Thursday, July 22, 2010

Judith Shulevitz from the NYTimes Style Section (David)

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...Image via CrunchBase
Just a few days before I started to record this blog, this article by Judith Shulevitz appeared in the New York Times.  I often skip the style section, preferring the Book Review, and the magazine from our weekend subscription.  Sasha reads it religiously, and she pointed it out to me.

(NB: Reading the Style Section seems a very good Shabbat observance.  Perhaps I ought to follow Sasha on this.  Unfortunately Sunday Styles comes on Sunday.  Sasha is right, it is a relaxing read.  The Times should include two of them, so we could read them together.  On the other hand, I'm thankful that The Week In Review comes on Sunday too.  That section ought to be Shabbat-verboten, I think.  Reading a review of bad news and political polemics can't be good for relaxing and connecting with friends and family.  At any rate, I don't have the tranquility for it.) 

Ms. Shulevitz features three anecdotes of Shabbat/Sabbath observance.  The message I took from these anecdotes is that the motives for Shabbat/Sabbath observance and the resulting character of that observance vary widely. 

The first involves the Claymans, a thoroughly modern family.  Their family began as interfaith (Ms. Clayman converted to Judaism), and Mr. Clayman works for MTV .   As described, their motive for Shabbat observance involved reconnecting with tradition: cleaning house for a homecoming breadwinner, a traditional blessing, and meat from the butcher.

The second anecdote concerns Reuban Namdar, an Israeli.  For him, although it is not explicitly stated, Shabatt is an exhalation.  Insofar as it constricts - that is, as rules for observance are codified - that tension impedes the organic release he values in Shabatt.  Shabatt tradition, like history, is verbal, and organic.  The family, not the congregation, or the nation, is the fundamental unit.  

The last concerns the loneliness of Mr. Carroll, a Christian observer of the Sabbath, for whom the tradition of Sabbath-observance seems lost.  

I'm of Isreali heritage, and I enjoy story telling.  So, I identified strongly with Mr. Namdar.  He describes an attitude of see-no-evil with regards to driving a car on the Shabbat, "Maybe they didn't want to know that there was a fire inside the engine."  Maybe it was that.  But I'll go a bit further, because part of my attraction to Shabbat observance is liberation. 

My mother told a story about how her father, in Israel, would sneak her out to the back fire-escape to eat fresh pita during Passover.  I don't know how much truth there is to this story, but it doesn't matter.  My grandfather died fairly young, and my mother romanticizes his memory.  (As she should, she loved him.)  The obvious message of the story is that my grandfather was not observant, and was a bit of a rebel.  Another message concerns a deep message of freedom.  Passover, after all, is meant to be a celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people.  My grandfather was, in his way, celebrating this by flouting regulations.  He taught his daughter about freedom in a way that could not be done by mindlessly following the tradition of Passover.  I think something similar applies to Shabbat.  If one starts with rules, to be applied rigidly and consistently, one fails to realize how the Shabbat liberates us from our every-other-day burdens.  

In the course this blog, I'm sure to return to this story many times.  It recalls a complete set of images -  the shadows of a two people, one portly, one impossibly petite, on the wall of a back-alleyway, the smell of fresh pita, and the fear of secrecy from a wife and mother who doggedly observes tradition for the sake of the family. 

Perhaps, in time, I will be able to appreciate the traditionalist motives of the Claymans as opposed to the Israeli/organic motives of Mr. Namdar and my grandfather.  But for now, I want my Shabbat to be a punk-Shabbat.  I want it to be organic, but also a sharp contrast to the rest of life, a kind of rebellion.  The tension between rules and strictures, what to do and what to avoid, is going to be difficult for me.  

Reading the article also caused me to blink over here, to buy Ms. Shulevitz's book The Sabbath World.  Today is Thursday, so I'm fine.  It is a bit disturbing, however, that I had to put the book in my virtual cart even before finishing the article.
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