Rabbi Ari Cartun's family having Shabbat dinner together, March 2020.
Rabbi Ari Cartun's family having Shabbat dinner together, March 2020.

Pandemic Shabbats offer lessons to carry forward

It’s Friday evening. The fragrance of cooked turkey breast with rosemary and roasted garlic potatoes fills the house. The dining room table is festively set with red linens, flowers from the garden, Portuguese candlesticks, a pewter wine cup, a cloth-covered homemade challah — and an incongruous laptop.

We light the candles, bless the wine and chant the motzi. As we follow the service on our computer, we nosh our way through another Zoom Shabbat: dining, praying, harmonizing. For an entire year, my husband, brother and I have honored Shabbat at our dining room table, transformed into a makeshift sanctuary each weekend with our new routines: services via Zoom followed by informal breakout sessions with friends who used to dine out together.

On Saturday morning, our weekly Torah study follows a similar course. Instead of bagels at the synagogue, we sip our coffee as we peruse the parashah, sharing thoughts on Zoom’s chat function or raising electronic hands. After, we break into small groups to discuss the Torah or just shmooze.

We’ve had our vaccination shots, and soon we will greet our friends in the synagogue or in the outdoor chapel. We will shmooze during pre-prayer snacks, harmonize with one another and dine with friends, probably at a neighborhood restaurant. Imagine going to a favorite eatery and eating inside, rather than ordering takeout, which inevitably loses something in transport, like the crispy noodles that were soft and squishy by the time they arrived home.

Soon we will retire what we call our “Zoomies” — tops with anything-goes bottoms, such as sweats, workout leggings or jammies. Once again, we will look in the mirror before we leave the house and check our head-to-toe silhouettes, putting on real shoes instead of slippers.

I look forward to in-person encounters with friends and clergy we have seen only on-screen. Eventually, we may even hug or shake hands instead of elbow bumping. And I dearly look forward to being a dinner guest or attending a potluck.

That said, how will we handle a serve-yourself synagogue supper? Will our shuls follow the example of the cruise lines, stationing gloved, masked servers at the buffet tables?

During the pandemic, we have been fortunate that my husband’s daughters and grandchildren live nearby, so we have been able to share backyard birthday parties and masked encounters in our driveways. In addition, there are three of us in my household to share meals and conversations, which remain lively. We have not experienced the boredom or the isolation that have beset so many, and even though we are nominally retired, we continue to take on professional projects. And we have not faced the financial hardships of those whose unemployment is not by choice.

As this global nightmare slowly dissipates, we look forward to attending theater and concerts, singing with our choirs and sitting around a table with classmates in our writing workshops.

But one thing we don’t look forward to is the stress of leaving the house before 7 in the evening to attend meetings and rehearsals, allowing enough time to hunt for a parking place. In the last year, I don’t think I’ve put gas in the Prius more than a half-dozen times. Inevitably, I’ll be spending more money on gas, and more time on the road.

What have I learned from this yearlong unplanned staycation? I’ve learned that I’m overprogrammed and overscheduled, and I don’t take enough time to just sit in nature and do nothing. There’s something to be said for the flipside of John Dewey’s “learning by doing” philosophy.

For me as a writer and for my husband as an inventor, inspirations come to us when we let our minds travel while our bodies are still. In the last year, by staying in and dining at home, we have learned to take things more slowly, particularly enjoying the tranquility of Shabbat.

In Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” the poet laments that “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. … We have given our hearts away.”

As we go forward, can we manage to retain some of this quietude as our worlds open up again, if not for every day, at least on Shabbat?

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].