My first ever Shabbat was a year ago around the time of the Shabbat Project 2020, when amazingly and by coincidence had chosen the same date unaware of the existence of the Shabbat project. It had been planned for the family – my mother, sisters and brother – but due to lockdown last November, I made my first Shabbat with my mother at her home near Exeter, in Devon, England, the weekend following the Shabbat Project.
Last weekend we were finally able to celebrate our first family Shabbat at my mother’s home in Devon – she is 93 years old, together with my two sisters, brother and one of my sons. I chose that weekend specifically because of the Shabbat Project, knowing that hundreds of Jews all over the world would be celebrating Shabbat at the same time, and because it was a year following my first Shabbat. Since then I have celebrated Shabbat an additional 4 times with my mother at her house.
Our background – my maternal grandmother was Jewish but she died when my mother was aged 4 and her father remarried so she lost touch with most Jewish members of the family, Fast forward to January 2020 when I started to look into our Jewish ancestry and found roots going back to the Netherlands and Germany as well as the terrible discovery that hundreds of cousins who remained in the Netherlands were murdered in the Holocaust.
To honour their memory and to connect with my Jewish ancestors I decided to find out about Judaism and to explore some of the festival and traditions. I have managed this, but due to coronavirus and multiple lockdowns and restrictions, with just my elderly mother. As well as several Shabbat celebrations, I have celebrated Chanukkah, Purim, Pesach ( I led a seder for her), Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Shemini atzeret and Sukkot culminating in this first ever family Shabbat last weekend. My mother and I also visited a shule in Bristol for the first time ever, for Rosh Hashana services and a Rosh Hashana meal at the Chabad House there,
What did we do for the Shabbat project weekend? We celebrated the whole 25 hours from candle lighting on Friday evening through to after the Havdalah ceremony on Saturday evening and which included the three Shabbat meals with the appropriate blessings before all of them. For this ( and over the year) I have learnt to sing and pronounce many songs all in Hebrew, all the blessings (in Hebrew), the full Kiddush on both days, and about half of the Birkat Hamazon after meals (following Shir hama’a lot). We also sang Lecha dodi, Shalom aleichem, Eishet Chayil, Yom Zeh l’Yisrael, Oseh Shalom, Hava nagila, Yom shabbaton, Ki eshmera shabbat, Yedid nefesh, Mismor l’David, Hine el Yeshuati, Birchot Havdalah, Shavua tov, and Eliahu hanavi. (I did not of course learn the words by heart!).
We switched off our screens and electrical devices ( ie radio, tv, phones, computers, cameras) for the whole Shabbat to create that peaceful oasis in time, and also did not light any flame or fire. These were the restrictions we decided to observe.
What did I cook: copious quantities of challah, Fri: two types of matzo ball soup (vegetarian and chicken) , fish and vegetables, spiced apple cake. Sat: two types of cholent (vegetarian with figs, lamb), sweet spiced lokshen kugel with apple; seudah shlishit: hummus,Jewish Libyan pumpkin dip, challah, dates, fruit and cake. Part of enjoying the events for me is preparing the food and trying out new recipes some of which are in some way authentic.
Discussions -on the Friday evening we went round the table discussing what the family Shabbat meant to us – which for everyone was to connect with our Jewish ancestry and experience something of the culture, and honouring victims of the Holocaust after discovering that terrible fate of many of our cousins. During the weekend our discussions were wide-ranging - from God, creation and the origin of the universe, what Judaism believes about the afterlife, lots about the restrictions, I explained the concept of pikuach nefesh, and a little about kashrut, some comparisons between Judaism and Christianity as well as Buddhism, genetics and endogamy, different groupings in Judaism, migrations from the middle east ( in relation to our ancestors in Amsterdam), destruction of the second temple and much more…..
Reflection - although I had celebrated Shabbat 5 times with my mother during the year, it was just wonderful for me, finally being able to share the Shabbat, during the Shabbat project weekend, with more of the family and especially connecting the two families – my original one (mother, brother, two sisters) and my current one (one of my sons) and to share everything I had learnt with them by being responsible for creating the experience and very special atmosphere for them. The whole journey of learning about Judaism and exploring and then experiencing the rituals and festivals has brought me closer to family members and has awakened an interest in religion generally as well as wanting to try to understand a little about Israel and Palestine, even though I do not pray as such nor have a belief in a deity – instead calling myself an agnostic. It was an incredible experience which will remain in my memory for a long time and I hope will be the start of celebrating other Jewish festivals at my mother’s home with some of the wider family.