Thursday, June 30, 2011

Newton's Third Law of Motion

To begin our exploration into the Jewish perspective on the nature of summer, let’s turn to an unlikely source.   Newton’s third law of motion states that forces come in pairs; that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction.  Kabbalah extends this to the spiritual, explaining that moments of great potential can swing one way or the other.  Where ever physicality expands and deepens, that’s just where we might find explosive spirituality.  Places and moments that overflow with spirituality can become cesspools of physicality.  This principle is expressed as zeh le’umat zeh – this opposed to this[1].  For example, the generation that deeply admired wisdom and human intellect produced both the writing down of the Oral Law as well as the rise of Greek thinkers.[2]  

So our first finding is that moments of great potential can go either way, and that the forces to make this happen exist collinearly.
Summer is a time of peak physicality.  Crops and flowers bask in the warmth – as do people (those so-called “sun-worshippers.”)  The pleasures of sunshine, fresh air, and water, lend to a more outdoors lifestyle, to more engagement with nature and its bounty.  Lying on the beach, hiking a verdant forest, sipping mint juleps on the porch, flying through the air at the funfair.   At times, it can be tempting to overindulge in all these enticements and forget about our purpose on earth. 

It’s partly for this reason that we study the Ethics of the Fathers during the summer months.  The wisdom therein is a reminder that we must not neglect our spiritual development, and that the same potential that makes June nectarines so luscious, can produce spiritually juicy moments as well:  “For the L-rd G-d is a sun and a shield.”[3]

[1] Ecclesiastes 7:14
[2] Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz
[3] Psalms 84:12

Monday, June 27, 2011

Israelis sentenced for theft of Auschwitz mementos

I had planned to blog about summer, and then this news item caught my eye.  I’m probably in the minority, but I felt an immediate sense of sympathy for this couple.  Some will say they’re common thieves, looking to make a quick buck from Holocaust artifacts, but my thoughts go in another direction.
A few years ago, on tour of Poland, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I went expecting to be disturbed, but instead, felt nothing.  The place is so vast, so green, and so empty, that it’s hard to connect it with anything at all.  In many places Birkenau looks more like an unpopular public park than a murder site.
The one moment of connection came for me when we left the death camp – Birkenau, for the labor camp cum museum – Auschwitz.  The museum inhabits a few small buildings with shiny linoleum floors that evoke east-coast schools of yesteryear.  I half expected a bell to ring for recess.
Glass display cases overflowed with valises, eyeglasses, talitot – even prosthetic limbs.  Toward the end, we entered one room where I caught my breath.  It was entirely filled with enamel pots, a jumble of red, blue, and white.  Food is life, nurturing and love.  I imagined the inner dialogue of the wives and mothers who brought these pots here, their debates over whether to bring the meat or the dairy pot, their calculations as to what would best sustain their loved-ones.   Unsure of their future destination, but determined that their families would eat – and that it would be kosher food.
When we left, the tour guide brought us past the “gift shop” – can we really use that phrase?  I knew I would not spend a penny there.  The museum was built on the backs of those loving mothers…
Yes, I know they need funds to keep the place going, to serve as a memorial, so we’ll “never forget.”  But I can sympathize with the urge to liberate a few artifacts.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Summer afternoon... to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

Three days ago we officially began summer, those halcyon days of sunny skies, sprinklers, and popsicles.  You may be surprised, as I was, to find out that the institution of summer vacation is only a little over 100 years old.  Having spent the better part of my life in school – as a student and then as a teacher – summer vacation has come to feel like a natural part of the circadian rhythms of life.  Those brief two months packed enough power to last the year and into the future, calling to mind the perfect juicy peach eaten at the café table, the days in the pool - coming out only to bike to and from the library for reading material, or memories of sleep-away camp in the woods.  Summer is a location as much as a time, a place with its own rules, customs, and culture.  They do things differently there.

