Akiva wanted to say something like, “That sort of cynicism isn’t a great chinuch technique,” but he wouldn’t stoop to that level
kiva Putterman was giving his easiest speech, the basic “Transform Your Shabbos Table” lecture, to a crowd of eager young parents who had the right tables, the right chairs, the right homes in the right neighborhoods, but they were clueless about how to make the moments at those tables count.
He got it. They meant well, these people. But they were always distracted, rushing through life. Their children were just as distracted, so for the most part, things just moved along.
But then came the Shabbos table, and there were no devices, no office to run off to or important call that Tatty had to take, and no one knew quite what to say.
He spoke about his own father, a Holocaust survivor, and how even though he was more reserved, the Shabbos table was electric.
“He wasn’t a schmoozer, and we didn’t hock about who got a Tesla that week and how much they paid.” This got a weak laugh. “But his whole essence was on display at the meals, the way he was living Shabbos. He sang the zemiros his father had sung, and told the same little joke his melamed had said about the farmer and I laughed, because he was fully there. He didn’t ask us, ‘How was your week in cheder?’ but rather, ‘Tell me, Akiva’le, about your happiest moment this week.’
“He would really listen to our answers and then encourage us, with his eyes, to keep speaking. He would say a devar Torah, almost invariably something that involved thinking about other people and achrayus to give, but that wasn’t it either. It was the feeling of being connected, connected to him and my mother, connected to each other, connected to Shabbos.” Akiva paused, and looked around the room.
“Okay, very nice,” he said. “But how do we make that happen? That’s what you’re all asking, right?”
There were slow nods around the room.
“Okay.” Akiva started to pace a bit. “The secret isn’t that difficult. Our parents’ generation knew it, then we can learn it too. It comes from being zoned in. An hour before Shabbos, turn off your phone, go for a walk, play music, play ball, whatever calms you down. If it’s a blatt Gemara, even better, but make sure you’re not wound up. I know that during these weeks, with the short Fridays, it’s a challenge to get off work in time, but like any great yield, there’s a real investment first. Find a way. And come into Shabbos calm, and if possible, rested — a short nap goes a long way.”
He had them now.
“Let the children around this table,” he said, leaning over and tapping the dining room table of his host, “let them feel that it’s their time, and their place. And then let it roll. Ask the children which songs speak to them, sing those songs, and then maybe let them explain why those songs speak to them. Do it for every child. If you’re able, teach them what the words mean. Don’t preach, though, listen more, and whatever you say should be a reaction to something they’re saying.”
He smiled reassuringly. “You got this. You have more to give than you realize, but it starts with being calm, with being settled. It’s a jittery generation, so it takes work, but with planning and determination and, of course, siyata d’Shmaya, it can be done.”
Later, after the speech, the host came over to thank him, and they chatted.
The host, a smooth-faced young man who looked like he was 18, was trying to understand how a person who is not calm could develop calmness, just like that, as if serenity was something you could buy on Amazon.
Akiva reiterated his position that a lot of it had to do with shutting down the world a bit earlier and creating the headspace to appreciate the opportunity of sitting with the family.
The host was unconvinced, and Akiva found himself feeling defensive.
“This is all just clichés, stuff speakers say, it’s not real,” the host said, and his wife looked alarmed, trying to make eye contact with him.
A little crowd had gathered, and Akiva decided that he would be the one to model respectful disagreement.
“Oh, it’s very real,” he said, “but you have to believe that for it to work. The older generation never had to contend with the noise and commotion that you guys do”— Akiva thought this was generous, a way to let his host save face as people were listening —“so it could be it comes a bit more naturally to my generation than to yours. But it can be done. On a practical level, it means doing things on Thursday night to make Friday calmer, and on an emotional level, it means really wanting to get to that point, and embracing it when it comes.”
The host almost snorted. “Embracing it,” he repeated, and gave an exaggerated shrug.
Now it wasn’t just impolite, but openly hostile. Akiva wanted to say something like, “That sort of cynicism isn’t a great chinuch technique,” but he wouldn’t stoop to that level, so instead, he smiled brightly.
“It’s not as hard as it sounds,” he said, “and once you start, it’s hard to stop. You come into Shabbos feeling settled, tranquil, like when you sit down in a good restaurant with a big appetite and everything just looks delicious.”
“Aha.” The host nodded. “I see, okay. Tell me something, if your generation is all so settled and calm and all that, why is your neighborhood having a civil war, with half the people feeling sick of being settled and like they aren’t even living?”
The tent was still up on Wednesday, and Reuven Stagler knew without knowing that Heshy’s Leil Shishi would be held there once again this week. Maybe that was the whole reason they were keeping the tent, he realized, and he felt very uneasy.
He could find some neighborhood bylaw about tents being allowed to stand for no more than a few days and have Peter take it down, he didn’t need anyone’s permission, but that — he realized with sudden clarity — would be giving the other side what they wanted.
This was the first time he had thought about them that way, as another side. It was more or less clear that they were working against each other.
He wanted a normal neighborhood, with normal minyanim and shiurim and an orderly, quiet shul. He wanted a rav who talked about the halachos of borer on Yom Tov and said a daf yomi shiur that could impress people who had already done a cycle or two.
The others — Lax, Malavsky, Lonner, and every day, it seemed like there were more people in the little cult — wanted kumzitzes, herring, conversations about “really living,” and the easy camaraderie of just sitting around instead.
It was still two months to Purim, and Reuven was already scared about what was in store. He imagined Heshy and his little gang coming into shul, in costumes. Probably matching. Maybe they would even do fireworks, like the children they were.
He could see that the tent would be the beginning of Carlebach Kabbalas Shabbos gatherings and musical Hallels and who knew would else. Alameda Gardens, he thought, home of the mid-life crisis.
No, he decided, he wouldn’t have the tent taken down and dignify them with a head-on challenge. He would do something even bolder.
He would go the Leil Shishi, just walk in and sit there. What would they do then?
to be continued...
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 917)
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