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An atmosphere of grace

by Emily Bobrow

Shabbat was important in my home growing up. My mother would cook a special meal and light the candles. My father would say the Kiddush and bless his children. We sang a little, talked about our week and rounded off the evening with some parev cookies and a rented movie.

We were not terribly observant, but our Friday nights felt sacred. Shabbat gave us the spiritual architecture to meaningfully return to each other, week after week, and it elevated our simple rituals into something profound, or at least pleasantly removed from the mundane mess of the other days.

But, by Saturday this spell largely wore off. I went with my father to services sometimes, but I slept in just as often. Although my parents sent my sisters and me to Jewish schools and camps, as a family, we often prioritised our personal whims over religious obligations. Because Shabbat was something we did together at home, it was easy enough for me to no longer “do Shabbat” once I moved out.

Time in the world, in thrall to new ideas and at the mercy of yet more personal desires, left me spiritually unmoored. My own journey away from religious practice led me to interrogate, with all of the mercilessness of youth, the Judaism I learned growing up.

I found it easy, so easy, to judge my parents for their inconsistencies and shortcomings, for their urgent, tribal embrace of a religion they taught us to observe half-heartedly. (By age 15, perhaps all children grow a set of antennae attuned to signals of parental hypocrisy.) I rolled my eyes at my mother’s nervous policing of her strictly kosher kitchen in light of our libertine tastes at restaurants. I bristled over my parents’ command that I marry a Jewish man when our lives felt so thoroughly secular. In my struggle to reconcile my Jewish identity with my agnosticism, I was a little quick to blame my parents for some of my discomfort. I was nearly pious in my censoriousness, which is to say I was insufferable.

I am not saying that I did not enjoy our family traditions during my visits home. (Sentences with a tortured double-negative construction feel all too apt here, I’m afraid.) I still loved the way my father gently kissed the top of our heads after offering a blessing that we be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. I quietly revelled in the way we still washed our hands using a lopsided ceramic cup I once made as a child, while a far nicer one of sterling silver gathered dust in a cabinet. I basked in the warmth of the look in my mother’s eyes after the cooking was done and her family was before her for yet another Shabbat.

These experiences offered a comforting sense of familial continuity, but they also felt apart from my life, which I lived mostly on my own, mostly in another city, and mostly without religion. I was working and dating and living the kind of on-the-go life that involves hastily eating meals over a kitchen sink. I preferred the world of ideas to lists of arcane ritualistic demands. My affection for the Shabbat of my youth felt like a sentimental hangover, as primal, irrational and inevitable as any form of nostalgia.

Recently, however, my feelings about Shabbat have taken yet another turn. After years of treating Friday as a mere gateway to the weekend, I have found myself taking tentative steps back toward some kind of observance. The catalyst, predictably, is that I now have a nascent family of my own. I got married two years ago and I now have a 13-month-old son. This shift, this evolution, is humbling. Parenthood is a great leveler: the judge becomes the judged. As a child (and as someone suspended in the late adolescence of single adulthood), it was my privilege to receive the customs and conventions of my parents and appraise them accordingly. But now, as a parent myself, it is my turn to craft traditions that will help teach my son how to live in the world. It is my turn to figure out how to guide him to be good and feel grateful; how to find meaning and question received wisdom. It is my turn to pass on the lessons and experiences I have felt nourished by in my own life. It is my turn, it seems, to find a way to celebrate Shabbat.

I can’t quite remember when my husband and I decided we wanted to add certain rituals to our Friday nights, but I believe it happened soon after our son was born. We both sensed that our home had undergone, is undergoing, a significant change, and we wanted to properly acknowledge, even consecrate, what would be our lifetime project together. In a house that felt increasingly crowded with varied wants and competing schedules, including those of my husband’s adolescent daughter and her sweet but needy dog, we also began to crave a moment of stillness in our week when we could come to each other and be assured of some shared space and time.

It is not lost on me that the Shabbat we are creating bears a resemblance to the one I enjoyed growing up. We make a special meal and I light candles. We say Kiddush and sing a little. We slow down, pay attention and celebrate the gifts of our life.

We are also still finding our way. I am not sure what I am praying to, or to whom I am giving thanks. Although the rituals lend meaning to our habits and grant a sense of connection with our ancestors, I worry that becoming a parent has merely made me clannish, and I stumble over any demonstration of faith. I am reading and learning and trying to plot a way forward that combines tradition with reason, logic with a subtle yearning for something ineffable. I am moved by Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetic call to recognize Shabbat as a time of comfort and pleasure, “a day of the soul as well as of the body.” But I fret that the consequences so far strike an awkwardly familiar balance between meaningful and convenient.

My husband and I are asking fairly intimidating questions that lack easy answers. What, for example, does it mean to be a Jew in 2019? How do we reconcile a somewhat chauvinistic embrace of Judaism with a more humane appreciation of all people? What kind of Jew do we want our son to become and how do we steer him there? I know I want my boy to grow up in a home enriched by a profound sense of connection to some of the beautiful ideas about life and family that have been handed down for thousands of years. I know I want him to feel the same sense of quiet relief I have when Friday rolls around, soothed by the knowledge that the day will end in the company of family and in an atmosphere of grace. I will do my best to give him the tools to create meaning and find value in even the smallest moments of life.

I am also fairly certain I will fall short. One day my son will surely question my own efforts to find harmony between religious practice and humanistic ideals. One day he will judge my own work to find something stable and lasting in a cultural identity. One day he will probably reject what we have hoped to teach him and try to figure out things for himself. Perhaps this, then, is the true job at hand: to provide my son with an approach to life that is full of lofty aspirations, meaningful questions and some humility, and to give him the space and support to find what he needs for himself.

Emily Bobrow

Emily Bobrow is a journalist and editor, and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, where she worked for 15 years, in London, Washington, DC, and New York. She is a frequent reviewer of theater and books, and she often writes about issues that relate to sex, gender, relationships and parenting. She lives in New York.

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