But as a Jewess, summer has another side.  It’s when we relive painful national memories: the destruction of our Temples, the  expulsion of the thousand year old Jewish community from Spain, the guns of August that started World War One and the war that followed the “twenty year truce,” and the Shoah. As a child, I found these days annoying, discordant notes of grief in what was supposed to be all cotton-candy and calliope music.  Recently I started thinking about it and wondering – what is the inside scoop on summer and Judaism?

For the next few weeks I’ll be exploring just that – and sharing my results with you.  We’ll also do some traditional summer activities like reviewing books of Jewish interest, and going on a few jaunts to interesting (Jewish) vacation spots.
Here's an audio lecture to get you started.
Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, June 20, 2011

When our friend Penny won a 3-minute-shopping-spree at a local supermarket, she prepared for it with all the seriousness of a military operation.  Before the big day, she went through the aisles with a clipboard, noting what she wanted.  She recruited friends to stand in the aisles, desired items at the ready, to throw into her cart.  Finally, she bought a pair of sneakers so that she could run down the aisles without slipping.  On the alert, the bell went off, and so did she.  Penny ran through the aisles, friends at the stations threw in the goods, and she slid into the finish line with nearly $700 of merchandise!

Life is the big 3-minute dash.  There’s a lot we want to get out of it, and only a little bit of time.  How can we make the most of this opportunity?  We make lists, star the things we really want; we recruit friends to help us; we gear up with the necessary attire and equipment.  We come armed with energy and excitement.  And hopefully, like Penny, we’ll slide into the finish line with a wealth of goods – good deeds, good words, good thoughts.

But to live like this all the time is wearing.  We humans don’t do well with constant pressure.  We need moments where we escape the reality of life’s intensity and finiteness.  Why we crave vacations and weekends.  These pauses allow us to return to life and work with renewed excitement, freshness, and energy.  It’s part of what makes these summer months so precious to students and teachers.
Yes, life is short and there’s a lot to see and do.  But we need to remember that it’s not the finish-line that’s the point of this exercise; it’s running the course that counts.
(Based on Pirkei Avot 2:15-16)

Friday, June 17, 2011

A few years ago I traveled to Poland with a group of educators and teens.  We toured the remains of the Warsaw ghetto, mourned at concentration camps, and met contemporary Polish Jews.  When I left, I carried with me many deeply moving experiences.  Among them, our visit to the Jewish quarter of Krakow – Kazimierz.  Our visit had been planned to coincide with the Jewish Culture Festival, a week-long Jewish music and culture celebration, held in Szeroka Street, the Jewish quarter's town square. 

While Auschwitz-Birkenau  felt null, with whatever had happened there, now existing on a negative space plane,  Kazimierz felt freshly evacuated.  As though all the Jews who’d lived there had just stepped out for a moment, leaving their shuls mid-prayer, their soup bubbling on the stove, their shops and market stalls.  Prewar Hebrew lettering announced the names of shuls, schools, and stores.  Empty grooves in doorposts showed where mezuzot belonged.  It wasn’t the past there, it was now. 
For years I had struggled to understand a quote from the Sages, that G-d vented His anger at the Jewish people on wood and stone, destroying the Temple, so that our nation should live.  But in Kazimierz the wood and stone still stood; it was the Jews who were gone.  Now I understood.
Friday night we prayed at the tiny Remuh synagogue, the only Friday night minyan in Kazimierz.  We walked a few blocks to the Izaaka synagogue, where the JCC of Krakow inhabited a few small rooms at the top of a narrow flight of stairs, to share a communal Shabbat dinner.
By the time we returned to Kazimierz late Shabbat afternoon, the festival was in full swing.  Szeroka Street was jammed with revelers from across Poland who’d come to celebrate the memory of a culture that once flourished there.  Nostalgia flowed freely as the mostly non-Jewish crowd sang Yiddish lullabies and dance tunes.  When the teens in our group broke into dance, cries of "Zydzi!" "Jews!” rang out as camcorders whipped around to capture real-live Jews in action. 

