Welcoming the Sabbath Queen (Hint: She’s Not the One With Peas in Her Hair)


By Marjorie Ingall

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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Three years ago, I rarely acknowledged Shabbat. I was working hellish hours during the week on a truly horrid, excessively perky daytime talk show. The low point was when I was asked to write a transition from a story about AIDS in Africa to a segment about a fashion show for dogs. After the show, the producer snapped at me in front of the entire staff: “Weak transition from the AIDS in Africa story to the dog fashion story!” I snapped back, “There is no transition from AIDS in Africa to a dog fashion show!” Meanwhile, my husband was working his tukhes off at a dot-com (remember those?). On weekends, we didn’t do Shabbat. We went out with our friends, none of whom had children. We were DINKS (Double Income, No Kids), and the Sabbath just wasn’t part of our lives.

Our world is different now. I fled television; I went back to writing for magazines and newspapers, which means I get to use big words without fear that the talent won’t be able to read them off a teleprompter. My husband is starting his own company, once again doing the kind of stuff he actually earned his doctorate in. We’re both home a lot more. We have less money and more time. And, most important, we have Josie.

Like many GenXers, I’d felt somewhat confused and ambivalent about religion, until I had a kid. And discovered that I wanted her to have a spiritual childhood.

Sure, as a footloose and fancy-free adult in the city, I felt occasional spiritual longings. But there were too many downtown diversions, and I just didn’t have time to do Jew stuff. I’d worked all week, and I was tired.

Now I know a few things. 1. Back then I didn’t know from tired. 2. Having a child suddenly makes your home the center of your universe. You find yourself looking for rituals, searching for ways to give your child’s life meaning (or at least distract her from drawing on the furniture). I want Josie to have familiar songs and stories and family lore. I want her to know she’s a Jew, even as my own feelings about what being a Jew means evolve.

It’s equally hard for me to articulate why I wanted to start welcoming the Sabbath. But ritual is muscle memory; once you start doing it, you find yourself continuing to do it. And you find that it feels good, like being on the elliptical crosstrainer. Hippies and yuppies (and I think I’m a bit of both) are steeped in the culture of mindfulness now — we’re supposed to ponder and treasure our consciousness, become hyperattuned to the smallest act. But Shabbat, to me, is both mindful and mindless. To some degree, our preparation is automatic: We plan a nice dinner, often invite guests, pick up the challah. But as we’re saying kiddush or watching Josie hold the corner of the challah cover, we also often find ourselves having those joyful out-of-body experiences, so happy to be singing familiar melodies, so proud of our daughter for being able to say Hamotzi, so inchoately grooving on having a Jewish home.

I know Judaism is a team sport. Identity isn’t only formed at home. So like many new Jewish parents, we joined a congregation. And like many other new Jewish parents, I suspect, we didn’t like it. Attendance felt like a chore. Older people rolled their eyes when we took Josie to hear the megillah and she cried at the noise of the groggers. We attended tot Shabbat services, but found them cliquey and unwelcoming. We’re now unaffiliated. Like someone who’s been burned on Jdate, I suspect it’ll take us awhile to commit again. But I’ve been taking Josie to the monthly Alef-Bet Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village. Unlike the East Village shul we belonged to, CBST feels inclusive. The children’s services are led wonderfully, teaching preschoolers the outlines of a Torah service and explaining Jewish holidays with songs, storytelling and crafts. And there are pompoms, which fulfill Josie’s fondest desire to be Singing Jewish Cheerleader Torah Barbie.

Last week, we made challah for the first time, using my mom’s recipe. I liked sharing with Josie something I’d shared with my mom, and watching Jojo listen intently as I told her that I did this with Bubbe when I was a little girl. But oy, the process was labor-intensive. Even someone as hostile as I am can only punch the dough so much. Josie started off strong, watching me line up ingredients on the counter and dumping things into the bowl. “Don’t forget the eggs, mama!” She shrieked. “Don’t forget the sugar!” When the dough formed, she screamed, “You made Play-Doh!” But she shuddered with fastidious horror when I gave her a chunk; after one desultory poke, she refused to touch it again. She did enjoy brushing the loaves with egg, though she said, “I want to paint mine pink.” She ultimately accepted that egg wash only comes in yellow.

We’re finding other ways to welcome the Sabbath. We recently attended a kids’ concert by Shira Kline, a 28-year-old whose new CD, “ShirLaLa Shabbat,” bills her work as “outrageously hip Jewish kiddie rock.” As I have mentioned before, most children’s music makes me want to drive metal spikes into my ears. So I wasn’t planning on going until I looked at Kline’s Web site, ShirLaLa.com, and saw that her hair was a different unnatural color in every photo. Since I was a purple-haired person back in the day, I decided to give her a shot. I discovered that Kline’s hair is currently fuchsia and black and spiky as an electrocardiogram. I also learned that she has a lovely, not-too-saccharine voice and delightfully boppy punk energy. She did an all-Sabbath-song lineup, bouncing around with her guitar like a musical Spaldeen. Her shows are super-interactive, and the kids were entranced — including Josie, who had been woken from a late nap by her evil mother, stuffed into her stroller and wheeled out into the cold, howling in sleep-deprived protest. Kline soon had her dancing. (The CD, which doesn’t convey the energy of her live performance but is still fun, is for sale on her site.) “Kids are so open,” Kline said. “They live with magic; they speak the language already. I just say, ‘Use your imagination,’ and it’s done. They’re so ready to ring in the Sabbath Queen, to sing and to use their whole body. Now that’s a prayer experience.”

I’m unsure about how to create spiritual Sabbaths as Josie gets older, but I know that right now, she fills mine with faith and wonder. I know she loves singing that sounds like Kline’s. I know she loves ritual, from lighting candles to hearing the story again and again about how daddy puked in fifth-grade chorus. Maybe we’ll all learn more about how to pray. Maybe our level of observance will go up. And maybe we’ll try Grandma Betsy’s challah recipe, if there’s less kneading involved.

E-mail Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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