The first time I experienced Shabbat, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, so this is what it’s about.” That was in Israel roughly nine years ago. I had just finished high school, and I had a gap year in which I could go and do just about whatever I wanted – so I went to Israel.
It all started a year earlier, when I read a book about a young girl who had survived the Holocaust. It sparked something within me, took hold of me, and wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t fathom the events that had trespassed upon such recent history. My family have been in South Africa for more than 200 years, yet the fact that we have German lineage probably had something to do with the way it affected me.
I continued to grapple with the Holocaust as I devoured any book I could find on Jewish history, Judaism, and Israel. I became fascinated with this whole other world I hadn’t known about before; a world that seemed out of my reach yet always in my eye-line. The more I learned, the more I saw Jewish names, kosher stamps on food labels, and headlines about Israel.
Offhand remarks my father had made in admiration of his Jewish employer suddenly gained an intense significance. Verses in the Bible suddenly became real, and not simply metaphoric. My attention had been seized.
Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Among my family and friends, I had become an eccentric, and it would become a valuable lesson for me not to judge others, and their choices in life. For whatever reason, Judaism became my new world. I couldn’t explain why or how, but I just knew I had to follow its call.
I went to Israel wide-eyed and hopeful. Upon arrival, I was welcomed by friends of my parents who had made aliyah from South Africa a few years before. Over the next two years, I became close to this elderly couple who welcomed me into their home and made me feel as if we were family – and in a way, I suppose we are. Even though we had almost half a century between us, they became my dearest friends, and to this day we remain close.
I finished converting to Judaism about four years ago, and soon after that made aliyah. I must say that after the conversion, I felt fragile. My acceptance of Judaism felt conditional, and emotionally, I wasn’t in a good space. The entire process had equipped me with the knowledge and practical experience to live as an observant Jew, but the scrutiny and suspicion I’d been subjected to during the conversion process left a mark. My initial enthusiasm and clarity of purpose had given way to waves of self-doubt. I had become reclusive, and I didn’t feel the connection I once did.
I’d thought that after converting to Judaism I would feel whole and happy. After that deep inner peace failed to materialise, I thought that making aliyah would get me there. It didn’t. After all this time, all the striving and struggling, I realised I had to allow myself to just be. To stop agonising about how I thought I should be feeling at any given moment, and simply surrender myself to the journey.
I am no longer fully observant. The fire that fuelled me on this crazy journey is no longer blazing. But I believe it’s still there, and on this Shabbos of 26/27 October, I felt its faint glow.
This Shabbos, the first I have kept for two years, I allowed my thoughts to wander. As I did so, I found myself levelling out, discovering an equilibrium in my Jewish identity I’d long since despaired of finding.
One of the most precious gifts we can give to someone is our time. And, what a profound opportunity we have every Shabbat to slow down and give the best of ourselves to the moment, to the people around us, to our creator.
The elegant simplicity of withdrawing from the busy-ness of daily life – in Shabbos Project parlance, to “Stop Doing. Start Being”. Not forcing anything, but just enjoying the time we have been given with those we love.
Now, as I write this, I am inside, sitting at my computer desk. An air conditioner is whirring gently, and everything feels fine. But when I go outside, there is fresh air, and I can really breathe. That is how Shabbat feels to me – intentionally slowing down. Not just giving the best of yourself, but allowing your best self to emerge. Not simply being swept away by whatever life may bring.
Michal Muller is a content writer based in Tel Aviv