Live from the Lilith Blog

September 23, 2011 by

America is wonderful during the week

“America is wonderful during the week, but painful on Shabbat.”  This is what my friend Malika wrote me after her first Shabbat back in America.  I am a Shabbat nut.  I love everything about it, the slowness, the meals, the niggunim.  I love remembering my grandmother and finding my people and feeling part of something beyond me, above me, something huge that might carry my entire week to come towards peace.

But Shabbat, this version of intense, gung ho Shabbat is harder to come by in the secular world.  At yeshiva in Jerusalem I was the odd one, the resister, the girl who in America was always finding a way to light candles, and in Israel was always desperate to break a biblical law.  Over time my resistance subsided and I submitted, full throttle, to the systems that bind.  I went to synagogue, I cooked Kosher, I turned off my computer, I walked everywhere, made a dish for the first, second, and sometimes third meal.  I did Havdalah when I could, knew the portion of the week, sang loud Jewish songs into the night.

They were horrible, all of those rules, until they became romantic.  Obligation, when unable to submit, was torture.  And when I submit to the order of Modern Orthodoxy, the obligation became a sweet pleasure.  There was a city cloaked in silence, a collective thrust towards peace, a sense of community that drove itself through every obscure Jewish corner.  They said jump, so I jumped.  And it was that simple.  I was a good girl if I followed.  But when resisting or unable to adhere I was met with internal and external conflict.  There was a psychiatric twist to everything, moments upon moments upon moments where I felt like a sinner when I could not adhere to Jewish law.  But the moments I didn’t “sin,” were priceless.

Back in America Shabbat is a whole different story.  I long for that system, the checks and balances that a community of observers creates.  I miss cleaning on Fridays and shopping for fresh Challah and groceries at the Shuk.  I miss potluck dinners with close observant friends and I miss ecstatic prayer and long night walks in carless streets.  It was not the law that got me going, as much as a community following the law, friendship and collective an incentive to piety.  

My Shabbat this weekend was wild.  It was wonderful.  It was American and pure and delectable and it was, as Malika puts it, a wee bit painful.  Think Korean spa foot massage at midnight, farmer’s markets in Los Angeles’ hippest neighborhood.  Think yard sales and boas and odd shopping sprees, gourmet ice cream, a bicycle kitchen, an Indian grocery store.  It was everything about America I missed in Israel: multiculturalism, shameless hipsters, and fine multi-ethnic foods.  And it was everything I wasn’t supposed to do.  It was not kosher.  It was spending money on Shabbat, driving on Shabbat, being seen by other Jews breaking Shabbat laws on Shabbat.  It was no synagogue on Shabbat, ceremonies like Havdalah forgotten, no singing, no challah, no abstaining from cleaning or working.  

A “cut off one half of the heart for the sake of the other” kind of weekend.  I traded a few things out, for a few things in.  I did not get Jerusalem, but I got my sister.  I was not at the wall, but I was at a sunset in a garden with views of mountains and the Hollywood hills.  My sister and I took wine and votive candles and a rustic raisin baguette out to the lawn.  We lit the candles, attempted to remember the long version of Kiddush, and in lieu of hand washing wafted our fingers in the wind to clear the negative energy of the week.  We paused and went barefoot into the grass by the garden to mimic each other in yoga poses.  We stretched.  We released.  We ushered in some semblance of a Shabbos queen.

And then two sisters broke bread, said Shabbat shalom, cooked a meal together, set a table, waited for a very late Israeli and had a Shabbat dinner that would probably belong somewhere between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Yes, honoring and remembering the traditions.  No, we did not follow the rules.

I didn’t tell my sister I wanted to sing songs.  I didn’t ask her for Saturday off.  I didn’t abstain at the Farmer’s Market, or ask if we could walk instead of drive.  I didn’t ask for challah, or even indicate I wanted more than the everything she gave me on my visit to her new home.  I didn’t ask or push because I was going home and I forgot that after a year of devotional practice, home shifted.  Some piece of me expected her to know that I wanted all of those things, that I don’t drink wine anymore, that I wanted to avoid coffee, that I like praying and praising and offering.  I expected home to conform to my internal changes, and when it didn’t, it hurt.

My sister is an exquisite human being.  She is unlike anyone I know in the world, offering her entire Saturday morning in self-appointed Tzedakah.  She tutors a teenager at the farmer’s market in exchange for flowers from his father, the flower seller.  We went to a play, instead of to a festival, to honor a young reporter at the paper she edits.  Her days generally revolve around lifting others, connecting others, telling the stories of otherwise forgotten individuals.

Following my sister around I traded things out.  I let go of two homes.  I let go of the one I remembered and the one I expected, in exchange for the one I actually received.  Shabbat was about breaking one half a heart, and building another half.  No synagogue, yes Pikuach Nefesh.  I still want to attempt to bind myself again to law, to relax into a Jewish community, but in the meantime I will trade out the pain of breaking Shabbat and living in a secular non-Jewish world for the secrets that come with it: new ways of serving G-d, off the books.