I was thoroughly depressed.  When our guide told me about the Havdalah ceremony back at the JCC,  I fled the square, leaving  the ersatz culture behind.  Gathered in a circle we listened as the words of Havdalah filled the space.  I gazed at the candlelight and mentally united with all Jews across time and space, and especially with these Polish Jews here and now, courageously living Judaism. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust evokes the power of smell to convey us to a time and place.  This “Madeleine Effect” calls forth not just a single memory, but unleashes a flood of emotion, memory, and nostalgia.  Smell predates verbal memories, beginning in the womb, but it defies easy description.  Although we can detect over 10,000 different scents, we are hard-pressed to describe a particular smell.  There’s no scent equivalent for the manifold azure, aquamarine, cerulean, cobalt, lapis, for blue.

When my children were little, before they understood about time and how to mark its passage, they’d come home on Friday afternoons, sniff the air and say, “It’s Shabbat tonight!”  Judaism has its stirring sights and sounds, but its smells are no less important.  The perfumes of the Shabbat food; the citrusy scent of the Sukkot etrog; the sinus-clearing sharpness of Passover maror; the besamim of Havdalah.  These smells work their way into our minds and hearts, enfolding within them a panorama of images, emotions, memories.
Smell is also connected to intuition and instinct, that “sixth sense” that people credit for hunches and feelings not based on logic.  The vomeronasal organ allows us to sense non-odorant scents such as the pheromones that signal fear and attraction.  Knowing without logic, sensing without scent – what’s the connection?  When G-d created Adam, “He blew into his nostrils a life-giving soul.”  The bond between smell and the soul remains, as seen in their common root:  rei'ach and ru'ach – scent and spirit.
During Havdalah we inhale the scent of the sweet spices, breathing in the spirit of Shabbat, implanting within us knowledge of G-d that is beyond logic, and sustaining us for the week ahead.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

As dusk deepened into night, I’d step outside and scan the night sky for three large stars close together.  Astronomically speaking, at least one was probably a planet – Venus – but the sight of these celestial bodies indicated that Shabbat was over.  Soon my father would return from synagogue and recite Havdalah.  We’d sniff the sweet spices and gaze at our fingers and nails in the light of the braided torch.  After singing “Elijah the Prophet,” my father would wish everyone “A good week, a healthy week, a sweet week.”

In many communities it’s customary to recite the prayer composed by Rabbi Levi Isaac of Barditchev, “G-d of Abraham,” in which we ask for a week of faith, kindness, good fortune, blessing, and success, health, wealth, and honor; children, long life, and plentiful sustenance – for us and for all of Israel.  Amen!

Some of my high school teachers used spirits instead of wine for Havdalah, and the candle’s light, rather than being doused, caught the alcohol and set the flames to dancing on the plate.  We joined arms in a circle, singing and swaying as we bade farewell to Shabbat, and greeted the coming week.  We face the darkness and unknown of the future with the cup of salvations lifted in our hand.

G-d is my deliverance; I am confident and shall not fear, for G-d the L-rd is my strength and song, and He has been a help to me. You shall draw water with joy from the wellsprings of deliverance. Deliverance is the L-rd’s; may Your blessing be upon Your people forever…L-rd deliver us; may the King answer us on the day we call. For the Jews there was light and joy, gladness and honor—so let it be with us.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Shaleshuders

A local gun club, composed of members who belong to the same synagogue, dub themselves “The Shaleshuders.”  Their punny reference to the third Shabbat meal, Seudah Shlishit, represents the Yiddishized pronunciation, “Shaleshudes.”  Friday night dinner is famous in Jewish households for its matzah-ball soup, and Shabbat lunch boasts the cholent, but what of the lesser-celebrated third meal, Shalosh Seudot?

Growing up in California, my family shared Shalosh Seudot under the acacia trees and jasmine, beneath a slowly darkening sky.  We sang songs and nibbled at salad and crackers.  In high school we gathered in the dormitory lunchroom for rolls, salad, and fish.  And we sang songs.  What both locales shared was a palpable sense of spirituality, colored by an awareness that the sanctity and serenity of the day was slowly ebbing. 

