Uncharted landscape. Shifting roles. Chaos and upheaval. Through it all, Shabbos was their anchor. Six Stories
Feeling the Rhythm
By Rachel Weiss
My brother was unrelenting. “You’ve gotta experience a real Shabbos. It’s a day of transcendence. It’ll change your life.”
He was a fresh baal teshuvah studying at Aish in Jerusalem. I was in Manhattan, working grueling hours in a castle-shaped skyscraper.
Week after week, I firmly refused the Shabbos invitations my brother tried to arrange. Eventually, I capitulated. “It’ll be a 25-hour cultural experience,” I told my friends, who couldn’t fathom why I’d voluntarily go to a stranger’s house to get brainwashed about Orthodox Judaism. Truthfully, I was dreading it — I only agreed because I thought it would halt my brother’s hounding (it didn’t; he stopped only after I became fully observant).
The woman who hosted me for Shabbos was a baalas teshuvah my age, in her late 20s. Over the phone, Zahava gave me directions to her Washington Heights apartment and mentioned that I should try to arrive before Shabbos began. I balked when she gave me candlelighting time for that January weekend – who leaves work before 6 p.m.? No, I most certainly wouldn’t take her suggestion to finish work early “just this once.”
I knew enough about kashrus to understand she wouldn’t eat my food, so I offered to buy dessert. “Thanks so much,” she gushed, “but I cooked up a feast. Everything is taken care of.”
But I couldn’t just show up at some stranger’s house without a hostess gift. “Just tell me the name of a kosher bakery and I’ll pick up something on the way.”
“They close early on Friday,” Zahava replied.
Ugh. “So tell me a kosher wine and I’ll buy it.”
“Really, you don’t have to. We have plenty.”
“But I want to.”
Tense silence. “The laws of kashrus and wine are complicated, so please don’t worry about it,” Zahava pleaded.
On Friday night, a good hour after dark, I strolled into her sixth-floor apartment with a fragrant bouquet of flowers — surely no kashrus issues there. Zahava was in the kitchen, flanked by young children, and she took the flowers hesitantly, thanking me. Then she put them in a vase without water. How odd, I thought.
After a few minutes, my curiosity morphed into indignation; I’d spent good money on those flowers. “Let me fill this with water,” I said, reaching for the vase.
“You can’t,” Zahava quickly countered. She tried to explain the beauty of Shabbos and how we abstain from certain activities on this day of rest. But no amount of back-and-forth could help me understand her reasoning. For the remainder of that Shabbos, I watched the flowers slowly wilt, and told myself I would never ever become religious.
Still, there was something serene about the meal. The husband’s singing. The kids dressed up and happy. Warm glances between the couple. Conversation that was deeper than the chatter of a dinner party. They encouraged me to ask about anything I didn’t understand and we spoke until late in the night. But I was guarded, worried that if I enjoyed myself too much, I might have to admit there was legitimacy to this lifestyle.
Any magic I felt dissipated the next morning. The kids were up early and over-sugared on Shabbos cereal. They tested limits; they got time-outs. Because of complications with the Shabbos elevator, we couldn’t walk to a nearby park. I was trapped in a stranger’s apartment, making polite conversation when all I wanted was an escape route.
Whenever I used the bathroom, I turned the light on and off without thinking — after all, why waste electricity? Each time, I flicked the switch up and then down again. Up and down, up and down. Then Zahava initiated a discussion about lights on Shabbos, trying to explain the concept.
More rules? More limitations?
After the lunch seudah, I hid in the guest room, willing the hours to go by, waiting until the sky darkened so I could return to the normal world again.
Two years later, I was living in Jerusalem, studying at Neve. But I found Shabbos challenging even after I’d committed to keeping it. I ate delicious meals with lovely families, but the remaining hours were tedious.
Sitting in my dark dormitory room, I’d wonder why I couldn’t write or paint. How was I supposed to pass all these hours productively? And why didn’t I feel the spiritual transcendence of Shabbos? Where was the menuchah and simchah I kept hearing about?
Flip to the next chapter of my life: I was a newlywed living in a machsan in Har Nof. I spent hours in a cramped kitchen that could barely fit my growing stomach, trying to learn how to cook something more complicated than a quesadilla. I served baked carrots for almost three weeks straight, until my tzaddik of a husband gently mentioned he didn’t care for them.
