Monday, July 15, 2013

Making Shabbat Dinner Happen

At 8:41 pm on a Friday night, the Shabbat candles have melted down to one inch nubs, and I'm wringing out the sponge after I've finished washing the dishes, pots and pans from Shabbat dinner. After working and parenting all week, I'm officially exhausted. Same with my husband. Our two kids, usually fairly well-mannered children, are not at their best either.

Both Marc and I work full-time, and making Shabbat dinner happen at the end of the week is not easy. I’m usually home by 5:45 after leaving work and picking up both kids from after-school-care at opposite ends of town. But with traffic, and sometimes a last-minute stop at the grocery store, Marc is home an hour later. Since he does the cooking in our family, and likes to cook something more formal for Shabbat, we end up eating kind of late.

Sometimes, with the late start, the kids have too many snacks and not enough dinner. Sometimes, we don’t have our favorite challah if there wasn't time for a trip to the little bakery. Sometimes, there’s no challah at all, if the grocery store has also run out. And if we’re really being honest, sometimes it's pizza on the living room floor if one too many colds or deadlines has ripped through our family that week. But most often, we make the effort to greet Shabbat with lit candles, grape juice and prayer. What was once a conscious choice to take part in the rituals is now an expectation.

Growing up at a Reform synagogue, I was still the most “religious” Jew I knew. I thought I celebrated all the holidays, memorized all the prayers, loved going to religious school when the rest of my friends seemed to hate going there. Nonetheless, Friday nights were more about watching ABC’s lineup of sitcoms than watching the candles burn down. As I got a bit older, and I realized just how much I didn’t know about Judaism, I knew that I wanted it to be a bigger part of my everyday life. Celebrating Shabbat would be part of that.

When I went off to college, it was easy to add Shabbat dinners to my weekly routine, and they became the highlight of my social agenda.  My roommates and I hosted groups of our friends in our tiny apartment, crafting Kosher menus and hoping not to give anyone food poisoning. But those years ended all too quickly; I blinked and suddenly just a few years and two kids later, well, it’s not how I always imagined my family Shabbat dinner would be. Thrown food, spilled grape juice and complaints about “yucky” meals were the standard activities that accompanied the evening. Usually, since the kids are exhausted from their weeks, too, there’s no sparkling conversation, much less other guests at our table.

Is it worth it? I’ve asked myself that over many weeks when I thought about eating a bowl of cereal and calling it a day. But when my nine year old daughter enthusiastically joins in on Kiddush, yes, it’s worth it. When my five year old son dances like a meshuganah during Birkat Hamazon, absolutely. Perhaps most of all, it’s worth it when during the blessing of the children, both kids squeeze my hands extra tightly, my own mother’s traditional way of saying "I love you," passed down to a new generation. Knowing that they will have memories of these dinners when they’re older, and the hope that someday they’ll invite their own friends to dine with us, recreating that social scene I had myself? Unequivocally yes, it’s all worth it.

When I was a little kid, I always wondered who those families were that we learned about in religious school, that lit candles and sang songs around the dining room table. Now I know - it's my family.

(Thanks to Marc, Rebecca and Carla for their guidance on this piece.)

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