Why We Say Shabbat

Tonight’s Shabbat, and the third night of Hanukkah. James is out of town. The kids are cranky after a long week at school. The baby, newly walking, is finding life precarious. She fell hard on her bottom this morning and she keeps tripping over her feet, wailing with frustration and pain every time she does a face plant.

I’m tempted to forgo lighting the menorah, lighting the Shabbos candles, and making latkes.

But I won’t.

Even though I’m an atheist, I really love celebrating the sabbath.

I wrote a version of this essay, which was published five years ago in the local newspaper, that explains why.

Why We Say Shabbat

My son Etani, who’s two years old, sees the matchbox in the bathroom and starts gesturing frantically in that direction.

“I wan say Shabbat,” he cries, trying to grab the matches. “I wan say Shabbat.”

Most Friday nights in our family we “say Shabbat.” We loosely follow the Jewish tradition and set our table with challah bread (braided Jewish egg bread that I usually make by hand but am sometimes lucky enough to find at the baker’s in time for dinner), candles, red wine for the grown-ups, and sparkly juice for the kids. When dinner’s ready we gather around our stained kitchen table with its mismatched chairs and sing the blessings in Hebrew over the light, bread, and wine; then we sit down to eat together.

When I was a kid, we did not observe Shabbat. Although I grew up in Newton Centre, Massachusetts where there is a vibrant Jewish community and several synagogues, my parents are both scientists and skeptics. I remember watching religious families walk to temple on Saturday mornings. But my three brothers and I never participated in organized religion.

My four-year-old daughter Athena especially likes setting the Sabbath table. She runs outside to pick some winter flowers and places them carefully in a hand-painted vase. She puts a plate at each table and lays a fork across each plate, just so.

My mother grew up in a Jewish family (her father, a self-centered civil rights lawyer and Zionist leader wrote a book aptly titled “Israel and Me” and peppered his speech with Yiddish) but she has never had any patience for God, ritual, or spirituality.

My father was a Red Diaper baby, the son of Jews who emigrated from Russia and found communism in the New World. My grandparents’ communism was mostly about civil justice and fair treatment for workers of all races, though it didn’t stop them from owning jewelry stores in Manhattan and running a boarding house. An atheist, my father often spoke to us about the problems inherent in organized religions and the bias of being “the chosen people” inherent in Judaism.

“What day is it Mommy?” six-year-old Hesperus asks when I pick her up from school.


“It’s Friday!” She’s so happy she jumps in the air. “It’s Shabbat!”

When I was in my 20s I asked my father if there was any way I could rebel against my liberal upbringing. He answered: “you could adopt a religion … and really believe it.”

Now my father and brother, who both roll their eyes when I tell them we have a Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, refer to me as “the Jew.”

But it was Santa Claus who brought us the new white Shabbat candles with pressed petals in them and a kiddish cup for the wine.

We celebrate Christmas and Easter because my husband (who describes himself as a “recovering Catholic”) has blissful memories of a living room floor covered in toys on Christmas and a generous Easter Bunny who brought a basketful of goodies. He wants to recreate that for our children, to replicate small moments of happiness in an otherwise lonely childhood.

And I’m trying to create new rituals for our family, rituals that were absent from my upbringing.

Etani grabs the sparkling juice out of the refrigerator and slams it down on the table so hard I fear the heavy glass bottle will break. We started drinking water only after the dentist told me that the brown stains on my children’s teeth might be from juice, so Fridays are the only night of the week that we have juice at dinner.

Each child lights one of the three candles on the table and we sing the Hebrew blessings together, stumbling over the words. When we sit down to eat we play our weekly game of “Wooden Spoon.” Whoever holds the spoon commands the full attention of the rest and shares the best thing about the week on the first pass, then the worst, then the silliest.

“Best thing my daaay,” Etani begins. “Ice sceam!”

It’s winter and it’s been a long time since Etani’s had ice cream so we all laugh.

Etani relishes the attention and refuses to pass the spoon to his sister. Hesperus grabs another one and skips back to the table.

“The best thing about my day,” she says, her chocolate-colored eyes serious, “was recess because I got to go on the tire swing.”

Then it’s Athena’s turn. “I don’t want to say my best thing,” Athena pouts for a moment. “I want to say what I’m thankful for.” She brightens up as we agree. “I’m thankful for my family,” she says, clutching the spoon like a singer holding a microphone. “And for my Mommy and Daddy.”

In some ways I feel like I’m pretending to be Jewish. Our son, though his name means “My Strength” in Hebrew, is not circumcised. I’m interested in the Torah as a work of literature but, unlike so many, I find little strength or solace in the antiquated stories it contains. I don’t like the Jewish image of a wrathful God. Worst of all (and on this point I am at odds with the majority of Jews and, it seems, of Americans), I find Israel’s policies towards their Arab brethren reprehensible.

I’m a worse Jew than Woody Allen.

But I see the serenity on my children’s faces as we light the candles that mark the end of the day, the end of an invariably long week, and, however imperfect, I feel a connection to my ancestors who have been performing this ritual for 5,766 years.

“Say Shabbat!” Etani smiles widely a week later as he sees me once again setting the challah under its embroidered cover, putting the candles from Santa in their holders, and placing the kiddish cup at the head of the table.

His face becomes quiet and serious as we light the candles, spreading warmth and color on a cold January evening. In my son’s hazel eyes and set lower lip I see my grandfather, who immigrated from near Odessa, and all the generations of Jewish men who came before him.

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