The perfect formula to ruin a family Shabbos
Perel: I did this for years, couldn’t you pull your fair share this time?
Baily: I’m happy to take over, but in a way that works for me.
When the last slice of cheesecake disappears and summer vacation begins in full swing, it’s time to start planning. The extended Miller family Shabbos Nachamu retreat in the country has been a tradition since forever. It’s sacred family time; everyone makes sure to be there for the weekend, we have a gala program and menu, and it’s the highlight of my parents’ year.
I enjoy it too, don’t get me wrong. It’s just the lead-up that gets me. You see, part of the family tradition is that the bulk of the organization, delegating, arranging, and basically pulling everything together falls on one person: me.
Most years, it’s worked out fine. I’m the oldest, I’m a party planner, I can pull off events no problem. So I set up a few google spreadsheets, prepare a menu, delegate the cooking, collect money from everyone, hire entertainers, prepare some games. My sisters pitch in with the food, the weekend goes like clockwork, everyone’s happy.
This year, though, something snapped. Maybe it was the time factor: the family’s grown, I was working two jobs, and I just didn’t have time anymore. Shimmy had a minor surgery, Bracha was off to seminary soon and wasn’t pitching in as much, and Adina, my oldest, had just started shidduchim. I felt like my days were an endless blur of on-the-phone, in-the-car, shopping and working and cooking and working and cleaning and working and barely catching a couple hours sleep before starting the whole routine again.
It was already Rosh Chodesh Tammuz and I hadn’t even started planning yet.
“I can’t do this,” I blurted to my husband one evening. I’d missed a call from Mrs. Kagan, the shadchan; there were three loads of laundry to fold; and my computer was open to a blank spreadsheet. “I just don’t have the time to even start.”
“So don’t,” Yerachmiel said, surprisingly. “Don’t do it. Your siblings can take charge for a change. Why should it be you? You have so much else going on.”
At first, the idea sounded ludicrous. Like I said, I’ve always been the one handling all the technical details. But then I realized he was right. My sisters were adults, my sister-in-law had been part of the family for ten years, they could handle it. Someone else could step up to coordinate the details. Why was it always me, anyway?
“I’ll arrange the menu,” I decided. “Not too difficult, basically a copy-paste from last year, we’ll change up the salads and desserts a little, but the outline can be the same. And I’ll leave planning the program to some of the others.”
There was a surprised pause on our sisters Whatsapp chat when I made the announcement, but then eventually Esther Leah posted Sure, no problem. Sara wanted to know what was involved in the program, and Baily wrote back Like the games, kids’ show on Friday, stuff like that.
Chaya, the only sister-in-law, begged off. She held down a high-pressure job, had a bunch of little kids, and was due at the end of August. But my sisters seemed perfectly at ease with the idea — maybe a little too much.
Maybe there should be one person in charge, just to oversee that everything gets done, I messaged, hoping it came across tactful. I had experience with this sort of thing; a group effort generally meant everyone expecting someone else to get the job done, and nothing actually happening. There was a bit more back-and-forth (Sara: I think it’ll be fine, we’ll work on it together) but eventually Baily offered to take responsibility.
But don’t worry!!! We’ll all pitch in, Esther Leah wrote hastily.
Yeah, it’ll be fun, Sara added.
I closed the chat, feeling some of the tension slip away. Now that the program was off my head, they could have all the fun they wanted.
Isent Baily a bunch of emails the next day: my spreadsheets, the yearly schedule, and all the games I’d prepared over the years. She wouldn’t reuse them, but she could use them for ideas. I also prepared a contact list of the various entertainers we’d hired over the years: clowns, magic shows, juggling, balloons. Friday afternoons, entertainers for kids were a lifesaver.
Then I put the program out of my mind and got to work on the menu. It was so much simpler this way; I was glad to have relieved myself of some of the responsibility. Delegating the cooking was easy — Sara does salads and desserts, Esther Leah does the baking, Baily does sides. I took on the mains and the weekday meals, and Chaya would take care of paperware and shopping for things like cereal. Super simple, which was great, because I had too much on my head.
Adina went on her first date, after an exhaustive string of suggestions that went nowhere and exhaustive research phone calls. I was juggling more balls than ever.
