I have never kept Shabbat, but once, on a Shabbaton organised by my high school, I came close.
It was a Jewish high school in Johannesburg and the Shabbaton was held at a camping venue about an hour’s bus ride from the city. They brought us here every year for one reason or another — a seventies-vintage “holiday resort”, with institutional yellow face-brick everywhere and low grey split-pole fences on the mowed grass embankments. The Shabbaton programme, which the prefects led, was designed to show us how beautiful keeping Shabbat could be.
Though it was 26 years ago, I still remember a lot of that weekend clearly. I remember that on the first night, the Friday night, after supper and bensching, we split up into small groups and each group went off to a rondavel with two prefects. The prefects (only a year older than us) threw several large blue paper triangles on the floor and asked us to jump on them, which we did. Then they put pairs of triangles together to form Magen Davids, and asked us to jump on these. We jumped on them. The prefects frowned and explained that the point of the exercise was that we were supposed to refuse to jump on the Magen Davids, so we all felt disappointed in ourselves; still it was also funny, and even the prefects eventually laughed.
I remember, after that exercise, going down to the night-darkened river at the bottom of the camp site with J, a girl I kind of liked, and three or four other people. On the grassy bank we sat and spoke about God, and different ways of thinking about God. I remember that J got into an argument with one of the other boys. She was very strong-minded and had all kinds of theories — definitely more than the average person in our year. She was our age (16 or 17) but she had thought about things deeply. J always wore black but when she got into an argument she seemed to me to radiate a hot, red energy; red as blood.
When the argument ended, we all stayed next to the river in silence. Some of us lay back on the cold damp grass to look at the stars, and some (like me) sat and gazed out at the dark water. I remember that after a few minutes of looking at the flat black surface I saw or felt something move over it — something I will describe as a huge invisible formless body. I didn’t say anything because it felt like to speak about it would take something away from the experience.
We went to sleep well after midnight, careful not to turn on or off any lights in our rooms, and then got woken early to go to morning prayers.
I remember that after breakfast that Saturday morning, A, a boy in my class, asked me if he could talk to me in private. We were on the stubby, sharp-bladed yellow grass outside the dining hall. The sun was out, so it was probably about nine a.m., but it was the middle of winter and cold.
A had the most extreme squint I’ve ever seen. His gaze seemed to bend in on itself like space-time near a black hole. When he spoke to you, he had to swivel his head about 45 degrees to the side. He said, “Can I ask you something?”
I said, “Sure. Ask me anything.”
Though A had been in my class for nearly four years, I had not spoken more than a few words to him. He was very quiet. He was known for his squint and for having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Greek mythology.
He said, “Do you think a man should ever cry?”
One thing about this Shabbaton: it created an environment where we asked serious questions of others and ourselves.
I said yes, I did think so.
He nodded, as if that was what he’d thought I’d say. Then he said, “I don’t think so.”
I asked him why not.
He said, “If I started to cry I feel like I might never be able to stop.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that — even me, who in those days had comebacks to everything.
After lunch there was a long, table-pounding bensching session, followed by an optional discussion in the dining hall hosted by Rabbi M, a young rabbi, who was known as a fun and friendly person. I opted to attend.
The discussion, which went on for a long time, touched on a variety of subjects: free will, the age of the universe, things like that. Common ground among 100 teenagers was predictably hard to find, but at points of real dissonance Rabbi M stepped in and explained the rabbinic perspective with considerable sensitivity and humour.
The question I had was not one I felt I could ask. I sat wondering how Rabbi M, a person who seemed so authentically cool – to use a word from that time — could hold so resolutely to such an old system of beliefs. That he gave himself over to belief at all seemed strange. What permitted him do so, and why did it not seem possible for me? Was it, I wondered that afternoon, the repetitive ritual aspect of religion —bensching, keeping Shabbat — that created the psychological soil in which this plant, faith, could take root? Was it the ritual that led to faith, rather than the other way around? It made me think of that Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams, which had come out just a few years before. The voice that says, “Build it, and he will come.”
When that discussion ended, we had “free time” until Havdalah. I was happy about the free time, but also slightly nervous about it. This was going to be the first time I’d ever kept Shabbat, and I didn’t want to mess up. I don’t know what could have been so difficult, but still, it felt difficult, especially left to my own devices. It felt like Shabbat was eggshells, and I had to walk carefully so as not to break them.
The sun was starting to get low in the sky, and some of us went up to the trampoline area near the fence of the camp site. There were about ten trampolines, their coiled springs badly rusted, organised in an expansive grid.
I sat on a bench with a boy called S. S was the most religious kid in our year, maybe in our whole school. He wore a kippa, and tsitsit that spilled from the sides of his grey school pants, and he prayed at a different shul service in the morning so he wouldn’t be disturbed by us heathens.
There was about half an hour to go now. I was in an excellent mood. That mysterious feeling or vision I’d had beside the river the night before was still palpable. The container of Shabbat seemed to have provided the right conditions to keep it alive. Also J was there, jumping on a trampoline nearby with two of her friends.
In the falling light of that afternoon I tried to explain to S how powerful the experience of keeping Shabbat for the first time had been for me. I thought he of all people would understand and be glad to hear it. I was expressing myself in lyrical terms — high on lack of sleep; on the clean winter sun; on doing something I’d never done before — and all the while scratching the letters of my name with a stone into the dried-out, flaking green paint of the bench.
D A N I E L
S was not a mean-spirited person, so I must give him the benefit of the doubt: my soliloquy, coupled with the sight of the orange sun sinking into the veld, had probably sent into some sort of reverie — in any case, when he did see what I was doing with the stone, he pointed out to me with a broken smile that by writing my name I had technically not kept Shabbat. I felt more ridiculous in front of S than I felt truly upset. I told myself I would no doubt keep Shabbat many times in future and anyway I’d come close: much closer than I’d ever come before.
That was a long time ago — I am 42 now — but I still think about our Shabbaton occasionally. That feeling of a great spirit body moving across the face of the dark water is an experience I still marvel at and have never felt again. I also think about the people who were there with me.
Rabbi M is the rabbi of a shul in Joburg. I know people who love being part of his congregation, which I can understand based on my memories of him. I realise I am probably now at least ten years older than he was back then.
S lives in Israel and works in international currency transfers.
A passed away only a few years after high school. He was in his early twenties, studying at university, a brilliant student, when he developed a blood clot in his leg that flew up to his brain.
And J is married and has two children and lives in Australia. We are friends on Facebook. From time to time she posts pictures of herself with her kids, but not very often.
I still think I would like to keep Shabbat, although I don’t know if I will. To date, I came closest to doing so that time I wrote my name on the bench with about half an hour to go.
Daniel Browde is a writer and editor. His book The Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde (Jonathan Ball, 2016) was longlisted for the Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction. He lives in Johannesburg.