We had wanted a quiet Shabbat.
For us, that meant avoiding bringing our two young daughters to a meal that would last longer than 15 minutes and deciding not to extend any further invitations to potential guests. We nixed the idea of a meal at my in-laws around the corner, because although the company is great and it avoids cooking, the meal lasts much longer than 15 minutes. We politely declined the rare invitation from friends as getting there would involve more than a 5 minute walk and Esther, our 2.5 year old, no longer agrees to sit in a stroller, and decided to stay home, just us, for all of Shabbat.
It sounded rather picturesque, actually. We would cook ‘simply’ (my husband and I have agreed to disagree on the meaning of that term. He thinks anything less than a three-course meal is an insult to the holiness of the day. Thankfully, he also cooks), we would put the girls to sleep at their normal bedtime, and then we would continue talking, singing, share some words of Torah, have an easy clean-up, and finally retire to the couch to curl up with a good book and each other.
After immigrating to Israel on my own at 22, I preferred spending Shabbat in a home setting, opting out of large meals of singles where the company was often too eclectic for my taste. I spent a few years hopping between communities, dreaming of one day having my own Shabbat table with a loving spouse and family. I would spend much of Shabbat huddled over Jewish texts and engrossed in essays written by modern and ancient scholars of tradition. Shabbat was a day, along with many other days of the week, which I spent in conversation with God.
And then my husband arrived. A redhead no less. We learned to make Shabbat together, each doing some of the cleaning and cooking. We would have guests, as many as our tiny first apartment could hold. Shabbat was a balancing act between spending time with God and with each other. We would attend synagogue together and had all the time in the world to concentrate on our prayers and on our learning, although spending time with each other was often the more enticing option. When our eldest daughter arrived, many things changed, among them Shabbat. Shabbat became the day we spent with her. As the months progressed and she became more active, Shabbat became a day we took turns taking care of her. Sometimes we went on walks together with Esther in the stroller, although she quickly became a child who preferred to walk rather than be pushed. Shabbat became less about God, and little less about each other.
Our Friday night meal starts off well enough except that my head has begun to throb from the onset of a cold. As my husband begins ushering in the Shabbat angels, I fish around for some medication in our bathroom cabinet. Esther’s new never-ending-questioning phase slightly exacerbates the pain. “Kiddush? Aba, now Kiddush? Ema, you don’t feel well? Ema, you sick? Ema’s lying down? Abba’s eating soup? Ema, you don’t want soup? Ema, you sick?” Her questioning is of course the blessed sign of a keen mind, but at the end of a long week I prefer to save all interrogations until after the main meal has been served.
At this point, Shomriya, who is sitting in her baby seat, starts to angrily fight with Mr. Snail as she inches closer to her pre-bedtime eye-wipe. We look over at her and a huge, toothless grin sweeps over her serene face. “Shomriya-ya!” Esther cries out in a high-pitched voice, mimicking ours. A subtle scent of familial bliss settles over the table, and for a moment I feel lighter inside.
But only for a brief moment. Before I can shake out of my reverie, Esther has begun whining about who knows what, and after exchanging a foreboding glance with my husband, I declare that dessert-time has arrived followed by bedtime. We begin the long procession that is our nightly ritual: Esther gets into PJ’s after a respectful amount of deliberation regarding which pajamas she will agree to wear, and my husband reads her two books from the ever-expanding Children’s section of our living room library. I make the baby a bottle, swaddle her in the ready-made velcro swaddle-blankets my mother brought us from the States, and sit down with her in the dark of our bedroom to prepare her for bed.
By the time my husband gives Esther water in her Dora the Explorer cup, exchanges her pacifier for a new one, sings another round of the Hebrew ‘Happy Birthday” (Esther has a birthday 365 days a year), and she has just one more sip of water, we are finally ready to sit down to our romantic meal for two. Turns out, though, that we’re not even hungry for the next two courses because we’ve both caught the same cold. I can’t seem to remember what this week’s Torah portion is, let alone have something interesting to say about it. My husband’s eyelids are ominously heavy and begin to flutter.
“Let’s just forget it, Zevs. We’ll bench. Maybe we’ll sing tomorrow.”
We clear the table together; I quickly wash the few dishes as my husband puts the food into the refrigerator. We make a valiant effort to read on the couch, but after five minutes my husband starts falling asleep again, this time over his Talmud.
“Zevs, go to sleep.”
“Uch. I had wanted to learn. You know, no matter how short our meal is I’m always tired right after.”
And despite the fact that my head is feeling a bit better after taking some sinus medication, and that I’ve been dreaming of this time all week when I can sit down and read without the pressure of an impending class to prepare, I look at my husband and say, “Let’s just go to sleep.”
And thus ends our romantic and spiritually fulfilling Friday evening meal. We wake up multiple times over the course of the next nine hours as it seems our five-month old has caught the same cold. Our quiet Shabbat ends up becoming a long day filled with a few tablespoons of cuteness mixed with a healthy dose of tantrum. While my husband is more than willing to attend an early morning prayer service enabling me to attend a later one without our children, I ask him to stay home a bit longer and attend the later service so that we can play with the kids in our pajamas and drink coffee together, a simple pleasure only available to us on Shabbat mornings.
When Shabbat finally departs, we are exhausted and left to face another evening routine of baths, books, bottles, and bedtimes. Pushing us through it all is the silver lining named Ariella who is coming over at 8pm to babysit. This is our third date in three weeks, a statistic we are embarrassingly proud of. My husband has benefited from my strong instinct to self-preserve and deeply appreciates that I feel no less strongly about the preservation of our marriage.
I’ve learned to enjoy the park on Shabbat, I’ve come to appreciate the bliss of only having to keep tabs on one child and not two, and my husband and I make a valiant effort to find time for each other. But God is often missing from Shabbat, a unique twenty-five hour period in which our priorities and the daily routine are constantly in motion. I imagine that someday in the future, when a few more have arrived, when life has become even less restful and when Shabbat becomes even noisier, somewhere beyond that point waits a plush leather couch in a study filled with books patiently collected over years of daily toil. On a desk nearby sits an antique lamp warming the room with soft yellow light. Books on Judges and Jeremiah are stacked in neat piles near two unplugged laptops. On the walls hang blown-up canvases of us hiking with our kids by the Dead Sea, sitting down for a bite at a winery, and biking around the Kinneret.
For now, I look for God on a Tuesday and on a quiet drive to university; I look for Him in the evening when the kids have gone to sleep and my husband and I sit down for a meal of Shabbat leftovers. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of Him in my children’s smiles; I often sense Him when I write, and I try to reach out to Him in prayer, although most days my efforts feel frail and feeble. I guess the challenge lies in learning to enjoy playtime in the park, tolerating speaking to peers in half sentences that end in “Get down from there!,” being fully present in the busy hum of life with small children, and all the while remembering that “children are the heritage of God,” (Psalms 127:3) even on the days they leave you with little energy to reach out to Him.