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The Chronicles of a Bad Jew

by Marion Isaacs

Last week was the week of the Shabbos Project, a South African-born, internationally-loved annual event which brings Jews from all walks of life together to keep Shabbos, many for the first time in their lives. I, too, was asked to keep Shabbos – and commissioned to write a piece about it. But I failed. I did not successfully “honour the Shabbos kween”. And so, in a bid to avoid editorial panic and professional discord, I proposed that I write a piece about my failure to keep Shabbos.

What would my angle be, I was asked. Apathy? Defeat? Negligence? Disappointment? Internal strife? Angst? The flabby human condition? All worthy literary themes to be sure – just ask all the old white men who have enjoyed celebrated writing careers over past millennia. But, the answer in large part is to be found elsewhere.

In other words, in bearing my apathetic soul on the pages of this publication, I am going to evade personal responsibility, because my reasons for failure speak to the very essence of our times. In short, the demands of the modern world of work render Shabbos-like rest so necessary, and yet simultaneously so difficult to indulge.

Why did I fail? Deadlines. I am a freelancer with a sizeable workload. Time always runs out. I spend my waking and sleeping hours juggling a billion daily demands from a motley and marvellous crew of clients. And, I frequently find myself wrestling with existential angst over the much vaunted work-life balance the millennials would have us believe is the hallmark of a good life well lived. But freelancer or not, this is the zeitgeist of the day. Work is king; personal pursuits are secondary. The profit machine of the latter-day capitalism cookie monster must be fed.

Here’s what I realised this Shabbos – or rather, saw with the sharpened clarity that only earthly human failure can bring. All of this toil and personal neglect leaves us impoverished. Mandated rest recognises the very essence of what it is to be human: the failure to truly self-moderate is built into us all as mere mortals. But we need rest – intellectual, psychic, emotional, spiritual, physical repose. And the more institutionalised it is, the more likely we are to honour it.

Now, I know I’m not revealing anything new here. So many before me have made this observation. Entire movements are built around this understanding, and Judaism and its forefathers couldn’t be clearer on the matter. But yet, the inner cultural workings of most of our contemporary societies still fail to budge, in spite of the fact that most of those who populate its structures from bottom to top recognise this gaping hole. (Again, we have arrived at a call for socialist revolution. Oops!)

While I failed to keep Shabbos, I did manage to take part in some Shabbos-like behaviour. This mainly took the form of a generous round of Shabbos meals in the company of old and new friends. These provided a sturdy reminder that hospitality and social connection also provide respite, and are key to the ways Jews have practiced Shabbos for time immemorial.

And so, in summary, the revolution will not be televised. Because I didn’t lead you into revolution. And it’s Shabbos, so the TV should be off.

Marion Isaacs

Marion Isaacs is a writer, researcher, documentary producer, and curator who lives, works, and eats (well) in Johannesburg.

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