When my mom was pregnant with me, my parents made a conscious commitment to raise me in a home steeped in Jewish culture. And so, they decided that Friday night would be our special family time when we would welcome the Shabbat together. Arguments would be forgotten. Stresses and strains left behind.
The candles would cast a warm glow on us as my parents did the blessing for the children, and we said the prayers over the wine and bread. While our family was not particularly religious, we had our own custom which was just as critical to us: Friday nights were sacred, and unbreakable. Regardless of where we were or what was happening in our lives, we would be together as a family.
Carefully, almost reverently, each Sabbath Eve, my mom would take the pearly peach Czechoslovakian Crystal Kiddush cup down from its place of honor on the piano, and fill it with sweet wine. According to family legend, my great grandma, Tsiryl, had given the goblet to my great grandpa Chaim shortly after they were married. Somehow, the Kiddush cup had survived two bloody pogroms, a turbulent voyage across the ocean, slum living on the Lower Eastside, and a train ride to Chicago where Chaim and Tsiryl had finally made their home and started a family. And, for the past 85 years, Great Grampa Chaim’s Kiddush cup has glimmered in the glow of thousands of Sabbath candles.
“Our Shabboses together are like this glass,” my mom would say. “Precious and irreplaceable. And this is why your father and I work so hard to protect this tradition.”
Some people made fun of our rule, especially when my parents turned down an invitation to have dinner with Senator Kennedy on a Friday night. And, truth be told, when I was a teenager, I would sometimes feel a pang of annoyance when my friends waltzed off to the mall or ice rink, and I couldn’t go. But still, as we gathered around the table together—sometimes just the three of us, and sometimes with extended family and friends—and my mom chanted the ancient prayer over the candles, something would shift inside me, and I would feel as though my entire being was breathing a sigh of relief.
But after watching my Gramma toss a shovel of clotted earth onto my mom’s coffin—I grew angry with God, and didn’t want to work on our relationship. And so, I stayed away from synagogue, and turned down offers to join other families for Shabbat dinner. While some people draw strength from religion and tradition during times of grief, for me, it was just too excruciating, and only made me feel homesick for the past. But, from the moment I found out I was growing life the first time around, I was flooded with powerful memories of my own childhood. I wanted to help create that same sense of warmth, comfort, and safety that my parents had worked so hard to make for me, and I knew that I wanted to rekindle the tradition of a sacred family Shabbat.
Much to my secular Israeli husband’s initial skepticism, we welcomed Shabbat into our home. Every week, we say the prayers over the candles, wine, and challah, and make the blessing over the children. And during this period of great change in our lives while we build a new home on the other side of the world, our Shabbats are a constant.
I know my children love this time with family: As soon as we gather around the candles, and they hear the crack of the match igniting a white-hot flame, they stops squirming. They smile softly. M recites the prayer with me and my mother-in-law, her fingers covering her face while we chant the ancient melody. Little Homie pounds the table when we sing Bim Bam. We let them both dip their fingers into Great Grampa Chaim’s Kiddish cup to taste the sweet red wine. And even though they’re both so young, they hold the challah aloft while we recite the Hamotzei, biting into the doughy flesh only after we’ve sung AAAAAAAAAAH-MEN! And, as I find renewed faith in the comfort of this beautiful tradition, I feel like I am not only shaping a sense of home for my children, but for myself as well.
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