It took months before I could prepare a single Shabbos seudah on my own. And then several months more until I learned how to reheat food on Shabbos without it burning or drying out.
After eight months of kitchen fiascoes and triumphs, my husband asked if we could stay home for all three Shabbos meals. I reluctantly agreed, mostly to prove to myself that I could actually pull it off.
And I did. But it wasn’t just a culinary accomplishment. In the quiet between the meals, in the comfort of my own space, I actually felt the sweet rhythm of Shabbos for the first time.
The flurry of Erev Shabbos, moving, moving, moving, and then, suddenly, with the flick of a match and a single brachah, everything changed. No more melachah. No more trying to fix what’s not perfect. The uplifting soar of Friday night followed. Shabbos morning, alone in the kitchen prepping lunch, I felt palpable tranquility and a swelling acceptance of the life tests Hashem had dealt me thus far.
Hours later, as light gave way to dark, there was mounting introspection. I internally twinged, remembering moments I regretted from the previous week. Over a simple Shalosh Seudos, my husband and I spoke about where we’d been in the past, and where we wanted to go. Havadalah came too soon; I wanted to hold on longer.
So this is what Shabbos is, I thought. This is what Zahava was trying to show me years ago. She gave up her private haven of Shabbos so I — a total stranger, but a Jewish sister — could experience it for the first time. It took many more Shabbosim, but eventually, my guard dropped and my heart thawed enough for me to truly feel it.
By Batsheva Kirsch
“How are you, my love?”
The voice of my children’s father carries through the phone line, cutting me. On his weekly phone call to the children, he calmly asks how they are, speaking without a care in the world… while my usual calm Erev Shabbos demeanor turns uncharacteristically wild.
How dare he? Coronavirus fear has stolen my peace of mind, as I read the news incessantly every night. I check my children’s breathing. I worry about who will care for them if I die. I worry and I think and I read and I research and I worry some more.
And now I hear his calm question, asking my children how they are, and I rage: How are they, indeed? Do you know? Have you checked in? Would you even know if coronavirus arrived in Baltimore yet? Would you care?
The loneliness, the heaviness, the absolute burden of realizing that I truly carry this responsibility completely on my own… it crushes me. I cannot make Kiddush. I cannot lead the seudah, serve food, arbitrate fights, sing zemiros. I cannot do this.
My thoughts find their way to my airway, and I cannot breathe. Fighting tears, I wonder how I can possibly survive this Shabbos, my first Shabbos in lockdown. Twenty-five straight hours with no adult human contact.
Somehow, my hands know what to do, and I bentsh licht. I tell my children that I need to go out for a few minutes by myself. Braving the brisk March wind, I walk. I breathe out the pain and the rage. I breathe in peace and strength, telling myself repeatedly that I’m walking with Hashem. He is with me. As much as I feel alone, I know a Yid is never truly alone.
Gam ki elech b’gei tzalmaves lo ira ra ki Atah imadi.
I begin to recognize myself again.
I return home, and the incongruity of my newly attained inner peace and the war zone that is my living room threatens to choke my inner calm once again.
“Ma, I’m starrrrrving!”
“She wouldn’t let me read the Jr.!”
“He always forgets forks when he sets the table!”
“Why do you always leave us to take time for yourself? Who were you with anyway, if you’re not even allowed to talk to anyone?”
I steady myself from the onslaught and breathe again, keeping myself in the moment.
I clutch the whisper from my walk and don’t let it go. Ki Atah imadi. I’m not in this alone. This has kept me going on a hundred Friday nights previously and it will keep me going during tonight’s storm too.
And so I begin to sing Shalom Aleichem. Some children join me, some don’t. I accept that too. I keep breathing. So much of this journey has been about acceptance and flexibility. Like being okay with my Shabbos table not looking as I’d always envisioned it, but accepting the here and now.
My voice steadies as I continue to sing. Not as a perfectly poised single mother bearing no pain, but with more equanimity than before. With me doing the best I can in this moment. And I know that I greet the malachim with Hashem by my side.
By Rabbi Menachem Nissel
When I grew up, Melaveh Malkah was kept symbolically. The slice of pizza or leftover cake was consumed for this nonobligatory mitzvah (Mishnah Berurah 330:2), but it never quite earned the solemnity of shlissel challah or kreplach on Hoshana Rabbah.
