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Shabbat is sort of like Christmas once a week

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!).

“Where are our presents?”

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.

“What’s this food I don’t want to eat?”

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.

“We need presents!”

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?

A Day of Rest

The defining story of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and when they finally escaped one of the first things they did (at Mount Sinai) was to proclaim that there would have to be a rest day every week. And, yes, the way the Hebrew Bible is written, it’s God who tells them what the Ten Commandments are, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but even if we believe that it’s coming directly from God and not from the people themselves, the people had a choice, to embrace the new rules or forgo them, and they chose to take them on. Imagine what having a full day of rest every week would have meant to a people who had only known life as slaves? Setting aside a full day of rest meant that, for at least one day each week, their time and their priorities were their own. We think of a day of rest as a logical necessity, because of the body’s need for rest, but that day off also creates more space in our own minds, for our hopes and dreams and plans, instead of just thoughts related to work and getting by.

I like to think of Shabbat as a time to sit and listen carefully to those quiet voices inside of us, the ones we can barely hear during the busy work week, so that we can put ourselves back together and bring our full selves back with us into our daily lives. Shabbat is a chance to heal the wounds of the week, especially the times when we’ve pushed through, despite hunger or exhaustion or pain, and never bothered to apologize to ourselves for the harm done.

“How dare you!”

But even in the United States, where we supposedly have a five day work week, with two days off, many people still work on the weekends, or set that time aside for chores and errands. Maybe they go to a prayer service, or have a family dinner, but they don’t spend a full day (and certainly not two days) napping or reading or taking nature walks; instead, they spend the time ticking things off their to-do lists. I’ve found that most people find the idea of rest, especially for a whole day, uncomfortable. Which means that the ancient Israelites knew what they were up to; they knew that rest is essential to living a full life, and that we would have to be commanded to do it.

“You need to be commanded to nap? Humans are weird.”

But even with my deep appreciation for rest, I still don’t feel like I make enough use of Shabbat each week. Part of the problem is that creating a day of rest takes effort. Shabbat is supposed to be a mini holiday every week – a mini Chanukah or Christmas or Passover – and that means a lot of planning, and cooking, and inviting, and cleaning, and dressing up. It sounds crazy to say that I am too tired for Shabbat; too tired to rest. But I am too tired to create the right circumstances for my soul to rest and recharge, instead of just my body.

            Another block to making the most of Shabbat is that I don’t really feel like I deserve a special day of rest each week, given the amount of rest I need, and take, during the work week. I feel like I should be making up for all of that laziness by doing chores on the weekend.

            And then there’s the biggest block of all: my memories of celebrating Shabbat as a kid. Before my father became more religious, when I was four, five, six, and seven, Shabbat was a good day. My brother and I went to Junior Congregation – an hour of Bible trivia and songs and prayers with the rest of the kids and with one not-so-grown up adult – and then, if we could sneak into the Social Hall after the maintenance guys had set up the tables, we could steal brownies while the adults were busy praying in the big sanctuary. And then I’d go to gymnastics with my best friend, and then me and Mom and my brother would get meatball heroes from the tiny Italian sub shop on the way home. It was pretty great.

“Meatball heroes, yes. Bible trivia? Not so much.”

            But then my father became more religious, starting when I was about eight years old, and instead of meatball heroes and gymnastics, my brother and I went from Junior Congregation in the little sanctuary straight into the big sanctuary with the adults, and then to the Kiddish in the Social Hall, where the adults drank Slivovitz and ate gefilte fish and herring and talked for what seemed like hours. We were able to eat a few more brownies, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And when we finally got home, we weren’t allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day, or even get homework done. The boredom was mind numbing, except for the times when we played Trivial Pursuit as a family, which were brutal. At that point in my life, the best part of Shabbat was the end.

            I gave up on celebrating Shabbat entirely in my twenties, going to therapy and writing workshops and shopping trips on Saturdays, because it was easier to think of it as just another day than to wrestle with the fish hooks of the past, the memories that cut so deep into my skin that it’s hard to pull them out without damaging my internal organs. And even after joining our current synagogue, nine years ago, and consistently going to Friday night services each week, I still couldn’t find a comfortable way to bring Shabbat home with me.

