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Lights, Sensors, and Penguins

It seems that in the years since I was last a teenager, the 21st century happened

G

rowing up, we started out as the typical Jewish-American family: synagogue most Friday nights, bar and bat mitzvahs, a Passover Seder, the occasional Havah Nagilah.

That all changed, not once but several times, as each family member did a box step through various stages of Jewish observance.

There was the year I kept kosher and my parents didn’t. There were the years my parents kept kosher and I didn’t. Then there were the years they kept kosher but not kosher enough for me, so they put aside “extra kosher” dishes for me and later, for hubby and the kids.

Finally, there were — or rather, are — the years my parents once again don’t keep kosher, yet keep two full sets of kosher dishes, wrapped in plastic wrap, in the garage. We’re not just talking basic milchig and fleishig; we’re talking a good set of knives, a toaster for breakfast, and a Shabbos Crock-Pot.

Upon retirement, my parents moved to North Carolina, where the difference between “in town” and “out of town” is reflected by how many Walmarts there are in a ten-mile radius. They revel in the slower pace of life, find deep satisfaction in waving to total strangers, and consider it rush hour when more than three cars are piled up at a red light. More importantly, they found the type of Jewish community they were looking for and a synagogue to suit. That they (mostly) abandoned in favor of Chabad.

Shabbos observance waltzed to a tune of its own over the years, with various family members doing more, less, and more again as each one learned, understood, became enchanted, grew disenchanted, then found his or her own rhythm. While knowledge of practical halachah is limited to my branch of the family, there’s lots of goodwill on my parents’ part, so when my recent plans to visit them included a Shabbos in their home, I envisioned lots of quiet, lots of introspection, and lots of chillin’.

Armed with years of experience as the only shomer Shabbos around, I began my “preflight Shabbos checklist.”

And quickly discovered that we’re not in Kensington anymore.

It seems that in the years since I was last a teenager, the 21st century happened. Everyone knows you can’t open a fridge on Shabbos because it turns the light on. (Opening the door wakes the little penguin who lives inside, and since he’s Jewish, he gets very grumpy if you disturb his day of rest.) Instead, you stick a strong piece of duct tape (or in this case, penguin tape) against the push-button thing so that it stays pressed in even when you open the door, and the lights never go on.

However, today’s refrigerators are actually oversize computers with super-efficient cooling fans (I suspect the penguin is playing Super Mario Brothers). In other words, there is no button. During the “preflight Shabbos check,” my Dad and I stood in front of the open fridge, running our hands up and down the insides, looking for a miniature button, a hidden panel, a small console, or a Shabbos alarm clock to wake the penguin, perhaps with a shinui. We found none of these.

As Hashgachah pratis would have it, my daughter called just then, and told her grandpa that her fridge has a Shabbos mode. He countered that Shabbos appliances might be the norm in Israel, or in other cities with a large Orthodox population, but the very out-of-townness that so appealed to them also precluded such a contingency.

Being of Generation G (Google generation), my daughter quickly looked up the model online, and it turns out that my parents’ fridge actually has a Shabbos mode! In North Carolina! Which means that the penguin can be left to his own devices for the whole 25 hours by use of strategically placed magnets.

But the penguin was only the tip of the iceberg.

My in-house “flight check” revealed a slew of light-sensitive electronic eyes, which, if you step in front of one, turns on a small light. I toured the house three times, at three different eye levels, to scout these out. Fortunately, I disabled most of them. Unfortunately, I did not disable all of them. (While this might have been conducive for reading and introspection, it was not very conducive for chillin’.)

Shabbos morning, while my parents were out at Chabad services, the doorbell rang. A moment of indecision: Should I answer the door in case it’s someone Jewish, to prevent them from ringing again? Should I answer because my parents might be upset I ignored it, perhaps snubbing someone important to them? Or something, like a package? (Oh no, my Amazon order!)

I didn’t answer the door. Turns out that was a good move. I didn’t know how good until Sunday.

The house, a modest edifice in a modest neighborhood in a modest county, is heavily alarmed. No aperture is too large or too small to be exempt from being eternally, infernally connected to the loudest house alarm you never want to hear, particularly at six a.m. when your parents are still sleeping.

Not one entrance (there are three), nor a window (too many to count), nor a garage door (three of them, too), nor, I believe, a mail slot (one, maybe two) was overlooked in all the utterly, miraculously thorough electronic circuitry that ties them all to a single panel into which you must enter the magic code or suffer the dual fate of ignominy and partial hearing loss.

My parents, not wanting to trap me inside for 25 hours (and secretly hoping I’d make the 45-minute walk to Chabad to meet their friends), graciously turned the alarm off for Shabbos. What I didn’t know was that even with the alarm off, the house, which apparently neither slumbers nor sleeps, still senses any breach in its virtual exterior.

I discovered this on Sunday morning when I entered the secret code that disabled the alarm. I opened the inner door and peered through the glass of the storm door. In my peripheral vision, I happened to notice the appearance of an asterisk on the alarm console. An asterisk? I closed the inner door. The asterisk disappeared. I opened the door. The asterisk reappeared. Uh-oh. The little penguin had migrated to the alarm box, sparking a serious chillul Shabbos alert. Was there a way to duct tape the back door?

And it was not only technology which kept me on my toes. My parents know I won’t ask them to do any melachah, but the idea of “benefitting” from melachah is a harder concept. Wanting me to be as comfortable as possible, they tried to intuit what I wanted. I shivered; they offered to turn down the air. I demurred; they smiled and turned it down anyway. I took out a book; they offered to make the lights brighter. I demurred; they turned the lights up anyway.

I was trapped in a house with goodwill run rampant!

I tried to stay absolutely pareve. I didn’t dare read. Or let on how cold I was (we have AC in Israel, but come on!). Or enter the living room lest they shut the TV. (The Yanks were playing. On a 65 inch screen. Seriously, any idiot could see the runner was out.)

I decided to take a nap. A looooong nap. But alas, between the motion sensors that turn on the floodlights and the light sensors that turn off the nightlight (really, I thought I unplugged them all!), it was something akin to actually being inside Super Mario Brothers (only without Bowser).

At least I remembered to unplug the toilet.

The visit was wonderful. I was pampered and petted and spoiled, and I so needed that. But before I can think about another Shabbos visit, I’m going to have to do some serious homework. Better yet, I’ll call in a crew — a preShabbos flight check crew. There should be such a thing! Like Shomrim and Hatzalah and Misaskim and Chaverim. Like the crews that kasher your home and check the eiruv. Who’s up to charter the first group?

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 667)

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Tagged: Real Life