G-d elevated Shabbat in three ways.  First He rested, then He blessed the day, and finally, He sanctified it.  These reflect three ways in which we express ourself: in act, in deed, and in thought.  Of these, thought is the most elevated and removed from the mundane.  The Friday night meal connects to G-d’s resting (and we feel it, too!); Shabbat lunch connects with G-d’s blessing the day; Shalosh Seudot connects with G-d’s sanctification of the day.  This is not a meal we eat with relish or appetite – it’s a feast for the soul, not the stomach.

The third meal is called Seudata Dimheimnuta - the meal of pure faith.   As our voices joined together in meditative tunes, we felt transported to the realm of angels, where all time and physical presence fell away, and it was just us and G-d, united as one.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Long Shabbat Afternoons

The Shabbat mornings of my youth were tranquil, filled with quiet anticipation.  My father, tilted back in his recliner, reviewed the parashah of the week in slippers and robe.  Breakfast was leisurely; often we sat in the yard enjoying the sunshine and the breeze.  But Shabbat afternoons in the summer were excruciatingly long.  Living in the suburbs, my closest friend was a mile’s walk.  Another friend was a three mile walk.  The emptiness of the day yawned large, and once my parents retired for their Shabbat nap, I became restless.   It was a happy day when I was deemed old enough to walk to my friend’s alone.

Shabbat mornings now are similarly tranquil.  My husband rises early to meet his study-partner before prayers begin in shul.  My teenage daughter leaves shortly afterward for her volunteer work as a junior congregation leader, followed by the rest of the family.  At home, I linger over tea and cake, read the Jewish newspaper, and prepare for Shabbat lunch while my baby naps.  We are the last family members to arrive at shul. 

Unlike my childhood home, we currently live in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in an urban setting, and this changes those long Shabbat afternoons.  My children can walk to any number of friends and are fortunate to have weekly Shabbat parties at various homes.  Mothers and fathers congregate at a local playground, tots in tow, and chat while the little ones play.  The teens travel in small packs, swarming from home to home, eating, talking, and moving on.  The women of the community gather to study Ethics of the Fathers, lingering to socialize afterward.
It is true that one can celebrate Shabbat anywhere, but it is most fully appreciated within the embrace of a vibrant and like-minded community, where the day is filled with meaning and companionship.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Bubbie’s oven has Sabbath Mood"

The founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, declared that “one must live with the times.”  One way of understanding this charge is that we seek to apply Torah and Halachah to our ever-changing world.  Rather than see technological and scientific advances as challenges to our tradition, we frame them as ever more opportunities to live according to Torah.
Sometime in the 1990s oven manufacturers decided to add a safety feature that would automatically shut off an oven after twelve hours of continuous operation.  I found this out when the oven (in my new home) which I was sure I had left on for Shabbat, was mysteriously off.  The next week I tried again, with similar results.  The third week we got smart – we set the oven to shut off at a specific time.  The oven wasn’t the only thing to go off though, as the beeper alerting us to press “off” sounded every two minutes for the rest of Shabbat, and we escaped to the playground until after dark! That’s when we found out about “Sabbath mode.” 
My parents had just replaced some appliances and my six year old daughter witnessed their installation.  “Bubbie’s oven has Sabbath mood,” she informed me.

As the ice-box of yesteryear gave way to the refrigerator of yesterday, Sabbath-observers confronted many questions: how can one open the door if it triggers the thermostat? What about the light-bulb? Can you freeze leftovers on Shabbat?  Rabbis and engineers put their heads together to understand the mechanics of the refrigerator (and range) and their impact on Shabbat observance. 