            But I want to be able to find some peace each week. I want there to be a day set aside where I can put down my big bag of anxieties and truly rest and recharge. But while I know people who are good at dissociating from their feelings, who can even be specific in which of their feelings and memories to “put on a shelf” and out of their minds, for a time, I can’t do it. My internal shelves are not well constructed, so the nasty things keep falling back into consciousness, often in dreams or nightmares, or just in triggers throughout the day that I can’t control or ignore.

“The shelves are falling! The shelves are falling!”

So I’m left with all of my memories and emotions and internal conflicts, even on Shabbat, and no amount of challah, or grape juice, or matzah ball soup, seems to be able to overcome that. Except, if I look back at the beginning of this essay, the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you. Maybe, on those terms, I’m doing Shabbat pretty well after all. Maybe the real problem is that I expect my version of Shabbat to match what I’ve seen in other people’s homes. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.

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?         

Shabbat Morning


Shabbat is the weekly Jewish holiday of rest. It starts at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday. The theoretical, biblical, reason for a day of rest is, of course, that God created the world in six days and therefore took a well-earned break on day seven. But really we all need a day of rest each week, even if we didn’t create a whole world by ourselves. (I’m pretty sure I need more than one day of rest in seven, but this isn’t the time to quibble).


Cricket believes in resting seven days out of seven.

I grew up going to synagogue every Saturday morning, first for junior congregation with the other kids, and later to the adult services, which lasted two and a half hours and ended with Slivovitz (plum brandy) and gefilte fish. But it’s been a long time since I went to synagogue regularly on Saturday mornings. Instead, I go on Friday nights, because my synagogue is more of a Friday night kind of place. We only have Saturday morning services when there’s a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate, or a holiday that falls on Shabbat. So, for a long time now, I’ve treated Saturday like, well, any other day. A day to do chores, make appointments, get my work done, etc. I took the time out for Friday night services as my weekly celebration of Shabbat and felt like that was enough.

I didn’t realize that I was really missing those Saturday mornings until I started to teach Synagogue school on Saturday mornings at my synagogue and was able to sit in on the children’s service. We all sat together in the first few rows in the sanctuary, with the Rabbi sitting right in front of us and leading us through the short service in a very relaxed, informal sort of way. When we read the morning blessings, the Rabbi asked everyone to share a recent accomplishment, or an exciting event coming up, or a difficult problem we needed support with, and the kids raised their hands. They shared about their new braces, and trips to Disneyworld, or New Jersey, and injured wrists, and newborn siblings. I didn’t have the nerve to speak up, but their openness inspired me. It was prayer as a chance to check in with our community and ourselves, and take a deep breath (or ten) and feel the natural holiness that we bring with us into the room.

And then we drank grape juice and tore through Challahs (really, these kids can do some real damage to a very large loaf of bread), and went to class. The mood of Saturday morning class is so different from the after-school rowdiness of synagogue school earlier in the week. We can meander through a discussion and hear from everyone more fully, and share our outside interests in music and Lego and animals and bring them into the discussion of the Torah lesson for the day, knitting together the ordinary and the holy.

Shabbat was hard for me growing up, because Shabbat was one of the battlegrounds my father chose to fight over. He made us walk six miles to the orthodox synagogue, and he stopped us from watching television or doing homework. The day became a wasteland, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, because we didn’t live in a Jewish community with other people in the same situation. And it wasn’t restful at all. It didn’t feel holy or sacred to replace the toilet paper in the bathroom with tissues, just to avoid ripping paper on Shabbat, or to cover the light switches with plastic to keep from turning the lights on and off; it felt more like prison.

For years now, I’ve had therapy on Saturday mornings – either group or individual – and I accepted that I couldn’t go to Saturday morning services at a synagogue, because I knew that therapy was more important. But I realized that I liked this Shabbat School version of Saturday morning prayers. I liked that it didn’t take hours, and we didn’t have to dress up, and we did get to talk, a lot, about our actual lives. This past week the cantor ran the children’s service, and we all sat in a circle-like clump on the floor to sing along with him and his guitar, and then to breathe together, and then dance together, and I thought, yeah, I could do this every week. If only my dogs could be invited.


“I wanna go!”