No offense to the luz bone, but Motzaei Shabbos was just too hectic a time to sit down and wash for bread. And after all that cholent, who can look at food?
Then we heard that the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk recommended washing for bread as a segulah for easy childbirth. For my wife, the thought of childbirth was tangible enough to prod her to make a grilled cheese sandwich and I’d occasionally join her.
As the years rolled on, our appreciation for Dovid Hamelech’s seudah grew. We felt it important to ground the sense of renewal of a new week with a meal that fueled the ultimate renewal of techiyas hameisim. The Melaveh Malkah meal became a standard fixture in the Nissel household.
Then came coronavirus.
Locked up in our homes without extended family or guests, we had plenty of time to reflect on our core values. Hashem had taken away so much, but He’d given us an invaluable gift. Life had slowed down. Our Yiddishe heim had reclaimed its place as the center of serenity, inner peace, and kedushah in our lives. And there, like a magnificent centerpiece, was kedushas Shabbos, shining light from a world beyond.
We wanted to show gratitude to the Shabbos Queen. Wasn’t telling her that we don’t want her to leave the ultimate expression of love?
We decided to make Melaveh Malkah more Shabbosdig. Our innovation was to add a zemer to the meal and we chose the haunting Breslover niggun, “Motzaei Yom Menuchah.” To add to the ambience, we renamed the “Motzaei Shabbos candles” that we lit after Havdalah as “Melaveh Malkah candles.”
We had a serious family discussion about upgrading the Melaveh Malkah menu, but unfortunately, the tyranny of cholent prevailed. Even a worldwide pandemic couldn’t dislodge the humble grilled cheese sandwich.
After several months of enjoying our enhanced Melaveh Malkah, we now treasure starting our week with family time, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. The ambience and atmosphere of the Shabbos table lingers into the week.
There’s so much coronavirus darkness casting shadows on the six days of creation. By escorting the Shabbos Queen, we hope she’ll allow her glow to linger throughout the week.
By Tzippy Klatzko
“V’yhi erev, v’yhi boker,” my father softly whispers. My eyes close of their own accord and I’m transported to another reality. I try to tune into the words, the meanings, the feeling of Shabbos.
“Mekadesh haShabbos,” the lilting melody concludes. I open my eyes and blink in the sudden strong glare of the chandelier lights. Looking around, I expect to see 80 people surrounding me and hear the loud scraping of chairs being pulled back as everyone prepares to sit down.
But I don’t.
Instead, five of my siblings are sitting on either side of my parents, leaving the rest of the long dining room awkwardly vacant. The empty chairs yell silently, “Where are all your guests?” to which I wordlessly respond, “I have the very same question.”
Well, that question— and many more.
Where are our “regulars” eating, on this first Shabbos after coronavirus descended upon us? Who is going to kibitz with the college student and then convince him to go to yeshivah? How will the lonely older single get her social boost for the week? Where will the divorcé take his children for Shabbos when it’s his turn for visitation? Who will care for the well-meaning but socially compromised lady who frequents our table?
As much as we’re a big part of our guests’ lives, they’re a part of ours. My father, Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, is the founder of Shabbat.com, a website that connects would-be hosts with people who need a place for Shabbos, and a typical Shabbos in our home features 60 to 80 guests.
My parents give them love, chiyus, and accommodations; in return, we receive brachah, inspiration, and unlikely friendships. I might share my home, my food, my parents, and even my room; they share their struggles, their triumphs, their geshmak for Yiddishkeit, and a priceless perspective on life.
It’s not always easy. I don’t always want to peel 20 pounds of potatoes, set the table for 80, or deal with Erev Shabbos chaos. I don’t always like making small talk with every stranger who walks through our door, and I never like when someone finds my sushi roll and helps themselves to it. On Motzaei Shabbos, I might want to go out with friends, but there’s always a house waiting to be cleaned that looks like, well, the way any house would look after 80 people spent 25 hours there.
With the absence of guests comes the absence of those challenges.
I take a sip of wine and enjoy the playful banter that follows as we wash for hamotzi and point out that there are enough sinks on the main floor for every person to have their own. We marvel about how it takes only two minutes for everyone to be ready for hamotzi and revel in the abundance of elbow space. But the air is tinged with uneasiness as we realize that this may be our new reality for a long time.
I think about our usual Shabbos company once more.
I do like having guests, yet sometimes it can be hard.