As appliances grew fancier, with water and ice dispensers, back-lights and alarms for doors left ajar, Halachic questions grew.  In fact, one branch of a major kosher-supervision organization is entirely devoted to dealing with such issues.  The “Sabbath mood feature is now available for ranges and refrigerators, and who knows what tomorrow will bring as we continue to try and live with the times.  A “Sabbath mode” house?
For a fascinating read, see Wired Magazine’s The Geek Guide to Kosher Machines.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


In 2009 the average American took 13 days of vacation while his British counterpart had 26.  In Canada, 68.8 percent of males and 36.3 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week; in the U.S. that’s 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females (this is work for pay, add on to that housework, and the time left for family or leisure is pitifully minute.)
The unceasing flow of information via cell phones, IM, Facebook, Twitter, fax, TV, cable, and radio is “and a massive pollution problem in the making. The landfills of our minds are brimming beyond capacity.”  Articles come embedded with links leading to other articles with further links.  We have more information than we have time for, or know what to do with.  Instapaper has developed a widget that saves pages and articles you want to read, but haven’t gotten around to, so your to-do list can go on and on.

Information Environmentalists want to place limits on all this noise, creating quiet zones in much the same way that green environmentalists protect green sanctuaries, lakes and streams, and forests.  The Sabbath Manifesto site offers an “unplugging app” via iTunes and a cell-phone sleeping bag.
Mary Reynolds Thompson and her husband spend one week a year “unplugged,” disconnecting from technology and connecting with each other. Professor Danna L. Walker assigns her students a media fast for 24 hours, recording their reactions (the 2007 experiment was memorialized in “The Longest Day.”)
But the man-made technology break does not measure up to a G-d made one.  The gap between them is much like the difference between fasting on Yom Kippur versus joining Weight Watchers.  One is about “I,” the other about “Thou.”  Judith Shulevitz recounts the Shabbat truculence of her tweens, parted from their GameBoys and similar electronic devices, tracing it to the family’s “half” observance of Shabbat: once you pick and choose which observances to keep and which to discard, it’s hard to justify why these?  Why not those?
This is not to say that I can’t work myself up the ladder of Shabbat observance – no, not at all.  Just that I accept that I’m on a journey; en route, I do not say, “I have arrived.”  I keep trekking forward toward my destination, understanding that the wayside inn is not the goal. 
For a related “unplugged” post, see Becoming the People of the Pixel?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cheesecake, Anyone?

For years I found the holiday of Shavuot to be elusive and amorphous.  Lacking the grandeur of the High Holidays, the coziness of Sukkot and the intensity of Pesach, I couldn’t quite capture the emotion of the day. It had to be about more than cheesecake.
Shavuot has no visible symbol to wave about, no matzah, shofar, or menorah.  While Sukkot and Pesach,  the other two pilgrimage holidays, are a week a piece, Shavuot is a truncated single day (two outside of Israel).  As a result, those intervening quasi-holidays, “chol-hamoed,” are strikingly absent, too.  And yet it commemorates the day on which we received the  Torah -- surely the basis for all the other holidays!
Many of us are familiar with the anthropomorphism of the marriage of G-d and the Jewish people.  I got to thinking about that, and it led me to a deeper understanding of the asymbolic nature of the holiday. 
Imagine that a husband wants to give his wife a charm bracelet to capture their years together: the memories, the trips, the accomplishments, and the love.  At the jeweler’s, he sorts through trays of charms.  He finds a tiny cabin that is just right for commemorating all their camping trips; a miniature champagne glass that bubbles with the fun of their date nights; a diploma for the degrees they earned; a little key to symbolize their home.  He has the jeweler add on these charms.  While the husband waits and watches, he thinks about all their accomplishments and adventures, but realizes that one important symbol is missing:  something that embodies their day to day relationship, their deep mutual commitment, their constancy, their devotion to each other.  He turns back to the tray of charms, but searches in vain.  As he leaves the jeweler’s, he realizes that the only thing to capture all that is to say, “I would marry you again!”  To renew their vows.  
So it is with us and G-d.  While the other holidays highlight one aspect or our relationship with G-d, lending themselves to a symbol of some sort, Shavuot is about the essence of the relationship itself: our devotion to each other, our constancy, all of which elude being emblemized.  No. The only fitting way to capture this, is to once more stand at Mount Sinai and say, “I choose you again!”  To renew our vows with G-d.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Shomer Shabbat - a Label Everyone Can Wear