Cricket and Ellie know all about rest and holy time, and they don’t need as many memory aides as humans do to help them get to that peaceful, connected place. They just need the birds singing to them in the morning, and the air filled with smells from near and far, and a few chicken treats and cuddles. Though I really would love to see Ellie dancing along with the kids at Shabbat school, and she would love to share their Challah. Cricket would probably steal the whole challah and hide it under the ark, where only she and the rabbi could find it. But they’d probably enjoy that too, hunkering down in the sanctuary to share bread.


“Did you say Challah?!”


“I could eat.”

What’s a community for, really, if not to take time out to share good food, and sing, and maybe even dance?


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?



Healer of the Broken Hearted


We had a solidarity service at my synagogue last Sunday, in the aftermath of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Four synagogues came together in one building, and by the time Mom and I arrived, twenty minutes before the service started, there was no parking left. People had to stand along the sides of the sanctuary after all of the seats had been filled. The clergy of all four synagogues led the service, with readings by the rabbis and songs by the cantors. There was an enormous amount of crying, but I couldn’t cry. The music was beautiful. The presence of clergy from all of the local Christian denominations was meaningful (the local mosque was planning another service for the following day). But the words didn’t reach me. I just wanted to find comfort, and to feel something, but I couldn’t feel anything.

Maybe if I could have brought Cricket and Ellie with me, things would have been different; maybe if we didn’t have to feel such a sense of relief at seeing the police officers lined up in front of the synagogue to protect us; maybe if it were just small service, with my fellow congregants, on a Friday night. I don’t know. Maybe if there hadn’t been so much violence leading up to the shootings, with two black shoppers targeted in a supermarket, and pipe bombs in the mail, and church shootings, and terrorist attacks in other countries and in our own. We can barely breathe between horrific events, let alone mourn.


We’re all exhausted.

I keep swinging between anger, disbelief, fear, and confusion. At the solidarity service at my synagogue, the focus was on taking action against guns, which of course I agree with, but I can’t see that going anywhere now, any more than it has every single time this issue has come up after mass shootings in the past few years. More than a few years now. We can vote, certainly. We can stand in solidarity with the other victims of mass shootings, and against racist and anti-Semitic violence. But then what?

It turns out that one of the three congregations housed in the Tree of Life synagogue was also a Reconstructionist group, and they had celebrated Refugee Shabbat, as we did in my own synagogue, a few weeks ago. The shooter had found a list of the synagogues that participated in Refugee Shabbat, including my own, and that’s where he got the address for the Tree of Life synagogue, and that was the final straw in deciding which Jews to kill.

The subject of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has come up a number of times lately at my synagogue. There was actually an educational seminar about HIAS planned for Sunday. And then Saturday came, and a man decided to kill Jews at prayer, supposedly because Jews, through HIAS, are to blame for inviting refugees to “invade” our country. To be clear, HIAS does not choose who comes into the country, it works with the state department, along with many other organizations, to help new immigrants integrate into their new communities. If I had to leave my own country and seek safety elsewhere, I would like to believe that there would be an organization like HIAS there, to help me settle in and feel welcome.

One of the songs from the Solidarity Service on Sunday at my synagogue was “Healer of the Broken Hearted,” or in Hebrew, Harofei lishvurei lev. According to my rabbi, the image of a doctor in the Hebrew Bible always refers to God, mostly because every heroic role in the Hebrew Bible belongs to God, the ultimate multiple personality. But this is the image of God that I like best: the comforter, the healer, the one who sees that we are suffering and takes our pain seriously.

Healer of the broken hearted

            Binder of our wounds

            Counter of uncountable stars

            You know who we are



This week has felt strange: fragmented and confusing. I wanted to be at Synagogue, and I wanted to hide away at home. I needed to watch the news, and I hated to watch the news. And then there was a hashtag encouraging everyone, Jews and non-Jews, to come to Shabbat services. This week’s Friday night service at my synagogue was going to be a Family Service (kid-friendly, loud, and short), but I decided to go anyway. The sanctuary was packed again, and the music was great again, and the neighboring churches sent their clergy to add their words of support again, but it was more than that.

Maybe it was because a few more days had passed since the shootings, or because all of the children in the room changed the atmosphere in the room to something like joy. There was one little girl doing interpretive dance (including cartwheels and high kicks) down the far left aisle, and the five member kids’ choir remembered most of their songs, and the Bat Mitzvah girl ignored the tragedy in the air to celebrate her special day with her family. It didn’t hurt that there was cake after the service, with pink cupcakes and chocolate covered pretzels and an enormous amount of chocolate frosting.




