How I Lost Shabbat — and How I Hope To Find It

I’m struggling to recreate the Friday nights of my childhood.

There is almost nothing I don’t hate about having had to leave my dormitory in New York City and move back to the suburbs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the city, something was always happening — I could go grocery shopping and end up eating vegetarian empanadas at a fair with a friend or go on the subway and find myself at an underground concert. In the suburbs, there are few such surprises.

Yet, for everything wonderful about the city, there is one thing I can never seem to find there, and that’s Shabbat. Yes, before the pandemic, my college Hillel offered excellent Shabbat dinners at my dorm that I loved going to. No, I don’t go to work on Saturdays. But there’s something about my family’s suburban Shabbat — maybe it’s the nothing-happening-ness — that I haven’t been able to ever replicate in the city.

Since moving back home, I have remembered one of my favorite things about high school — Friday night sleep. An anxious and exhausted student, I struggled in high school to get any sleep on school nights. I would get home from track practice at 4:30 or 5 p.m., eat dinner, take a shower, then be so exhausted that I couldn’t possibly do homework. I’d set my alarm for just a few minutes so that I could take a nap, but when I lied down, I couldn’t fall asleep — all I could think about was homework, which I couldn’t do because I was so tired. When my alarm rang, I was no less exhausted than when I’d set it, so I’d set it again for another few minutes. This combination of tiredness and anxiety made for vicious cycles and very long nights.

Friday nights were different. I’d arrive home to the many scents of Shabbat dinner preparation, all kitchen appliances in full force, and a recently cleaned house. My mom was usually in a good mood on Fridays, and my dad came home with even more pomp and circumstance than usual. “Salam, azizaye man!” he’d shout in Farsi while walking into the house. “Shabbat shalom! Looooo-ren!” Sometimes he walked in singing Lekhah Dodi, a Shabbat song he’d probably sung all the way home from synagogue.

Friday night was the night that, upon arriving home from school, eating dinner, and taking a shower, I promptly went to sleep, no alarm or anything. There was nothing in the world that I had to do. It wasn’t hard to fall asleep because I had all weekend to do homework, and I suspect the general atmosphere in the house also made it easier. Some nights I slept like a log and didn’t wake up until the next morning. Other nights I woke up briefly in the evening, in which case I went back downstairs and scarfed down some more adas polo before going back to sleep. As far as I’m concerned, eating everything in sight is a sacred Jewish tradition.

Since coming to college, most parts of my life have improved significantly, my sleep schedule included. It is no longer difficult for me to go to sleep at 11 and wake up at 7, and I seem to have beaten my procrastination habit. But for all the things that are better, Shabbat might just be worse in college.

Whereas before, it was practically my duty to relax at the end of the school week, now, it’s not as easy to distinguish between the work week and the weekend. Track practice in college ends later than it did in high school, so I usually wouldn’t get back to my dorm until 7 or 7:30 p.m., even on Friday nights. I’d sprint upstairs for a micro-shower before coming extremely late to Hillel’s Shabbat dinner, where my fellow Jews, being mostly Ashkenazi, pronounced all the prayers in a way unfamiliar to me, and as much good food as there was, there was never any adas polo.

After dinner, sometimes I did some work, and before going to sleep, I’d often need to set an alarm for a stress-inducing cross country meet the next morning. So much for marathon sleep sessions and relaxing Friday nights.

Even now that I’ve returned to the suburbs, I can’t reclaim the Friday nights of my childhood. My dad has passed away, drastically reducing the possibility that I will spontaneously hear someone sing Lekhah Dodi. College classes and work don’t fit into a 40-hour work week, and given that I’m pursuing a career in journalism, my profession might not adhere to a standard work week or to proper observance of Shabbat either.

And those are just personal factors. Technology and capitalism in general pose an ever-increasing threat to people’s ability to relax. The constant need to check one’s email, refresh social media, be on-call to work whenever necessary, the pressure to always be productive — these are all contrary to the principles of Shabbat.

But even if I can’t observe Shabbat every Saturday, maybe I can try to incorporate an hour of “Shabbat” every day, an hour when I can actually breathe and resist the urge to check my email or look at my phone or do anything that could be considered work by any stretch of the imagination, including reading and writing.

And when I do return to the city, my goal is to continue this practice — in fact, I think walking to the subway was the best part of my day because there was nothing on my mind and no need to rush; I knew I’d get where I was going. Maybe, for my New York City “Shabbat,” I’ll take a detour on my walk to the subway.

More than ever, it’s important for Jews and non-Jews alike to find places or carve out times when we can truly rest, whether it’s for one day a week or one hour a day, without cell phones or alarm clocks to bother us. Maybe we can’t observe Shabbat the way our ancestors did, but we should try to find places to add a little more Shabbat to our lives, even if it just means going to sleep.

Header image: tomertu/iStock/Getty Images.

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