“It’s a good thing you gave up that entertainment planning, huh?” Yerachmiel said, as we sat waiting up for Adina. “You have so much on your head in any case.”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering idly how Baily was getting on with it. My sisters are a lot more laid-back than I am. I hoped things were progressing. But I’d given her all the information, it should be easy. Plus she had a team on board, while I used to do it all myself.
The door opened, and all thoughts of Shabbos Nachamu programs flew outside. Adina was back.
She went on a second date, then a third, then said no. Okay, these things were normal. I tossed away the scraps of lists I’d been hiding (who to call, what to buy) and went back to the drawing board. Why did no one ever tell me how busy shidduchim could make you?
Iwas thinking about Mrs. Kagan’s latest suggestion while maneuvering an overloaded shopping cart at the grocery. Pre-Nine-Days barbeque, and enough milchigs to feed the family for a week after that… and then the grand family weekend. At least that was sorted out already.
“Hey, Perel,” came a familiar voice from behind. Sara waved at me from down the aisle. “You also doing your shopping for the grand trip?”
I looked at my cart. “No, my stuff is all in the freezer already.”
She grabbed a few pie crusts. “Good for you.”
“How’s the program going?” I asked, glad for the chance to find something out after weeks of silence.
“The program?” Sara sounded distracted, browsing the shelves. “Oh, right, the program! Yeah, we’ve been talking about it, it’s gonna be great…”
I wondered what it would be like to participate in a program that I didn’t prepare. Would it be strange, or relaxing? I couldn’t decide if I was looking forward to it.
Still, my decision to give up the responsibility kept on proving itself right. My days raced by, my evenings were jam-packed, and I was still adjusting to this new reality of having two almost-grown-up daughters around. Bracha and Adina kept vying for attention to talk endlessly about shopping and seminary, about shopping and shidduchim, about shopping and college and work and careers. The kids had camp, someone was sick, work was manic. Life at its busiest.
One evening, with an empty kitchen for a change, I decided to check in with Baily while I cleaned up. The program and entertainment were a big deal, no one knew that better than I did. Even with the others to help her, there were so many details involved in producing a flawless, few-day event.
“Hi, Baily. How’s it going?”
“Perel! Great, baruch Hashem. How are you?”
“Good, good.” I rinsed off a few glasses, set them carefully to dry. “I’ve been meaning to ask you how the Shabbos Nachamu prep is going. It’s a big job, dealing with all the entertainment.”
Baily gave a relaxed laugh. “Oh, you’re so sweet. Don’t worry, it’s all under control. I made some phone calls the other day, waiting to hear back from some of the entertainers, prices, you know.”
I put down the sponge I’d been using. “Uh, you haven’t booked entertainers yet? For next week?” I hadn’t planned to get involved, I didn’t want Baily to feel criticized or anything. But she clearly didn’t know how these things worked. “You need to arrange these things well in advance, or they’re all booked up.” I thought of the frantic Fridays with all the kids underfoot, and the blessed peace that reigned each year when my hired entertainment arrived. “We really need to make sure this happens, or we’ll be super stuck. Oh, wait, did you try the balloon show man? He’s usually happy to squeeze in a last-minute booking, the kids loved it too years ago…”
“Perel,” Baily says, cutting in just before I was going to remind her about the petting zoo. “It’s under control. You wanted a break, okay?” She sounded a bit defensive, as if I was insinuating that she wouldn’t do a good job. But I really wasn’t, I’d handed over the reins and trusted her to do it. I just happened to know about these things from experience, and it looked like she was going to need some tips to pull it off. For goodness’ sake, I was trying to help her.
I bit my lip. Forget it.
I kept on reminding myself to let go, for the rest of the evening, and the whole week. They’re going to deal with it, they took charge. Let go.
But a nagging feeling followed me all the way to the country. Would they really pull this thing off?
As soon as we arrived, I knew it would be a disaster.
Oh, the kitchen was organized. Fridge, freezer, pantry, everything labeled, foil containers dropped off and put away in a logical order: Friday lunch warming up, Shabbos food in an easy-to-access location, Sunday at the back of the freezer. I hung a large printed copy of the menu inside a kitchen cabinet to make things as simple as possible. We served lunch, cleared lunch, served it again when the last family appeared. The kids were hyper and underfoot, Shabbos was coming, and there was no sign of a program ready to begin.