In the days before labeling people became de rigueur – Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservadox – there were just two labels.  Either one was “shomer Shabbat,” or not.  Being shomer Shabbat means being committed to Judaism.   Deciding to refrain from the 39 melachot constitutes the rubicon between in or out.  One might wear a black frock coat, a kippah and a hat, uphold the highest kosher stringencies, know all Five Books by heart, but without choosing Shabbat, one is not “in.”
Choosing Shabbat does not mean that people never err.  Whether this is unintentional or accidental, it does happen that people violate Shabbat by doing a melachah.  Colloquially we talk about “keeping” or “breaking” Shabbat, as though it were a precious vase that, once shattered, cannot be mended.  Maybe,  if I “broke” Shabbat on Friday night, that’s it for the next 24 hours.  But Shabbat is more like life.  We mess up and we move on.  We didn’t get it right this time, but we’ll get it right the next time. 
“Keeping” Shabbat also extends to the spirit of the day.  If we set a lavish table with delicious foods but spend the meal talking about movies, or sports, or politics, we’ve sapped some of its vitality.  Sometimes people find it easier to keep one or the other – the letter or the spirit.  There might be violation of Shabbat, but lots of earnest spirituality; there might be all the physical trappings of the day, but the spirit is all wrong.   Both are first steps in forging an authentic connection to G-d, but are missing critical components.
The good news is that we have 52 chances a year to get it right.  Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – even Conservadox – we can all trade our labels for the one that really matters: Shomer Shabbat.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Oneg Shabbat -- Delicious and Healthy

For more inspirational Jewish video, check out:!

 Levana Kirschenbaum brings over 25 years of culinary experience to the table.  She's a master at creating healthy, kosher, and delicious foods. Levana's eponymous restaurant was a pioneer in gourmet kosher cooking.  Levana is also a master chef, caterer, baker, and teacher.  Her cooking classes are full of practical advice about nutrition and cookery.  She is currently at work on her next cookbook, scheduled to be published in June 2011: “The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple.”

Hungry for more?
Check our her websites, levanacooks and, or follow her on Twitter:!/levanacooks

Here are two recipes to get your taste-buds tingling.  The bulghar-tomato soup looks like it would be great for a hot summer supper with a salad on the side.  And I'm excited to see baking without margarine!  (Even the streusel...) 

Shabbat Shalom!

5 pounds tomatoes (7-8 large, or 20 plum tomatoes), split across
3 heads garlic, points sliced off, leaving the cloves exposed
4 medium purple onions, peeled and split across
3 red peppers, halved and seeded
1/4 cup olive oil
coarse sea salt to taste
10 cups water (2 1/2 quarts)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup dry white wine (not cooking wine)
2 cups tomato juice
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon paprika
4 sprigs rosemary, leaves only, chopped
6 sprigs thyme, leaves only
2 good pinches saffron threads
freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix the first set of ingredients in a bowl, spread on a cookie sheet, and roast for about 45 minutes, until vegetables looked charred. Squeeze the garlic heads until all meat is forced out of its skin. Place all roasted vegetables, plus the second set of ingredients, in a wide heavy pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the flame to medium, covered and cook 30 minutes. Add the pepper. Cream in a blender or food processor, or with an immersion blender until perfectly smooth. Add ground pepper to taste. Adjust seasonings and consistency (add a little water if it looks too thick). Serve hot. Delicious cold too. Makes 12 ample servings.

