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Now More Than Ever Shabbat Offers Connection During Isolation

For me, Shabbat is a welcome break in the week, a reason to cook a special meal and step away from the stress of the outside world.
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July 17, 2020
Vlad Fishman/Getty Stock Images

During the first Zoom Shabbat with my Texas-based family, my niece refused to turn on her video. She joined us from her bedroom in voice only, a disembodied screen name. School was still in session, also on Zoom. She said she had an art project to finish.

Or did she not like her hairstyle that night, or something else, I wondered? She’s 13, the age of self-consciousness. My niece hadn’t been particularly worried about peer pressure before but who knew how things were going with my sister and her two kids in Austin? Or with my 79-year-old mom, living alone with her standard poodle? It’s hard to keep track of other people’s lives when you’re 1,400 miles away —  a fact this pandemic has highlighted.

On the other hand, for the first time in my life, I’ve had regular Shabbat with my family. I’ve become more observant since moving to Los Angeles, as has my son, but not so for the rest of my family. My mom is an atheist from a long line of devout atheists. My nephew had a bar mitzvah three years ago but my sister hasn’t entered a synagogue since. Shabbat? Why bother? And also: Who has the time?

Everyone has the time these days, and the need to connect. During our first family Shabbat, we each lit our own candles and sang the prayer together, then the blessings over the bread and wine. My niece finished her painting while listening in from her room. My sister and nephew joined on a separate computer. My mom logged on from her home office, fully dressed for the holiday in a black draping shirt with her hair and makeup done. My mother is so elegant and always has had what I consider enviable self-discipline around things like getting dressed and putting herself together.

Is that detail about my mom still true? I worry about her now, living alone in Texas, and feel frustrated by my inability to do much of anything. I’m not flying in for the week, bringing my super-cheery son and fresh ideas. I can’t pop over to replace the air filter or carry in heavy bags of dog food. Neither can I get that shot of energy that comes from being in a house filled with people who love me. I live with my 12-year-old son and my dog, both devoted but not the same as my mother, historically my biggest cheerleader.

The next week, with some trepidation, I invited my Texas relations for Shabbat again. I didn’t want to seem like I was pushing my newfound religion on them. They were game to join. Since then, we’ve had a standing family Shabbat, a regular get-together during this time of being apart. Since Austin is on Central Time, we start at our sundown, which is late for them, or at theirs, which is early for us.

Last week was a late start. My sister texted that they were too hungry to hold dinner but would join us to hang out at 8 p.m. our time. When we logged onto Zoom, she’d already lit the candles and said the blessings. “We had to. It was just getting too late,” she said. I knew they were eating, but lighting candles? She’d never had to light candles or say blessings before on a Friday night.

For me, Shabbat is a welcome break in the week, a reason to cook a special meal and step away from the stress of the outside world. It’s uplifting, and now particularly, it seems emotionally healthy to have a reason to dress up. Introducing this weekly break in my family’s life makes me feel I am being of benefit to them. At this time, when the problems around us can feel overwhelming and paralyzing, when we see so much need and so little clear way to help, bringing joy and connection to my immediate family feels like a concrete good.

It gives me hope more generally, too. There is probably always something we can do to bring more light into the world, or at least into the world of those we love.


Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”

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