After a few weeks of dating, Josh was missing his Shabbat dinner practice. He asked if we could do it at my house and I said yes, of course! I prepared a meal that didn’t mix meat and milk (or include pork or shellfish). He brought challah and candles, and was surprised I offered a salt shaker when he did the blessing for the challah. (I’m a librarian; I did my research!) We started lighting candles every Friday we were together.
In mid-August, Josh put me on the spot and asked if I had learned the candle blessing yet while we had a table full of friends waiting to light Shabbat candles. I was surprised--not being Jewish, I didn’t think it was allowed! A Jewish friend led the blessings.
Over the next two weeks, I learned that candle blessing, and the next time Josh was scheduled to join us for a Shabbat meal, I put a special effort into cleaning the house and making dinner. The table was laid with a cloth and set with matching dishes and cloth napkins and flowers. Josh dashed in, washed his hands and quickly hid the challah under the clean linen dish towel I'd laid out. I picked up the lighter and told him I thought I could do the candle blessing. He looked a tad surprised and said he'd help.
I lit two candles, explaining to my family that one was to keep Shabbat and one to remember it, and then lit four more--one for each of our beautiful and precious children, only one of whom was with us that evening. Josie helped me light hers. I stumbled a bit at “קִדְשָׁנוּ” and we said the rest together:
בָּרוּך אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם אַשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶל שַבָּת
Josh made kiddush and said hamotzi, and we feasted on the fancy dinner I had made. Later, Josh confided that it totally freaked him out that I lit the candles and said the blessings so well and with such conviction. We had only been dating for about three months and my adoption of this custom didn’t feel to him like the “one day at a time” pace we were trying to set in our relationship.
I explained I looked at the blessing as a challenge accepted, but also as something I was trying on to see if it fit. He asked what Judaism meant to me and I did my best to explain it was not, actually, all about him and what he wanted (a life partner to make a Jewish home with). I talked about how spirituality has not always been part of my life, but I have sought aspects of it in many ways through the years, starting with the occult as a teenager; and through paganism as a college student.
I found religion for a while through baseball. I went to my first game ever in 2007 and the sensory overload and focus on the field, food and music and rituals (the wave, the seventh inning stretch and belting out “Sweet Caroline”) led me to follow the Red Sox for several more seasons. It felt exhilarating to be part of something bigger than myself and there was an easy camaraderie with other fans.
When I was living in Haverhill, a local Methodist church began putting on a monthly Friday night board game meetup. I went for a year and a half. Again, I liked the food, fellowship, predictability, and the activity--but not the Jesus-y, revivalist, “come forward if you’re a sinner” part. And, once established in Grafton, I attended one Simple Church meal that included freshly baked bread and provocative dinner conversation from the pastor’s prompt, in lieu of a sermon. When pressed, I confessed to Pastor Zach I’d loved the people, the music, the meal… “So, everything but the Jesus part?” he asked. Baptized as a Catholic, even as a child, I loved the Old Testament stories more, and never had bought into the concepts of a virgin birth or Jesus as the Son of God.
Contra dancing became my ritual of choice for a time, one that involved setting time aside from my regular busy life, putting down my phone, meeting new people, hearing live music, and moving my body. It was meditative and grounding in spite of the noise and the twirling.
I explained to Josh that what Judaism held for me, thus far, was an appealing combination of ritual and routine that I craved throughout my life and more as I grew older. I was keeping an open mind about it, and enjoying everything that I had been exposed to thus far, and I didn’t find anything so far out of line with my own feelings about a greater power in the universe.
Josh and I hosted an “Electric Ferbrengen” on the Saturday afternoon of Labor Day Weekend, with singing, schnapps, and the promise of playing the video game Rock Band--after dark--if there was interest. It was also a housewarming to celebrate his move back home, and I gave him a mezuzah as a gift. Three months prior, I hadn’t even known what a mezuzah was. The standout from that event though, was the Havdalah ritual: joining in the yai-dai-dais, the scent of the spices, the warm smiles of friends in the flickering candlelight, the way the light reflected in our eyes, the hiss of the flame extinguished in wine and the song that drew his sister to come join our basement gathering and join in.
A few weeks later, Josh invited me to come to an Open House at Havurat Shalom, where he was a member for over ten years. I said yes, as I was curious. The Friday night before the open house, I asked what to expect. Instead of a short answer, Josh pulled out the siddur (prayer book) and spent about an hour going over the service and the liturgy. The highlights that I remember were: that davening started at 10am, but people would be straggling in for the first hour; there might be talking at the back of room and people coming in and out, bringing in cups of tea while children played and ran around upstairs; that informal but nice dress was the norm, but I could feel free to kick off my shoes and sit on a cushion on the floor; that I was not expected to participate or even follow along; and that the congregation itself was at different levels of observance and participation, but the service would mostly be in Hebrew with some transliteration and English translation. And then he said it was around a three-hour service followed by kiddush and lunch. I gulped. I couldn’t imagine sitting through a three-hour religious service.
When I came downstairs the next morning in my favorite blue dress, wearing a white knit kippah with threads of blue, red and gold interwoven, he just laughed and said, “Why am I not surprised? Where did you get that?!” And I shrugged and smiled and said I figured I’d be needing one eventually.
Two things stick in my mind from that first service. One is that everyone was kind and welcoming. The second is how at home I felt, and how compelled I was to participate, not just observe, and somehow mostly kept up, pronouncing things correctly and catching on to the tunes quickly. The three hours flew by.
I became a regular davenner, then an associate member, and continued with classes, observance and participation, and converted in October 2019. Due to complicated family bubbles and immunocompromised status, in-person davening has not been something I’m willing to attend during the pandemic. Instead, I go to some Zoom services, support my partner in events at his rabbinic internship, take online classes when my bandwidth is up for it, and maintain my observance in the first rituals I was introduced to: Shabbat candle-lighting, and Havdalah.
We set the Friday menu and take turns cooking. Sometimes it’s elaborate, sometimes not. Sometimes we make the challah from scratch, sometimes we don’t make it to the grocery store in time to buy some and end up with two loaves of sourdough. Sometimes we take out the china, sometimes we opt for dishwasher safe plates. Sometimes we eat at 6:30, and sometimes at 8:15 and it has nothing to do with candle-lighting time! A tablecloth and fresh flowers are the constant.
The other constant, for me, is the breath--or three--that I take after circling my hands over the candles, before I chant. I imagine myself, a Jew by choice, somehow tapping into a lineage that I don’t have a blood or familial connection to, and draw in the rich history that came before me and breathe out to the future. Only when the energy feels right do I begin. Incidentally, it’s also something I have done at the Hav: imagine myself standing where Art Green, Merle Feld and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l stood, imagining who else will stand in my place in 50 or 100 years, embracing a feminist, social justice, countercultural, neo-Hasadic style of Judaism.
We don’t always avoid technology or travel, but Saturday tends to be a lazy day with a cold lunch and a nap. And before bedtime on Saturday, we take out the Havdalah set, tune the guitar, and sing together to mark the transition to the new week. Our Havdalah set was passed on along with an immense library from the estate of philosophers Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam. Since I have no one to inherit Judaica from, it gives me great joy to use ritual objects from a family who rebelled against the antisemitism they experienced during their youth by establishing a traditional Jewish home. When we unpacked it, Josh didn’t recognize it for what it was. I thought it was a havdalah set: look, the wine cup, the spice cup, and a plate with some writing on it… which I shocked myself when I was able to read the Hebrew around the rim: הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קדֶשׁ לְחול (hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol: Who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane). I think of the Putnams every week when we light the Havdalah candle, and honor not only Shabbat, but their family and legacy.