But in a moment of clarity I realize that it’s even harder not to.
By Marcia Meth
Why do we take three steps backward and three steps forward before Shemoneh Esreh?
The Baal Shem Tov gives a parable. When teaching a child to walk, we parents beckon the toddler to take two or three steps toward us. As the child comes closer, we back away to encourage more steps.
Similarly, Hashem often appears to withdraw from our lives and conceal Himself. He steps back so that we’ll step forward to follow Him.
Hashem has given me several three-steps-back moments during the past year and a half. Now I’m working my way forward.
I lost my husband Sheldon on a Shabbos. By the time the next Shabbos came around, I’d been to Israel and back, sat shivah on two continents, and was so exhausted that nothing really was registering — except that I was surrounded by the comfort, support, and love of my entire family.
Shivah resumed after Shabbos — a blur of stories about Sheldon. One moment stands out: One woman, after reciting Hamakom, bent over and whispered in my ear. Something about joining an organization. Samcheinu. An organization for almanos.
I remember staring at her in openmouthed horror.
Almanah? Is she talking about me? How can that be? I’ve been a married woman for almost 48 years. And now, in a hearbeat — in one last heartbeat — my identity has changed? Have I suddenly become labeled “almanah”?
The hardest thing about assuming this new identity — aside from the loneliness, the sleepless nights, and having to check off “widow” on your medical form at the doctor’s office — is having to figure out what to do every Shabbos.
Gone are the days when you can simply invite lunch guests, plan your Shabbos menu, shop, cook, and then relax as your husband makes Kiddush, cuts the challah, sings zemiros, imparts divrei Torah, and partakes in animated conversation.
Suddenly, you’re thrust into a weekly dilemma. Wait for an invitation? Call a close friend or family member and invite yourself over? Invite people and play hostess — sans host? Or spend Shabbos all alone?
I’d never spent Shabbos alone. Both before and after I married Sheldon, I was always blessedly surrounded by family and friends. Now, Friday night meals became particularly hard. As a couple, Sheldon and I loved entertaining or dining out with friends for Shabbos lunch. But Friday nights — not so much. Exhausted after a week’s work, we welcomed a quiet and simple meal alone.
Once he was gone, though, a quiet stay-at-home Friday night would be too painfully lonely. Yet, while I appreciated invitations, it still meant getting a second wind to walk to my hosts. Even worse, it meant putting my hosts in the position of graciously offering to walk me back home in the dark.
So during one of those early weeks, I accepted an offer from Kayla, my 21-year-old granddaughter, to spend Shabbos with me. That way I could eat in my own home on Friday night without being alone, without worrying about nighttime walks.
It was a cozy meal. Three tiny hurdles, though. First… how to uncork the wine bottle? That had always been Sheldon’s job. After some attempts, with Kayla’s encouragement, I managed it.
Next… stumbling through Kiddush, trying to emulate Sheldon’s niggun. Even after nearly 48 years, it was difficult. Somehow, the niggun of my father a”h, gone for so many years, kept creeping in.
Then… which challah gets the symbolic “cut”? Kayla was pretty sure: bottom on Friday night, top at Shabbos lunch. (Later I learned a mnemonic device: “Top o’ the morning”!)
Baby steps forward.
Eventually, I decided to take a huge step: stay home, alone, for Friday night. My friend Mina,* who’d lost her husband six years earlier, gave me pointers. One suggestion: “Sing out loud.”
So I opened a bentsher to a random zemer: “Ki Eshmirah Shabbos.” I began singing out loud — and choked up. That was a favorite zemer of ours. Memories of singing in joyous harmony, our voices perfectly intertwining, flooded in.
A setback, but I decided to step forward and start entertaining again. I invited my friend Yaffa,* also an almanah, and the Golds,* a couple with whom Sheldon and I had often dined and with whom we’d felt very close.
At Yaffa’s suggestion, Mr. Gold would make Kiddush, and I’d cut the challah for hamotzi. But one thing I wasn’t prepared for: the seating arrangement. My guests suggested I sit in Sheldon’s seat at the head of the table.
The minute I sat down, I lost it. A real first. Until that moment, I’d never cried in public. Thankfully, I was among close friends. They totally got it. And they shared in that moment of grief.
After that incident, I went back to relying on friends and family for Friday night support.