I started sorting out hot plates and the Shabbos kettle, but we were missing some supplies, and every time I took out a container, a kid came careening into the kitchen and I had to dive over to salvage the rickety table from spills. At least two kids were crying, and everyone seemed bored.
“Hey, do we have anything for the kids to do?” I asked Esther Leah, when she came in with the baby in her arms and two little ones clinging to her skirt. “I need some help in here, all the fresh salads and stuff. And my kids are gonna go crazy soon if we don’t set them up with something…”
“I’ll go see.” Esther Leah looked harried. Hardly surprising, I thought sardonically. This was why I always made a packed kids’ schedule for Friday afternoon, it was the only way things worked out for us to get ready for Shabbos smoothly, clean up, and also enjoy some adult bonding time in the kitchen.
A moment later, I heard Baily calling to someone, “Where’s that Uncle Moishy DVD? You didn’t bring it in the end? Oh, no… okay, so what about the toys, we could dump them all in the lounge…”
I cringed. The lounge was spotless, ready for Shabbos, I’d even set down the magazine packets on the coffee table. We were meant to have entertainment now, we usually did it outdoors, this was insane. We couldn’t leave upward of 20 kids in the lounge for two hours with a few toys; it would be a disaster. Why didn’t they arrange anything? What was going on?
I bit back rising irritation when Baily rushed in. “Perel, what about you? Did you bring any toys or games? I thought the others were bringing, but it was a bit of a misunderstanding…”
“I have Bananagrams,” Sara offered, coming up behind her. “Kids! Who wants to play Banagrams?” She waved the yellow case around and a few cousins straggled along.
“I want to play,” Tzivi, Sara’s three-year-old, complained. “Mommy, be on my team!”
Sara cast me an apologetic look. “Perel, you know what, I’m gonna sit and play with the kids, try keep them out your way, okay?”
“I’ll watch the boys outside,” Baily said. “They’re not interested in Bananagrams.”
Esther Leah still hadn’t reappeared. And Chaya and Moish and co hadn’t even arrived yet.
So much for a calm Friday, organized children’s entertainment, and sister bonding time.
It was downhill from there.
Shabbos without any toys and games was a disaster. There was no planned program either, no babysitting schedule with the older kids taking shifts to help out. The meal ended, the adults dispersed, and guess who was left to organize some makeshift program for the kids who couldn’t handle the lack of structure?
Yes, you got it.
I’d hoped to get a quick nap in later on in the afternoon, but no, some of the little ones needed attention, there were no books, and I ended up telling stories by heart on the couch for 45 minutes until some of the others reappeared. They looked refreshed and rested. I was fuming.
But Motzei Shabbos was definitely the grand finale.
Our family melaveh malka extravanganza has always been the highlight of our weekends. Menu, décor, theme, and program. I usually made a multi-level, all-inclusive family game, either a quiz show or a large-scale version of a game like Clue or something, in teams to keep the kids involved. I would customize it and include family jokes or trivia, and everyone always enjoyed it a lot. Without a program, the Melaveh Malka would be – food. With the program, it was an event. It was laughter, partying, togetherness. The entertainment was what kept everyone at the table, it was my parents’ nachas, and it made some of the kids’ favorite memories, too.
Considering the dismal state of the program so far, I couldn’t bring myself to hope for too much, though.
I set up the entire buffet myself, since everyone else was busy with restless kids (see what happens when there’s no structure for two days?!), and Baily was running around saying something about getting the program together. My mother gave me a wink as I passed by her with loaded trays – “Looking forward to the fun tonight, Perele!” – and I gave her a tight-lipped smile in response. I wondered if she was in for a disappointment.
It was a game, of sorts. Baily passed around a bag, there were various items, we had to guess who they belonged to. Oh, and something about complimenting the person whose item we held. The adults played along, but the kids lost interest very quickly. These games where everyone has to keep quiet and listen to each individual response… what should I say? It’s a doomed-to-failure situation, in my opinion.
Esther Leah picked out a small sock, made some comment to little Tzivi, and passed the bag along. I wondered idly if I should get dessert ready in the kitchen.
