In March of 2020 I faced, with the rest of the world, the very unexpected global pandemic. As a work-at-home parent during this time, I found myself adrift among common concerns. A fair share of panic, a constant state of anxiety, gratitude that I was able to be at home, malaise, and a general lost sense of time and purpose.
Once the initial “I can't eat, talk, or sleep” phase and the “I will constantly check the news” phase subsided, I found myself reconstructing a kind of life and motherhood in an uncharted world. Parenting is filled with unexpected moments that require flexibility and quick thinking. Parenting in a pandemic was a heart wrenching journey that felt monumentally uncharted. I began to sort through my internal resources, looking for things to help make sense of the amorphous shape my days and weeks had become.
Initiating a Shabbat ritual was a catalyst to evoke order in the life of my family. It felt like a nearly unconscious decision as I dug through the depths of my kitchen cabinets looking for Shabbat candles (I know I saw some when we moved 2 years ago…) and those lovely candlesticks (the ones we were given at our wedding and have been tucked neatly in storage ever since).
Waiting for dark, finding a match, saying the prayers, covering my eyes — things I haven’t done since my own childhood — suddenly became an accessible ritual that I required in order to make sense of my purpose, my week, and my mothering.
While Judaism was always a part of my identity and life, it wasn’t something I practiced regularly in my adult life. Judaism was my culture — a food, a joke, a holiday here and there. My Jewish wedding was one of the most Jewish things I had participated in, especially because I was a self-pronounced Hebrew school dropout.
I grew up in a decidedly “un-Jewish” part of upstate New York. Nonetheless, my Bronx-raised dad and Scarsdale mama committed to instill Judaism into our lives. Part of that was Friday Night Dinners, as we called them. We’d eat in the dining room instead of the kitchen and we’d use the nice serving plates instead of the casserole dish straight from the oven to the kitchen table. There would be a fabric tablecloth and fabric napkins, and we would say the prayers and light the candles.
We did this even as ABC’s TGIF lineup enticed me so entirely that I would complain non-stop. We did this still when there were birthday party invitations and other more alluring secular events. Finally, as my older siblings made clear that social and academic obligations were a priority, and as my mother returned to work full-time out of the house, the Friday Night Dinners slowed and then stopped. The dining room was reserved for Seders and birthdays.
But still, those early years really made a dent. The concept and sensory memories of Shabbat stuck with me as a cornerstone in my journey to adulthood. During the pandemic, when the world seemed to crumble around me, I somehow found my way back to this core in my psyche and leaned on it heavily. An ancestral inner resource that came to me in a time of need demonstrated how essential ritual is — and how I contain this essential tool inside of myself and in my memories.
Shabbat reemerged as a way to make sense of the week, to bring consistency to my child, to have a reason to use the nice napkins — even in the worst of times.
Whether it be a primal or subconscious reason I found myself back to those candles on Friday night, I’m so glad I did. First of all, it has given my week a rhythm. I finally know what day it is! It created a sense of belonging to know that Jewish people all over the world are doing this and have done this for years.
It gave me the comfort of familiarity — the smell of the candles, the sound of the prayers, the hopeful feeling that it sparked when the daylight ended.
Perhaps most importantly, it gave me a deep understanding of why my parents committed to our Friday Night Dinners even if it required a battle against Full House and Family Matters.
Now I gift my daughter this same tool that has been passed along. She too will have this Shabbat ritual, so visceral and ancient, planted in her like a seed of light and comfort that may grow into a cornerstone of her own journey to adulthood. She may even find herself leaning upon this foundation and finding peace in the ritual as she makes sense of her world.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Shabbat Blessings for Friday Night, My Jewish Learning
Shabbat 101, My Jewish Learning
Shabbat, PJ Library
Shabbat Cheat Sheet, 18 Doors