1 cup oil
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
3 cup flour
2 tablespoons triple sec, kirsch or cassis
3 cups blueberries, rinsed and dried thoroughly (place in a large cookie sheet lined with several layers of paper towels)
1/2 cup almonds
1/3 cup oil
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10@ tube pan, or an 11x14 pan.
Cream oil, sugar and eggs in a food processor until light and fluffy. Add all but last ingredients, and pulse 3-4 times, until just combined. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Very gently mix the blueberries in with a spoon. Pour into the prepared pan. Grind the streusel ingredients in a food processor until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Sprinkle over the cake. Bake about one hour, or until a knife inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My family became religious when I was seven.  Every Friday afternoon we drove over the Bay Bridge to the Chabad House, where we stayed for Shabbat.  I loved going there.  Friday night’s prayer service was beautiful and filled with stirring melodies.  The meals were full of crowds of people serving, clearing, talking.  The rabbis told fascinating stories, and sang haunting wordless melodies called niggunim. 

One weekend I took a friend with me.  Saturday night, on our way back over the Bay Bridge, she made fun of the songs, "Ai, ai, ai..." collapsing in laughter.  Hurt,  but not knowing what to say, I was silent.  "You don't understand!"  I wanted to tell her, "These songs are beautiful!"  But I was too young and too shy to explain.

The high school I attended was Orthodox but non-Chassidic.  There, I was introduced to the traditional Shabbat songs, praising the beauty of Shabbat, its foods and laws.  Nearly every one concluded with prayers for the Mashiach.  I loved the way the songs created a mood, as 70-plus voices sang as one, and I brought these zemirot home and shared them with my family. 

The custom of singing songs at the Shabbat meal comes from the Talmud (Megillah 12b): "Shabbat, when Jews eat and drink, share words of Torah and praises."  Some even say that singing Shabbat songs is a mitzvah!
After high school I studied in Israel for a year, learning Chassidic songs from the various ‘courts’ I visited.   I collected small-run cassette tapes from groups such as Breslev, Kalev, and Modzitz, learning new tunes for verses from Psalms and prayers.

Coming from the Chabad tradition, my husband did not know zemirot.  But we now sing them – along with our beloved niggunim – around our Shabbat table.  Each child picks his or her favorite for everyone to share.  And as ever, I love how the songs create a mood.

Here are my favorite zemirot and niggunim for Friday night.   For the Kabbalah of Music, see here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to Do Oneg Shabbat

One of my earliest Shabbat memories is the Saturday afternoon “Shabbos party.”  We kids gathered back at shul to listen to stories, sing songs, and eat treats.  During the week my home was strictly healthy – no sugar, whole-wheat flour, brown rice.  Then Shabbat would come and I delighted in Pringles, licorice and – gasp – soda! 
As a mother I did much the same.  Weekdays we ate nutritious food, but on Shabbat afternoon, after returning from our outing to the playground, I set out plenty of kiddie-nosh.  I took down the five-volume set of “Our Sages Showed the Way,” and each child found a story (pictures) that seemed interesting.  They ate and I read.  While nibbling their treats they also consumed tales from the Talmud and Medrash.
The prophet Isaiah (58:13) called out, “Proclaim the Sabbath a delight!” From which we have the concept of “Oneg Shabbat,” enjoying the pleasure of Shabbat.  The table serves a feast for the eyes, with candles, flowers, and good dishes.  During the week we serve plain water, but on Shabbat we also provide iced-tea and seltzer (nope, still no soda!).
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, recalls the Sabbaths of his youth, in Piotrków.  After the meal all the adults would retire for a nap, while the kids met their friends in the courtyards and squares to play.  The luxury of a mid-day nap is part of that “ taste of the World to Come,” and is still very much part of our Oneg Shabbat. 

 Post-nap, a leisurely stroll is traditional.  This might take in a park or gardens, end in a visit to a friend or relatives, or simply meander around back home.  Its unhurried quality reflects the spirit of the day.
Last week we hosted one of our kids’ teachers who was curious to see a Shabbat dinner in action.  As she left she said, “It’s like a holiday every week!  You sit around, eat good food, share your week and what you learned.  No one’s talking about their to-do list for tomorrow…I could get into this.”