But, in the end, it’s always the music. On Friday nights at my synagogue we often exchange one of the traditional prayers (Ahavat Olam) for an alternative version, written by Rami Shapiro:

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us
even when we are hidden from ourselves.

We are touched by fingers that soothe us
even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us
even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us
even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled

ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love.

Even if we can’t envision God as the healer of our wounds, we have something more

concrete to rely on: community. We have the power to see each other, and heal each other. Among all of the roles we can play in each other’s lives, this is one of my favorites.





Sleepaway Camp


It’s probably the heat that made me think of sleep away camp. I spent five summers in upstate New York, supposedly in the Berkshires, pretending it was cooler out of town. The memory that started the ball rolling was of Friday nights in the dining hall. The whole camp would eat together for that one meal, eating half-burned, half-raw, Kineret pre-frozen challahs, and singing Shabbat songs.


“I could eat.”


“Food? Where?”

Friday night to Saturday in camp was a big production. First, on Friday afternoons, we had to clean up the field in front of our bunks, then we had to clean our bunks, and then shower, and then dress up, in something other than shorts and t-shirts. All of the kids on A-side (ages 8-12) would go to one Shabbat service, and all of the kids on B-side (ages 12-16) would go to another, and then we came together for dinner in the dining hall, with all of the counselors, and visiting parents, and staff, and various random adults. And we would sing. The acoustics were glorious! And everyone joined in, even the coolest of the cool kids.

Friday night services at camp were a little awkward, because we were all dressed up and self-conscious and mixing with the other age groups with kids we didn’t know as well. And it was formal and serious, something else we weren’t used to. But once we got into the dining hall something changed. Everyone knows food. We sat by bunk, with our counselors, and listened to the noise level grow as everyone else entered the building. Then we went up to the front tables to pick up extra challah and extra chicken and potatoes. And once we finished eating, and cleaned our tables, we started singing Friday night songs, and even if you didn’t know what the words meant, the huge sound of clapping hands and stomping feet pulled everyone along. There were call and response songs, and bouncy songs, and slow, sweet songs.

It was perfect. I could forget for a moment about the cool kids at the next table who wouldn’t even deign to make eye contact with me, and just sing and feel connected.

After dinner we went off by age groups, and the night dwindled down, and we returned to our bunks in the dark, with only the bathroom lights to guide us (because we weren’t supposed to touch the light switches until the Sabbath ended).

Saturday was taken up with prayer, and some sort of “meaningful” activity, or napping. We ate cold cuts for lunch, and macaroni salad, and egg salad, and Butterscotch pudding for dinner (because the kitchen staff wasn’t allowed to cook, or even heat up any food, on the Sabbath).

On Sunday morning, we went back to the normal pace of life. We went to prayer services every morning, back in our shorts and t-shirts, and thinking about other things. We had to clean our bunks, and go to swim lessons, and play some god awful sport in the hot sun, and paste pompoms on Styrofoam cups or some such thing.

There were no dogs at camp, and I missed Delilah and her restful presence. Even her barking would have been okay with me, compared to some of the shrieking that went on at camp. Had no one ever seen a spider before getting to camp? I mean, really.

delilah close up

My Delilah, looking much more serious than she really was.

I’ve always felt like there was a novel in those five years of camp, or a memoir, or something. But then, I tend to think everything belongs in a book, if it happened to me.

Camp was a constant balancing act between enjoying the freedom of a whole world of mostly children, and the strangeness of being away from home, and feeling the deep down fear that I would never see my Mommy again.

The memories come back in sharp bursts: like the campout on the hill; and the girl who ran through a glass door; and the girl who was stung by 39 wasps; Color War, when my bunk was split down the middle, and my counselor was on the opposite team; the Violent Femmes singing A Blister in the Sun; sitting on the stone steps by the lake, and singing Little Boy Blue and The Man in the Moon; or lining up in the community building to play Human Foosball.

In a way I felt outside of my body even when it was all happening the first time around, and not just now as I look back and try to narrate.

