Beginning at a young age, our family would celebrate Shabbat every Friday night. We would light the candles, chant the blessings of wine and bread and share a special moment together.
Certainly, there was a religious tone to our Shabbat, but the emphasis was always on the shared family experience.
As my sister, Carol, and I grew into adults, we maintained the Shabbat tradition as best we could. I am not sure how it developed, but I became the “Shabbat child.” It was very rare to miss a Friday night dinner that invariably included chicken, Mom lighting the candles, Dad making the blessing over the wine and me with the honor of the blessing over the bread. It was always a very special time for all of us.
I developed a somewhat nontraditional approach to life as a child of the late ’60s, yet would not consider missing our Shabbat dinner. Claudia and I were married on a beautiful Friday afternoon in the spring, on the front lawn of the home we shared. Mom hosted the dinner reception at her house, and yes, it was a traditional Shabbat dinner. As we planned our wedding, it was simply stated that Friday night dinner belonged to Mom, even if it followed our wedding.
Our family grew as both Carol and I have two wonderful children. They clearly became the new loves of Mom. We maintained the Shabbat dinner tradition as best we could with everyone’s busy schedules. Mom, Dad and I remained constants and were always so happy if joined by my sister’s family or Claudia and our kids.
The routine remained the same. Mom would light the candles, Dad would bless the wine, and I would bless the bread. We had fresh challah if the grandchildren joined us, old bread if it was just Mom and me. We would then offer our regular family prayer, eat and talk. Mom adapted to the times and replaced the chicken dinner with a steady dose of eggplant and perogies (quite a combination) for her vegetarian son and his family.
Dad passed away a few years ago at the age of 92, leaving Mom alone in the apartment. Shabbat dinner became more important a bond than ever. We shared the Shabbat tradition virtually every week that we were both in Pittsburgh. My daughter would often light the candles, my son would make the blessing over the bread, and I was honored to take Dad’s role in making the blessing over the wine. Shabbat dinner had clearly become a lasting bond of our family — for some it was a religious experience and for some it was purely a secular family experience. However, these shared times were important to all of us.
Many Fridays it was just Mom and myself. She would sometimes start calling on Tuesday about the Friday dinner plans. We knew we would be together either at her apartment, our house, or even a restaurant as we expanded our tradition. Mom was most happy when everyone could be present and my sister and her family joined us on many occasions.
There is a lesson in this experience for practicing or secular Jews. Shabbat can be a wonderful and regular part of your lives regardless of your religious beliefs. All of us can agree in the joy and significance of a stable, traditional and loving family life. A few hours out of our busy schedules to share with family on a Friday night is certainly a worthy experience especially as it develops through many decades and multiple generations. It can become the actual and symbolic bond that makes a family feel like a family.
A few Fridays ago, we had plans to have Shabbat dinner at Mom’s apartment. I spoke with her in the morning and she did not sound right. She agreed she was not feeling well and we changed plans to have Shabbat dinner at our house. Claudia would pick her up at the apartment. True to her vibrant spirit, Mom went swimming that afternoon in the apartment building’s pool. She died while in the water of a massive heart attack, but apparently without pain or suffering. She was 89.
Shabbat dinners have been quite difficult for me these past two months; lonely, sad and a time of mourning. However, I know how blessed I am to fully understand and appreciate the blessing of having had a lifetime of Shabbats with my mom.
(Mark Rubenstein is a Pittsburgh attorney.)