I don’t know what Friday afternoon looks like at your house, but let me share a glimpse of what Yenta Central looks like: I am, of course, sitting at the tiny table masquerading as a home office in the middle of the livingroom. One child is reading The Adventures of Captain Underpants out loud at the top of his lungs; the other has brought all of her shoes and stuffed animals out of the bedroom and is lining them up in the hallway: “Look, Mommy, boats! Lots and lots of boats!” El Yenta Man went down to the garage hours ago to see about the fifteen loads of laundry that mysteriously can’t seem to fold themselves; it’s unlikely that his long absence means he’s taught the socks to find their mates, but rather that he has mastered the high score on the old Defender game that I keep hiding.
Suddenly I realize it is less than an hour until sundown. My adrenal gland flushes my body with a once-a-week stress hormone: It’s the Shabbat-specific panic attack, unlike the daily low-grade buzz that simply repeats the same old neurotic gossip like one of those electronic marquees with the red scrolling letters: “Is anyone reading my silly blog? I am too told to be coloring my hair blue? Is this mole precancerous? Why are there still Jews who support George Bush?”.
I hit the “Shut Down” bar on my Mac and clap. “All right everyone! Clean it up! Now!” Resembling a cross between the Tasmanian Devil and Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest, I spin through the house tossing toys and shoes and grabbing collars, hissing orders like “wash your face!” “put Mr. Monkeypants and Baby Garbage back in the basket!” “for God’s sake stop whining!” and get responses like “Just one more chapter, puh-leeez!” and “Hey! You’re stepping in my ocean!” El Yenta Man surfaces from the garage, fresh and relaxed from his video game session, miraculously carrying a basket of clean towels, napkins and tablecloths. I thought ahead to defrost an organic chicken last night, there’s fresh kale to steam and a challah baked by the anonymous employees of Publix this morning. I say a silent prayer of gratitude for instant brown rice.
Fifty-five minutes later, I am panting with the aftereffects of hysteria, but the Shabbat table has come together: the candles have been lit on the bottom so they will stick in their holders, the napkins stand like crooked swans per El Yenta Boy’s trademark folding technique, and Little Yenta Girl’s snarly wild hair has been tamed on top of her head. Our family breathes three collective breaths together; the first one just to get to the moment, the second to look at each other and wonder at each other’s presence, and the final one that cracks open a deeper sense of being. In that moment of silence the only one my extremely loud and active family experiences all week I strike the match and usher in Shabbat: Baruch ata adonai… Peace descends like blanket crocheted with the softest wool by your bubbie for about thirty seconds. Then the kids start bickering over who got a bigger piece of challah and someone spills the kiddush cup on the freshly washed tablecloth.
It’s not always that hectic, though never perfect by halachic or probably even Child Protective Services’ standards. But I know Meredith Jacobs doesn’t judge me for our messy traditions. Better known as Modern Jewish Mom, a Maryland maven who knows what to wear to synagogue and how to bake a honeycake, Ms. Jacobs understands that every family does Shabbat dinner differently, and the most important thing is that you do it even if it’s pizza.
“It’s not the meal, it’s the mood,” she admonishes in her new book, The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat. It’s the perfect tonic for families who want to bring more of a Shabbesdik feeling into the home, without any of that sanctimonious bullhockey that makes us less-than-perfect mamas feel guilty. In fact, her very point seems to be that Shabbat is a gift to decrease a family’s stress, not make more:
“I don’t believe there is a “right” way to do Shabbat…Start with what speaks to you and build from there…It doesn’t mean you do everything. It means taking the time to figure out what feels comfortable and what works for you and your family.”
Part siddur, part cookbook, with generous dashes of sass and style, the Guide bridges the ancient traditions with real life in a way that will remind you of gabbing with your best friend. Each chapter includes adorable illustrations (showcasing MJM’s apparent predilection for strappy high heels, God love her) and helpful tips (add a little water to the bottom of glass candleholders to prevent a mess), yet the history and essential aspects of Jewish life are explored much more deeply than the fun, glossy layout might belie.
MJM is very clear to remind her readers that she’s “just a mom,” but don’t let her self-effacing humility fool you: Girlfriend knows her Torah. Every relevant prayer is included here in Hebrew and English, including the Eishet Chayel “Woman of Valor” that every husband might consider memorizing. There’s a dip into kabbalah to put the Shabbat ritual into perspective, and never before has this Yenta found such a lovely, easy Havdalah service to end Shabbat once the three stars of Saturday make their appearance. And get this: MJM has interpreted each of the weekly parshas (Torah portion) in family-friendly terms, which instead of being intimidating, will surely inspire enlightened conversation between all generations.
Unlike so many other “Jewish 101”-type tomes, MJM’s Guide to Shabbat covers the ground only a mother can appreciate. The how-to chapter for creating shalom bayit (peace in the home), called “Wine, Not Whine” (heheheh, hear that kids?), includes essential direction for preparing your home for Shabbat, as well advice on how to remind little ones of their manners: “Pretend God is at the table. How would you act?” MJM also demystifies the challenge of DIY challah (bake for the whole month and freeze brilliant!) and she isn’t stingy with the kosher recipes, either. There’s even an entire chapter devoted to projects with the kids what home doesn’t need a glittery spice box made from a milk carton?
As MJM gets down with the practical and generates giggles with the frivolous, she’s never far away from the spiritual: The overreaching theme of this guide is to create peace for yourself and your family one day a week. Religious or no, observing your particular kind of Sabbath facilitates the kind of close family connections we all need more of, as most of us spend the rest of week scattered all over creation in carpools, school, work and extracurriculars. What a relief to find a Jewish how-to book that lets you know it’s all right to do it your way! This is one to give every Jewish mother you know, whether they think they need it or not.