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Cultural Studies – Creating Sabbath Peace in a Beeping World – NYTimes.com
Creating Sabbath Peace Amid the Noise
By JUDITH SHULEVITZ
Published: July 16, 2010
THERE are people for whom the Sabbath never went away — Seventh-day Adventists, Hutterites, Jews whose fathers and mothers never stopped walking in the ways of their fathers and mothers.
And then there are the rest of us. The Sabbath, Jewish or Christian, is a distant memory for many Americans, the recollection of a quaintly tranquil day when stores were closed, streets were quiet and festive dinners were had. The Sabbath would seem to have no place in our busy, beeping world. The very word tastes musty in the mouth, as if it were a relic from another place and time.
But what if you wanted to revive something like the Sabbath today? What if you coveted some of that sweetness and slowness and went looking for ways to get it? What would you do? Would you commit yourself to the Sabbath’s rituals and laws? Would you transform yourself into an Orthodox Jew or latter-day Puritan? How much would you be willing to change?
If you’re like me and like some friends of mine, as secular as you are Jewish or Christian but nonetheless drawn to your religious traditions, the answer is, you wouldn’t change all that much. You’d take from the Sabbath the things that were useful to you. An organization of brash young Jews called Reboot, for instance, recently published a “Sabbath Manifesto.” Its Ten Commandments feature suggestions like: “Avoid technology.” “Connect with your loved ones.” “Get outside.” “Avoid commerce.” “Drink wine.” There is no mention of prayer or religious law or God.
“Sometimes doing things halfway is exactly what we need to do,” said Amanda Clayman, a therapist who lives in Brooklyn Heights. Ms. Clayman, who recently converted to Judaism, and her husband, Greg, an executive vice president at MTV Networks who was born Jewish but grew up nonobservant, select from the panoply of Sabbath rituals the customs that seem most meaningful to them. At the moment, these are the ones that involve making and partaking of a traditional Friday night dinner.
“Our Shabbat starts on Friday morning, like in the old days,” said Ms. Clayman, who takes Fridays off to be with her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Alexandra. “Alex and I get up, we talk about what we’re going to make for dinner, we go to the butcher shop, we get a chicken, we roast the chicken.”
Another ritual has Mr. Clayman blessing his wife and Alexandra just before the meal. Ms. Clayman loves play-acting the parts of the old-fashioned Jewish family: “When Daddy gets home and the house looks nice and Daddy gets to put his hands on us and bless us, it’s very masculine in a way that men don’t often have the opportunity to be in this enlightened society, and we talk about what’s something great that Mommy did for us this week. This is a time in which we get to inhabit these timeless, traditional family roles.”
This traditionalism works for her, she said, because it differs from ordinary life, in which neither she nor her husband feels restricted to particular gender roles.
REUBEN NAMDAR, an Israeli novelist of Iranian-Jewish background who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (his award-winning collection of short stories, “Haviv,” published in 2000, has not yet been translated into English), follows Jewish law by avoiding cooking once the sun has set on Friday night. But he will drive a car and buy his children ice cream cones once the Sabbath services are over on Saturday afternoon, even though driving and spending money are prohibited by the Jewish law of the Sabbath.
“The bottom line with me is, it’s very personal. It’s not a theology,” Mr. Namdar said. “That’s what my parents did, and not just my parents, the Sephardic community. Maybe they didn’t want to know that there was a fire inside the engine,” referring to the idea that driving violates the ban on igniting a fire during the Sabbath. Or they knew but didn’t care, because it was their custom to drive.
In any case, he said: “Why do you assume that the Orthodox Shabbat is the Sabbath? I don’t agree with that. Minhag Yisrael, the custom of Israel, is what matters.” Mr. Namdar rejects “all this crazy stuff the Orthodox rabbis added, the stuff with tearing toilet paper and cracking open soda cans before Shabbat” lest you violate laws against tearing and making new vessels, part of a complex body of law to prevent anything that could be construed as work. The Sabbath, Mr. Namdar said, is not a theory but a practice, or rather a set of practices, living, evolving and human, handed down from parents to children, not inscribed in a book in heaven.
“The second you write down the rules, it doesn’t work for me,” he said. He believes that the Sabbath of everyday Jews, rather than the Sabbath of the disputers and the thinkers, was never as strenuous or elaborately thought-through as the Orthodox Sabbath is today: “You ate well, you slept well, you had sex, you were in a special state of mind, you did not chastise the kids. It was organic.”
Those who want to keep the Christian Sabbath face the opposite problem — not an excess of law, but the absence of customs and a community that observes them. Though Sabbath-keeping was once ubiquitous throughout the Christian world, Sabbath rituals other than church-going have mostly vanished.
What would an organic Christian Sabbath look like today? For James Carroll, an ex-priest and dissenting Catholic in Boston (he is the author of “Practicing Catholic,” published in 2009), it would look like the Sunday dinners of his childhood. These were big formal meals, held at 2 p.m. every Sunday (and on Christmas and Thanksgiving), which were sometimes the only meals at which he and his mother and brothers would be joined by his father.
Mr. Carroll’s father, who worked at the Pentagon, was “a typical absent father,” he said. “He was never home at 5:30 on a weeknight when we had dinner. There were five of us boys, and mealtimes were chaotic. But Sunday dinner was a realm apart. There were tablecloths, the good dishes, roast beef.” Mr. Carroll’s father’s presence at the dinner table was “how we knew it was Sunday,” he said. “That began a kind of family time that would extend into the evening, when we would all watch ‘Disneyland’ or ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ ”
Mr. Carroll went to Mass in the morning, as did his father. He thought of that as the religious part of the day. Looking back, though, he now thinks the Sabbatarian part of Sunday was dinner. “Its roots are religious,” he said. “As Christians, we have completely lost the sense of the origin of the Mass, which is the Eucharist, which is a meal. If Jesus were to visit us, it would have been the Sunday dinner he would have insisted on being a part of, not the worship service at the church.”
SO what does Mr. Carroll do now to keep the Sabbath? He walks to church, which takes him through Boston Common, where his children grew up playing Little League and wading in the pond, and as he walks, he feels “a certain tug of melancholy. I feel alone.”
He and his wife and children used to have Sunday dinner, but stopped when the children became teenagers. He wonders if his parents would have had Sunday dinners today, given that his mother was a “compulsive shopper” and might have preferred to frequent the mall, had it been open back then.
To judge from what Lauren Winner calls “a bumper crop” of books on the Christian Sabbath published in the last decade, you’d think that the day was making a comeback. But, said Ms. Winner, an assistant professor at the Duke University divinity school who wrote one of these books (“Mudhouse Sabbath,” 2003), “it’s unclear to me that many people are implementing them.” The problem for Christians is that if they want to keep the Sabbath, they do so alone. “There’s just no communal framework,” Ms. Winner said. The talk of Sabbath among Christians tends to be about incorporating spots of mindfulness and quiet into everyday life, she added, not with recreating a collective Sunday experience.
Ms. Winner herself stopped shopping on Sunday a long time ago, and recently began keeping a sort of electronic Sabbath as well — she tries to stay off e-mail and to keep her cellphone turned off. She doesn’t eat out on Sunday, either, because she doesn’t want to benefit from what she considers the exploitation of the labor of the underpaid immigrants who staff the local restaurants. And, she said, “I make a pain of myself at church” by pestering her pastor not to schedule committee meetings on Sunday.
But she is not optimistic about the future of Sabbath-keeping in America. “There is this enormous hunger,” she said, “but it is like a collective action problem. The barriers feel so high and people feel so overwhelmed. There isn’t, in North American Protestantism, any sense of an imperative about this.”