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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17 thoughts on “Why We Say Shabbat”

  1. I am constantly explaining why I think atheism and Judaism work so well together. You’ve touched on some of it and we are lighting the candles here in my atheist house as well.

    For what its worth, I firmly believe that Zionism is inconsistent with Jewish ethics. Opposing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians doesn’t make you a bad Jew. I think it makes you a good one, along with me. 🙂
    .-= Jake Aryeh Marcus´s last blog ..Just When You Thought it Was Safe to Travel with Breast Milk- The TSA Targets Mothers =-.

  2. Lovely essay, Jennifer. So many things we can take out of the Jewish religion have to do with tradition and ritual; I think they are both a wonderful way to bring a family together and create memorable times. THat’s what you’ve managed to do so nicely here with Friday nights.
    .-= sheryl´s last blog ..Alzheimer

  3. We celebrate Christmas and Easter in the same ways – we don’t believe in the religious aspects, but we believe in family togetherness, traditions, and love.

  4. This makes a lot of sense to me. Like your husband I was raised Catholic, and even though my religious thinking changed a lot as I grew up, it is kind of hard to let go of the various traditions that go along with everything.
    .-= Roxanne´s last blog ..Dog Training Update Dec 3 =-.

  5. Some of your words are more than mere opinions; they are worthy of serious discussion.

    “I find little strength or solace in the antiquated stories it contains.”

    The stories are historical narratives told from the perspective of believers. They encompass all aspects of human nature. Read in entirety, practically every human trait or characteristic is dealt with, directly or indirectly, in order to underline how pivotal human nature is in shaping destiny. God is only one of many characters in the overarching stories. Remove God from the narrative and there are gripping tales that will engage even modern, secular readers. That exercise was successfully achieved by the author of “The Book of J”.

    “I don

  6. I can understand how keeping traditions alive–whether for religious reasons or not–helps you feel connected to your family (with the little ones and your ancestors). I do believe in God and teach my children using the scriptures, but I also teach them to respect people of other faiths (atheism included).

    As far as the Jewish behavior being reprehensible, I agree with Allan Becker.
    .-= Kristen´s last blog ..Quick Crustless Quiche =-.

  7. Funny, my family isn’t even remotely religious either – yet I have some religious leanings. Have you ever read The Life of Pi? The boy in the story, Pi, is all about general religion. I love this quote:

    “I can well imagine an atheist

  8. I love the idea of keeping the ritual – even if it’s not tied to a personal set of religious beliefs. Even though I’m not a churchgoing Christian, I love the pageantry and spirit of Christmas, and I’m sure many of my friends and neighbors would admit the same. What’s the harm if you’re creating a moment that brings your family closer?
    .-= Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last blog ..Hanukah Latkes =-.

  9. Jennifer,

    thanks for your thoughtful perspectives. I do believe in God, and also in the value of religious tradition woven into the fabric of the family with love, which is what you are doing. that, to me, is the belief you hold that comes through most clearly in your story here.
    .-= Kerry´s last blog ..Irish Christmas in America tour =-.

  10. What a lovely essay. Although I live alone and don’t follow Judaism’s rituals — most of my friends are either non-Jews or nonpracticers so I forget when the holidays fall out often — I remember the ones we observed fondly from my childhood.

    I have to disagree with your take about the “majority” of Jews being unquestioningly loyal to Israel — and also disagree with Allan Becker who suggests it is only Jews younger than 35 who take issue with the Israeli treatment of Arabs. I’m older and a child of survivors of the Holocaust, but I have similar reservations: We didn’t survive to treat others inhumanely. However, I agree with Becker that “reprehensible” is a very strong word to apply to Israelis, especially since their actions, as he points out, are so often taken out of context

  11. I think rituals are important. They cement a family together. I also think it’s nice to teach children a variety of faiths–so they have the basic knowledge and can make their own decisions when the time is right. I often word things like that this way: “Some people believe _____. I believe ______. What do you think you believe?”
    .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..Marriage Books You

  12. Allan,

    Your points about the problems of perspective on Israel are very important. The media representation, the younger generation without the experiences, and the way those who survived by doing what they had to for themselves to establish a safe place–all that is true. It’s also true that the founding generation did things from the perspective of survival, not the perspective of doing the right thing, and that perspective remains clear today for many who live there and see the continuing threat to their lives and safety. But that perspective is amoral: not immoral, just amoral. They absolutely have the right to live and defend themselves; but they don’t have the right to take away the freedom, property or human rights or others. Israel wasn’t founded in empty land; Palestinian homes and farms were taken at gunpoint, with bloodshed, and the Palestinians were put in concentration camps where they remain today, without freedom or voting rights or basic human needs. The Nazis did all these things and more to European Jews, and they are much worse than reprehensible; but ‘Never Again’ must mean ‘never to anyone.’ The Israelis are no better than the Palestinians, and they all deserve the same rights. Reading Elie Weisel’s novel Night, you see how the Zionists in Palestine were no different from the Arab terrorists today; it’s just a different perspective. But a truly just moral perspective requires that we support the safety and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians equally. Distance is indeed helpful to see that, and we are lucky to have it.

  13. Spirituality doesn’t have to have a name. Or be nameless. Of belief-ness, or believe in nothingness. Which means, to me, it can be anything that feeds the person, the individual. Very interesting, really enjoyed this.

  14. I really connected to this post. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, but eventually pulled away from the church and, after taking world religion classes and doing some research on my own, pulled away from organized religion in general. But I still feel that I’m a spiritual person. And I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of creating family traditions that highlight love, generosity, kindness, and family.

    P.S. LOVE your wooden spoon-passing practices. I may have to borrow that one. 🙂
    .-= Steph Auteri´s last blog ..How To Throw An Event That Rocks The House =-.

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