My mother leaned over. “Not your usual style, Perel, eh?” she said. I could tell she was disappointed at the absence of a sophisticated, well-structured program. I felt the anger rising inside me – they took on a responsibility, couldn’t they do it properly, the way I’d done it for years and years without any help and without complaining or compromising on the quality? Didn’t they realize there was a reason why I didn’t simply pull out an impromptu party game myself?
I felt cheated. I’d expected a high-standard presentation, a thought-out program that met the needs of adults and kids and was efficient and organized. Just what I’d done for them all along. And now they appeared without too much planning and just try play some baby games instead?
If I could tell Baily one thing, it would be: How could you cop out of a responsibility that you willingly took upon yourself?
I won’t deny it, Shabbos Nachamu is the highlight of the year for my family. But it’s also – how should I put it? I guess you could say, it’s a tiny bit pressurizing on this end.
Perel runs it, every year. She runs it like she runs every one of her perfect, five-star events: unbelievably meticulous, super-duper organized, no detail left behind. Gorgeous, structured, flawless, perfect.
Which is fine, and we love her, and yes, the weekend goes smoothly and beautifully under her instruction. But it gets a bit much to have her constantly checking in, did you make the appetizer, what are you bringing for dessert, don’t forget Ta’s low-sodium diet.
Still, the benefits definitely outweigh the difficulties, so we go along with it, do our assigned jobs, and enjoy the weekend with the family.
Then Perel backed out of doing the entertainment. It was a surprise to get her message, I won’t deny that, but hey, there are another three sisters, we could totally pull it off. Perel was insisting on having someone be “in charge,” and I ended up volunteering, but I wasn’t worried. Sara and Esther Leah would help me and we’d pull together a nice, straightforward program to keep the kids entertained.
Privately, I was starting to look forward to having more of a say in running things. Perel’s programs were great, but also a bit… maybe too much. Kids also like running around, you know? They don’t get to see their cousins so often, let them have some time to chill and let loose. Not every moment needs to be planned to the last second. My kids would definitely appreciate some unstructured play time.
Esther Leah and Sara agreed with me.
“We can do DVDs and board games, we can one entertainer for Friday afternoon instead of having a lineup of three… the kids don’t need so much,” Esther Leah said.
We were all in agreement that while Perel’s programs were fantastic, rigid schedules don’t work well for everyone.
“We can have a more go-with-the-flow approach, the kids are a wide range of ages, they don’t all want a ‘day-camp-style’ program,” Sara added.
Go with the flow worked for me, but I wanted to make sure we were taking care of everything. Perel had sent me a long list of entertainers with their contact details and pricing, and I made a ton of phone calls. But one had another booking, another was abroad, and a few wanted to come only if we booked a full two- or three-hour event. We went back and forth for a while, settled on something, then it fell through. I texted Sara and Esther Leah, disappointed that we were back to the drawing board.
Don’t worry, Esther Leah posted on our small Shabbos Nachamu Program!!!! group chat. Worst case, we’ll bring a DVD for Friday afternoon, it will keep everyone quiet for an hour or so.
Yeah, I have a ton of Uncle Moishy’s, Sara messaged.
So that was settled. I felt a bit more relaxed after that. Even while I waited for the other entertainers to call back and tried to put together a more formal program, I knew we had an emergency backup plan. Ha – that sounded as organized as Perel herself.
Perel didn’t seem to think so, though. She called me a couple of times to check in, and apparently, she’d asked the others as well. Why couldn’t she trust us to get on with the job? She’d handed it over happily enough in the first place.
But okay, Perel was Perel. I could handle it.
What should we do for Motzei Shab program? I texted the others.
Let’s skip the crazy complicated team games with a million rules, do a few short party games instead, Sara suggested. I liked the idea; that way, people could come and go as they needed, not have to sit and concentrate for so long. I made a list of ideas and put the supplies together in one place, feeling almost as competent as Perel.
Things were under control. Even though we were still waiting on entertainment options, it really should be fine. Everyone would bring toys, we’d have what to do with the kids in any case, it would be totally okay.
And it started off okay. More than okay, even.