For the most part, my first year of almanah Shabbosim was one giant bubble of love and travel. Extended trips to family in Florida, Vegas, and Israel. Tons of invitations from Silver Springers. Once-a-month Shabbos sleepovers at the home of my daughter Miri in a nearby community.
Hashem gave me a full year to start adapting. But then, just days before Sheldon’s first yahrtzeit, coronavirus struck.
Almanus plus pandemic: a devastating combination. Invitations dry up. Staying with local kids is risky. Travel is riskier. Besides, everyone is dealing with their own coronavirus-induced stressors and issues.
Many steps backward.
Now, halfway into my second almanah year, it’s time to venture outside my comfortable family-and-friend bubble. I’m finally ready to join Nismach, the local Samcheinu group.
I just got off the phone after a conversation with Kayla. While schmoozing, she related the Baal Shem Tov parable. She’d found it in the ArtScroll sefer on Shemoneh Esreh when preparing for a bei’ur tefillah class she teaches to middle-school girls.
It really struck a chord.
Taking my shaky first steps, I’ve been leaning on family and friends. A widow support group is a bigger next step, but it’s only a partial solution. Now I must be ready for that third giant step forward — to reach for the inner strength that will support me, by myself, to carry on.
A New Light
By Shevy Levine
I noticed it on a Friday, during one of my first weeks as a newlywed woman. My leichter tray is a solid square; my two candlesticks form an unapologetic rectangle when aligned. Harrumph.
Inner artist undeterred, I quickly scanned my miniscule machsan apartment for something to fill the awkward space. Reaching up on top of the bookshelf, I retrieved my Tefillas Chanah, placed it before the candles, then propped an intricate silver lighter against the leather cover. Decorative, practical, and perfectly symmetrical.
I lit candles that week proud and content. We were rich.
We were rich still, as the weeks came and went, the months morphing into years, the years melding into what seemed like eternity. We were blessed, we had each other. We faced our challenge as a united front, and determinedly kept moving forward. And yet there was no denying: We were deeply, painfully, alone.
We didn’t disclose much of what transpired in that time. Sporadic updates to our parents, comments made in jest to prying eyes. We held it together, we needed to. Except. Come Friday and the careful veneer would shatter.
V’zakeini legadel… would we ever? Banim — not just one, but many, please G-d! A table. Full. Children laughing. Images of our parents’ homes, overflowing with siblings, children, grandchildren. Would we, too, see that one day? Please, please… please? Please!
Weeks of tears, weeks too numb for tears, weeks of hushed prayers and weeks of blistering pain too big for words. Weeks of high hopes and weeks of wrenching disappointment. And weeks when there was nothing at all, just a gnawing emptiness and a voice whispering don’t think, don’t breathe, don’t feel.
Throughout it all, those two candlesticks stood sentry, listening, watching, bearing silent testimony to a storm that raged just far enough from the surface to keep the rest of the world fooled. But my candles knew, they heard it all — yet somehow, they kept twinkling.
The week of our shalom zachar was like Shabbos sheva brachos all over again. Or maybe like an actual wedding. It was peak season for airline tickets, yet family flew in from across the globe. Our small apartment was deluged with a never-ending stream of packages, well-wishers, and gifts.
There was no music playing, but there didn’t need to be. All of us were singing, laughing, as we went about the Shabbos prep. The hot plate overflowed, the fridge couldn’t close. And between this all, a perfect little prince was passed around, cuddled and hugged and changed and fed, completely unaware of the happy mayhem he’d caused.
Then the whirlwind calmed just a bit, as Shabbos fell upon us and it was time to light. My mother held my baby beside me, as shakily, unbelieving, I struck a match. Three lights danced before my half-closed eyes and I felt myself tremble as I cried like I’d never cried before.
The weeks, the years, every single day of our wait, I felt it all at that moment. And the joy, of finding something complete and peaceful and beautifully whole where shards of pain once lived. Zeh hayom kivinu lo. There were no words, no feelings big enough. This week, at long last, we were a family.
Today my Tefillas Chanah is once again high on the shelf, far from the sticky fingers that threaten to crumple its precious pages. I whisper the familiar words as I dispense pacifiers and diffuse fights. The silver lighter-turned-fire-hazard has been relegated to the breakfront, away from eager hands. And my towering candlesticks, brave and proud, bask in the glow of the mini candles that stand before them, filling our hearts and our home with longed-for light.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 716)
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