I don’t have anywhere to be. I don’t have to be anything to anybody. I can just be present and here in this moment.

Lighting the Shabbat candles washes away the intensity of the week. Over the course of five years in Pittsburgh, I’ve imagined taking on the Shabbat as something bigger–the concept of Repairing the World, or Tikkun Olam, expressed by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rooted in Kabbalistic tradition and developing into the social action type framework in the 1950s, this concept of repairing the world eloquently captures the essence of a person’s divine and godly soul. wrapped in this quote, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and ugly in the world, then it is you yourself, who needs repair.”

I was broken, in need of healing, still drawn to Judaism but deeply triggered by the “you versus me” mentality I experienced in Israel. When prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing extremist who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords, the country faced a serious turning point. The harmony between the state and the nation of Israel was disappearing, giving way to more fanaticism and a religious political party. I’d given up completely around that point, turned off by the use of political power and religion to increase the growing divide.

“Shabbat shalom,” we say to each other. I want the light of the Shabbat to wash away these feelings that threaten to overwhelm me.  I guess you can say that taking on the Shabbat is a way to heal myself. I’m hoping for tenderness – anything positive, really–to offset the concerns I harbor about successfully taking on the Shabbat. Admittedly I’m afraid of not wanting to be disconnected – fear of boredom and isolation and not knowing what to do with myself on a twenty-six-hour detox from the digital world. How would I make up for all the lost time? What if I fell behind on work and my time management skills didn’t work in my favor?  I squeeze my daughter while my son shoots a glaring look.

“It’s okay,” I say reassuringly. “You’ll survive.” This is my way of not provoking an argument. After all, Shabbat is supposed to be about peace and tranquility.

I was aware that Yuki was having a cultural experience within a cultural experience. She had never met a Jewish person before coming to the States, let alone participated in any Jewish rituals. Coming from Japan, a deferential culture, I imagined our arguments and outbursts must have come across as abrupt to her, but she always remained calm, taking everything in stride.

We are both beginners longing for connection. She is too shy and self-conscious to ask questions about our Judaism and I don’t want our religion or rituals to pose a cultural barrier. I consider that I’m particularly sensitive to these kinds of issues, having been ostracized by other immigrants in my cohort of IDF soldiers who’d speak other languages, intentionally leaving me out. Now, as we stand around the Shabbat table, I make a concerted effort to include Yuki, explaining to her why Jews observe the Shabbat and why we bless two challahs along with the grape juice.  In a community where I’ve historically allowed myself to feel behind, I see this as an opportunity to start anew. In Israel, I’d become somewhat invisible to myself as a Jew. But in Pittsburgh, I want to experience true holiness on my own terms.

Yuki nods politely as I talk.  She waits for Haim to bless the wine and challah, but our son’s fingers are already creeping towards the challah. “Sublimation,” we tell him. “Don’t eat the challah. Wait for the blessing.” Haim places his hands over Yuki’s head and blesses her. My son looks at me and rolls his eyes. “Mom, she’s not even Jewish,” he will tell me later as he’s getting ready for bed. But I will hold up my hand in protest. She is our family member and we need to make her feel welcomed – Jewish or not.

There’s something welcoming about a white tableclothed Shabbat table after a long week: our faded challah cutting board from Israel, a goblet of grape juice, a prayer book, homemade Israeli salads, including matbucha and babaganoosh, hummus, and tahini, roasted eggplant delicately spiced with lemon and ginger.

I feel particularly attuned to Yuki, relating to her experience almost more than my own. I feel called to share my experiences in 1997 of the Japanese green tea ceremony I participated in at an UN base on the Israel-Syrian border. Her eyes light up like a Chanukah menorah at this story. I feel conscious of making a cultural connection with her and to her. As a second language learner, I also know learning and cultural adjustment go hand in hand.

I show Yuki a picture of me dressed in polyester burgundy dressy suit pants and short cropped hair holding a teacup at age twenty-seven, sitting back on the heels with my upper body vertical maintaining a still expression of reverence and submission. She looks at the picture and explains to me the details of participating in this ancient and art ceremonies in Japan, the intricacies of its rituals. Now we have bridged a divide, and there’s a shared experience in ritual–that human impulse that exists across all cultures to memorialize and honor things that matter.

After the blessings and the first bite of challah, Haim brings out a slew of items, among them a brisket and a Sephardic cholent dish whose recipe he grabbed from a YouTube channel. We go around the table, each in turn, stating one thing from the week that went well while my daughter casually interrupts us to ask to dip challah in another cup of grape juice.   At just three years old, she is a constant reminder that at any moment you can choose to absorb yourself in a moment of joy or happiness. This is how we reset the clock, mark and remark moments.

The Hebrew word shana, meaning year and to change or lishanot, is measured by the lunar Hebrew calendar. How we change over the months and seasons of our lives is a constant. We cannot control that it happens, but we can steer our own experience through it. Already I sense new beginnings and feel right in my choice to adopt the Shabbat ritual here in Pittsburgh, now and moving forward.


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