Julie Levine lights Shabbat candles (JACQUELINE WARNER)
Julie Levine lights Shabbat candles (JACQUELINE WARNER)

Trading a frazzled Shabbat for one that makes me grateful

Every Friday night, when our kids were younger, I’d make Shabbat dinner special. We’d eat in the dining room, and use my fancy dishes. I’d up my game in the cooking department — a departure from what I cooked during the week, which was a little simpler and had fewer dishes.

Celebrating this weekly holiday with my family was important to me — the springboard and the starting point for a Jewish home. I wanted to be good at it.

But it wasn’t always easy. Preparing Shabbat dinner meant more time cooking — and more cleanup. The kids were little, and I’d want them to sit for longer than they’d sit for a regular meal during the week. Often I’d end up nagging them. We’d go around the table and talk about a highlight of our week, but our kids were probably too young, and they’d answer with something goofy and then break out in giggles.

I would compare myself to other Jewish mothers, imagining that their kids (at our kids’ ages) were perfectly well-mannered during their Shabbat dinners, never fidgeting at the table, never whining, or accidentally spilling their soup or juice all over the floor. I envisioned their kids volunteering to recite the blessings without being nudged, that they were insightful when called on to talk about a highlight of their week. I imagined these women, come Friday, weren’t tired at all (like I was), their kitchens were always clean (unlike mine), the food they made was always delicious.

I wondered: Would I still have a good Jewish home if I couldn’t get this right?

It did get easier as the kids got older. I learned how to streamline my cooking and spend less time in the kitchen. The kids sat for longer, too. Sometimes we’d invite another family over, and that was nice.

But eventually I realized that after a full week of cooking dinners, making lunches, preparing snacks, schlepping my kids here and there, on Friday I wanted a break. It felt like Shabbat was for everyone in my family but me.

Once the kids were in upper middle school, I took the pressure off, scrapped cooking dinner many but not all Friday nights, and never really looked back.

We then created a new Shabbat tradition.

I’d pick up the kids from school and come straight home. A couple of hours after some downtime, we’d get in our pajamas and order takeout, eating dinner on paper plates in the kitchen, lighting the candles, singing the blessings beforehand. I let the conversation flow naturally, wouldn’t push the kids to talk about their day at school, nor try to pull out of them a highlight of their week if they didn’t feel like talking. It felt special and separate from the week.

And though there’s been a lot of talk about “unplugging,” I decided to give myself permission to not feel pressured to get that right, either.

Most Friday nights, after our casual dinner, we’d flop onto the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and watch a movie. Technology, including the TV, was sometimes present. The kids weren’t off in their rooms texting their friends, or checking Instagram, or playing Minecraft. We were together and we were all loving our new Shabbat tradition.

And this year, with one kid at college and one still at home, our Shabbat routine has evolved yet again. My hubby and I have started to occasionally attend services on Friday nights, and we then eat dinner with our son afterward. After years of raising children, I love this time in synagogue just for me and also with my hubby.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Shabbat is about giving myself a break from expectation, from trying to think I have to do it all. It’s about being kind to myself, clearing away the noise and being fully present, embracing all that I am grateful and thankful for.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.