Last week I was invited to share Friday night Shabbat dinner with the family of one of my daughter's school friends. I was so glad to receive the invitation, as I hadn't been to a Shabbat dinner in a long long time.
I went for all the spirituality, community, great food and laughter that Shabbat brings, I did not know that at that dinner I was going to come face-to-face with the stark realization that my heart has been frozen in fear. I saw with such clarity that my heart has been encased in a large chunk of brutally cold ice, neatly surrounded by a thick, equally frozen granite fortress, which in turn is surrounded by a lovely grassy lawn and then a huge expanse of a moat. My moat happens to be filled with lilies, butterflies, yoga nymphs, friends, and frolicking unicorns ('aquatic unicorns'...this is my metaphorical story, so don't judge), but underneath that happy go lucky surface, there is no way anyone could ever swim through the thick murky tangled underwater roots to get to the heart of me.
"What happened", you didn't ask? Why this realization on the Jewish Sabbath? If you haven't nodded off yet, here we go...
A little background, I dig Jews. I grew up in the most lovely, loving Protestant home, but for some reason, I just feel an ease with people who I often find out later happen to be Jewish. Maybe it's the hilarious sense of humor, or the direct no nonsense approach to life, but I tend to just feel at ease around Jews and especially Jewish women. My mother holds my father responsible for me converting to Judaism. After studying all the world's great religions, my father said "I don't believe any of this, but if I were to be anything I'd be Jewish!" Which, as it turns out, is a very Jewish thing to say.
Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath; it begins every Friday night a few moments before the sun sets, and ends on Saturday night with 'the appearance of the first three stars'. Shabbat is a time when families step away from work, light candles and say a blessing, and then say the 'Kiddush' blessing over wine. This is the Jewish tradition which creates 'separation' or separating this day from the other days of the work week. A family then blesses and shares two loaves of baked challah, and has dinner with friends and family. There are many different traditions and versions of Shabbat, but these are the most basic elements. It is considered the most sacred and longstanding tradition among Jewish people. (For fun Google 'shared meals with kids' and you will see the wisdom in this tradition.)
When my daughter and I arrived at the family's home, we were greeted by Claire's friend and the father, who helped me carry in the large bowl of strawberries I had brought with another large chilled bowl of fresh whipped cream. When we stepped inside, we were greeted by kids, teens, friends and family as well as the smell of fresh garlic, lemons, gourmet cheeses, candied ginger, crackers, hummus and wines. This was no potluck, this was a feast of fresh fruits, vegetables, fresh baked bread, beautiful salmon, homemade cookies and cakes. We literally walked in as their 17-year old daughter was pulling out two perfectly seasoned, delectable baking sheets of squares of succulent garlicky salmon. Loaves of challah, one covered in crunchy sea salt and seeds, the other baked with cinnamon and plump raisins, were cooling on a rack, their shiny, crusty, perfect braids radiating warmth and goodness. I ran into another woman from my daughter's school who has an easy laugh and a wicked sense of humor. We were off and running.
Everyone crammed into the kitchen 'ooohed' and 'ahhed' over the gourmet soft and hard cheeses, and took turns making each other laugh with funny stories. One woman, who also converted to Judaism, teased me that she hoped I didn't sprinkle bacon in the whipped cream and we laughed, as I couldn't remember if whipped cream, with or without bacon, was kosher.
Before we sat down to dinner, the husband then called all of us into the dining room and asked the parents to sit down and their kids to stand beside their parents. The Shabbat candles were lit and we said the blessing signifying it was the Sabbath. He poured the ‘wine’, which was grape juice in this case so everyone could participate, and said the Kiddush prayer. Everyone got a tiny cup of wine. Then a blessing was said over the challah and everyone received a chunk of the still warm bread.
The father then said, "In this household we also bless our children as part of Shabbat." I later learned that blessing your children at Shabbat is not uncommon.
In front of 20+ guests, the husband then stood up and walked over to his 17-year-old daughter, who might has well have been 25- years-old, based on her calm, maturity and cooking skills. She politely bowed her head, with her arms hanging down her sides like an acquiescent child, to let her father hug her head into his chest, bow his head and recite a blessing of gratitude for her, and then kiss the top of her head. He then walked around the table to his big, handsome strapping teenage son, and again, he took the young man's head into his hands as though the teenager were a toddler and said a prayer of thanks and blessing, and kissed the top of his head. Lastly, he walked over to his 10-year old daughter and repeated this again. He then invited us each to bless and give thanks for our children.
It's hard to describe what happened to me as I watched this scene, but I'll do my best. Watching this father bow his head in reverence for his children, in front of friends, family and complete strangers, close his eyes and thank God for the blessing of his children, made my heart slow down and speed up at the same time. Watching this made my heart do something it hadn't done in almost a decade, it made my heart start to warm up underneath it's freezing cold shell of quick comebacks, sarcasm and utterly exhausting independence. It made me understand that I've been very very alone.
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about this couple at this juncture. They are cool people. They tell off color jokes, travel, and are successful in all the ways an American would judge success. They laugh at each other and themselves, and it is because of these reasons that this simple gesture seemed even more profound, more special and more incredible, to humbly bow your head, bury your face into your child's hair and say "Thank you God for this child" in front of friends and strangers? And just imagine the honor this gives to the mother of those children. I wonder what our world would be like if this was a regular practice for every person on the planet, no matter what religion.
I have perfected the role of the plucky, happy single mom closing in on a decade now. How did that happen? If I'm honest, my heart has been broken, I've gotten hurt. I've been hurt so badly, like 'curl up it's hard to remember to brush your teeth or eat or get out of bed' hurt. But my big 'ah ha' moment was actually that I've chosen to get hurt. I have picked people, more often than not, good-looking charismatic people, who are just out of reach, who are like those cartoon characters who disappear off the cliff just as my hand goes 'whoosh' trying to reach them. Who say things to me like "Dude, I just got divorced five years ago. What's the rush? I'm only 44." (Seriously, that is a direct quote, he called me 'Dude'. )
As we drove home that night I said to Claire, "What did you think of tonight?" She said, "That was a wonderful night." And it was, and she fell asleep.
And as I drove home looking at the stars, for the first time in many many years I thought...if there is one man out there who will bow his head in reverence for his family, maybe, just maybe, there's one more out there...for me.