Esther Leah had a great game that kept the kids busy for the first few minutes, at least. To be honest, it wasn’t the best option since it needed a big table – and Perel wanted to start setting the table for Shabbos already. But it was a game, and it worked, even though it needed a lot of adult supervision and explaining and there were so many little pieces, I was scared to take my eyes off the baby.
When the others got bored of the game, Esther Leah cleared up and we left Perel to her elaborate tablescapes. My mother was with her, folding napkins and glowing with the nachas. I smiled, all the hassle and back-and-forth was worth it. This family retreat made her so happy.
After lunch, things got more difficult. The entertainer didn’t pan out and by the time I called the two standbys, they both apologetically told me they were booked up. Worst of all, my backup plan fell through, because Sara had forgotten the DVDs.
“I’m so sorry, Baily, I didn’t realize we needed them, I really thought the clown show was a done deal,” she told me, biting her lip. “What will we do?”
“We’ll chill,” I told her, even though I was tensing up a little at the thought of Perel’s reaction. “It’ll be fine, you’ll see. There are enough big kids around. Perel’s Adina can watch some of the little ones, Bracha and Chavi can help, and I’ll get my Pinny to make some game for the little boys. Maybe you’ll keep an eye on them outside, and I’ll help in the kitchen?”
“Hey, I have Bananagrams,” Sara said, coming up behind us. “Kids! Who wants to play?” She turned to me. “Baily, I think your boys are fighting over the skateboard, by the way, you might want to go referee…”
I ran outside, Esther Leah headed in the other direction. Where were all the toys? Who usually brought them? I always thought it was just a casual hodgepodge of everyone-bring-everyone-share, but now that I thought about it, it was usually mostly Perel’s doing. And this year, apparently, she hadn’t done that either.
I took a deep breath. We had a few games. It was beautiful weather, the kids could run around. It was all going to be fine.
And it was, it really was. We made it to Shabbos, the house was spotless, everything looked amazing. The kids were happy, the older ones just wanted to sit and schmooze and read the magazines, and the younger ones kept each other busy. Friday night we sat together on the couches, just enjoying each other’s company. With no elaborate program planned, it was more relaxing, more easygoing. To be honest, I preferred it this way.
The best was Motzei Shabbos. Party games might be typical, but they’re typical for a reason.
“Great job, everyone’s enjoying,” Sara murmured to me between rounds of Guess the Food. I nodded, distracted. Perel had gone out a few minutes ago and was yet to return. Was she very disappointed?
I knew that she usually did a whole riddle-question-slideshow game-show thing. But it was so, so much work, and not everyone appreciated it either. The younger ones often couldn’t follow, or got too tired, and if any of us left in the middle to take care of a child, we’d lose the thread of the game.
This way was much easier. We did one game, people could come and go, and there was always the next one five minutes later. No one was stressed about keeping kids quiet or explaining the complicated instructions. Everyone was having a good time, the food was great, Perel had done an amazing job on the menu – it couldn’t be better.
The party dispersed earlier than usual, but that was fine. We had a trip planned for the next day, and the kids were tired.
I met Perel on the stairs. “I see the program didn’t take too long to put together,” she said. There was an edge in her voice.
I thought about the time we’d spent making a list of games, getting things together, and discussing what would keep the children entertained. “I thought it was great,” I told her frankly. “There’s no need to go overboard, everyone had a good time tonight.”
“Oh, so I go overboard?” Perel’s eyes flashed. “What about being organized, what about having something for everyone, what about making sure the schedule was tight and kept the kids busy, and how much more enjoyable it is when the supplies are in place and there’s enough to do and you’re not running after cranky, bored kids all the time?”
I thought back over Shabbos. No one had seemed overly cranky to me. Okay, so there were a few mishaps, Friday afternoon was hectic, but isn’t that just part of life?
“No one’s going to remember what game we played tonight, it’s the family time that matters,” I said.
Perel shook her head. “If family time is so important, it should be done right, it should be a smooth experience for everyone.”
Who was this “everyone” she kept talking about?
“Fine,” I told her, losing patience. “If you didn’t like the program, do it yourself next year.”
If I could tell Perel one thing, it would be: If you look around, you’ll see that everyone is fine with a more laid-back program – except for you.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 821)
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