A lot of time at camp was spent keeping us busy, and keeping us Jewish, rather than doing things that actually interested me. There was no writing class, or voice, or dance, or acting class. I had no TV, or access to a phone. We had one musical show per year, per age group, and we had to audition, so sometimes I got a role, and sometimes I didn’t. We went swimming twice a day, and chose between aerobics, or softball, or basketball, or soccer for sports. In the afternoons there was woodworking, or radio, or arts and crafts, or photography, or nature, and I wasn’t much good at any of it.

But Friday night was my night. I didn’t feel left out, or weird, on Friday night. Everyone sang. Everyone was there, and I fit in.

puppy in October 034

Just like baby Cricket,

Ellie between two beds

and not-so-baby Ellie.

Yoga Shabbat


The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.


“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”


Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.


“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.




Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.


Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.


Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.

Candle Lighting


When we first moved into the new apartment, back in May of 2013, I promised myself a set of candle sticks for Friday night candle lighting. Usually I’m at synagogue for Friday night services and they light Shabbat candles for us there, but I thought it would be a milestone to light my own candles again.

Traditional Shabbat Candles (not my picture)

Traditional Shabbat Candles (not my picture)

I looked in a few brick and mortar stores, while we were looking for other things we needed, like shelving and couches and tables and other little things like that. But I couldn’t find anything. The ensuing online search was extensive, but I eventually found a set of candlesticks that I liked very much. And then I found out that the online store that advertised the special candlesticks had gone out of business, just leaving the web page up to taunt me. When the special candlesticks disappeared, I lost my nerve.

Candlesticks with attitude. Eek!

Candlesticks with attitude. Eek!

I used to be clumsy, or distracted, and sometimes I still am. I have memories of dropping lit matches into full garbage cans, dropping lit candles onto counter tops, setting tablecloths on fire, etc. My fingers would get numb and shaky in the presence of fire, and not act the way I’d trained them to.

Don't worry, that's just my house burning down.

Don’t worry, that’s just my house burning down.

I used to light the Shabbat candles in our house growing up. I’m not sure why my mom didn’t want to light the candles, maybe it was her way of rebelling against my father’s obsession with becoming more and more religious. So it became my job, and I didn’t feel like I could say no.

The fat white Shabbat candles never sat still in their candle holders, so I had to melt the bottoms a bit to make them stick in place. Lighting the wooden matches always made me anxious. If the strip on the box had started to wear down, because we got those huge boxes instead of pocket sized, I’d have to light the candle from the stove, and then worry about doing something ritually wrong by turning off the flame on the stove after the official Shabbat candles were lit.

I hated that fear of doing it wrong. I hated feeling like someone was watching me, just waiting to yell “Gotcha!”

There’s something universal about candles, in all religions, despite electric light being ubiquitous. The flickering, temperamental quality of candle light, or the heat or temporariness of it, seems to add meaning. The Sabbath is a day of rest, a day to stop doing things the way you always do them and be more conscious and aware, of your family, of nature, of love and joy. It’s a time to remind yourself that there’s more to life than work. I wonder if the flame of the candles is, in part, a symbol of how dangerous that rest day maybe be, or may feel, when you stop rushing around and start to really experience your life. There are a lot of shadows hiding behind our busy lives, and the light of the candles may illuminate them in a way we are afraid to face.

If I could make this ritual work for me, I’d want to light four candles: one for me, one for Mom, and one for each of the dogs. But I keep seeing the dogs getting burned and the apartment going up in flames.

There’s a custom in orthodox Jewish homes, and maybe in more liberal Jewish homes now too, of blessing each child on Friday night as part of the ritual of the Sabbath. I knew a family with six kids who did this, and it was a lovely thing to see. Each child went up to their father, in age order, and he closed his eyes and put his hands over the child’s head and said a blessing, including a special wish for each child.

Maybe I could adapt this ritual for my dogs, instead of doing candle lighting, and come up with a prayer to say for them once a week. Just the act of resting hands on their heads would have a calming effect. I could wish them good sleep, good poops, and exciting things to sniff.

"Go ahead, Mommy. I dare you to bless me." (That would be Cricket.)

“Go ahead, Mommy. I dare you to bless me.” (That would be Cricket, on the right.)

And eventually, maybe, I’ll find another set of candle sticks that captures my imagination and help me over the hump. And maybe a fire retardant table cloth to put under them wouldn’t hurt.