Each year, my synagogue school class has to sing two prayers at a Friday night service, one about the requirement to celebrate Shabbat (the Sabbath), and one hoping for peace (there are many, many prayers hoping for peace, even within a single service). And each year I look at those prayers again, through the eyes of my new class, or through the lens of my ever-changing experience of my own life, and I see new things. This year, after watching dozens of Christmas movies, even before Thanksgiving, I started to think about how celebrating Shabbat is like having Christmas once a week (though when I tried this idea out on my students, they rolled their eyes and said, but we don’t get presents on Shabbat!).
Shabbat, as the day of rest each week, is, for Jews, about taking a time out to think about how your life is going, and being with family and friends, and singing familiar songs, and eating familiar foods, often to excess, and focusing on joy and connection and comfort instead of on accomplishment and being busy. And those are the goals at the heart of most of the Christmas movies I watch too – along with all of the romance and silly subplots and misunderstandings, of course. Each movie, in the end, is about the search for a version of joy and comfort and love that fits the individual characters in that story. There’s also a lot of family drama, and rigid rules to overcome, and the race to get everything done in time, and awkward socializing, and odd food you don’t really want to eat, just like on Shabbat.
It’s possible that I’m just seeing this comparison between Shabbat and Christmas as an excuse for the many many Christmas movies I watch each year, but I think it’s also the reason why I watch the movies in the first place: each one, or at least each of the good ones, is a chance for my soul to reset and refill with hope and wonder, so that I can get through the difficulties of the rest of my life.
When the kids learn the prayers in class they have to do a lot of talking, and writing and drawing, about what they want their own versions of Shabbat to be, and, inevitably at least one of my students tells me that she shouldn’t have to do the work because her family doesn’t celebrate Shabbat, because they don’t celebrate it in the traditional ways. And I tell the kids that, even though I don’t always celebrate Shabbat with all of the rituals, I’ve been able to take things from the tradition that work for me and add my own ideas in order to reach the goal of connection and rest. Shabbat is a weekly holiday of aspiration, as much as of ritual; it’s about finding a way to fill your soul so that you can get through the rest of the week feeling whole, instead of fragmented or out of whack. And really, anything you can do to fill your soul is like your own version of Shabbat. Maybe you meditate or do yoga, maybe you spend time with friends and reconnect with the version of yourself that you can’t be at school or work, or maybe you spend time reading, or talking to your family, or playing board games, or making art, so that you can take a deep breath and feel like yourself again before going back out into the world and doing what’s required of you. To which most of my students roll their eyes, of course.
But I really believe in the power of using Shabbat as a lesson for our lives as well as making it a special day of the week, and the dogs, as always, are great role models for this. For example, I think the dogs have their own mini-Shabbat each time they go outside (unless Kevin is outside, in which case Ellie runs back to our door to wait for us while Cricket plays out her romantic comedy). Even on a bad weather day (though not in the rain), the dogs sniff all of the messages from their friends and neighbors, and they listen to the sounds of the birds and trains and children and buses, and they run and play and scout out good places to pee, and then they go back inside rejuvenated and ready for their next nap. Although, I think Cricket and Ellie would agree with my students that all of this Shabbat stuff would be made much better with presents, preferably food-related. And I can’t disagree.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?