“Someday,” my boyfriend David said to me dreamily, “we’ll have Shabbat dinners at our house.”
“Yeah right,” I guffawed. “I guess you’ll have to marry someone else. I don’t do Shabbat.”
Sure, I was Jewish. I went to Jewish camp. And High Holiday services. But I was not an every-week-kind-of-Jew, and had no intention of becoming one. Ironically, my father was a cantor at a Reform synagogue in New York City. But he was a professional baritone who happened to be the cantor, not a classically trained chazzan. Raised by socialist Russian parents who spoke Yiddish, he got the message—Cultural Judaism: Important. Ritual Judaism: Not so much. My mother, the daughter of assimilated German Jews, was fine with that.
David, on the other hand, grew up the son of a German refugee whose family arrived in the United States grateful to be alive—and to practice their religion. My future father-in-law became a successful doctor who served as a synagogue trustee, whose kids participated in youth groups, and whose wife became president of the Sisterhood. And made Shabbat dinners.
David and I met as reporters in New Haven. As we got to know each other, Judaism was a side note. We were more focused on our common passions: journalism, politics, movies, ice cream, tennis, television theme songs, humor and each other. Like most couples, we began to dream about our future, but when David threw out the Shabbat comment, it was as if the sultry LP we were listening to suddenly had a huge scratch in it. Becoming a Shabbos mama did not figure in my plans.
We pushed past it, and a few months later, David invited me to his parents’ lake house for a weekend. On Friday night, my future mother-in-law lit the candles and then walked around the table planting a Shabbat-shalom kiss on all of us. We blessed the wine and dug into the eggy, soft challah. In spite of myself, I kind of liked the ritual. And the barbecued chicken that hit the table next didn’t hurt either. There would be many more Shabbats with David’s family, but until we had children I didn’t fully embrace the idea of doing it myself. I’m still not an every-week-kind-of-Jew, but at our frequent Shabbat dinners, I am the one planting Shabbat-shalom kisses on everyone.
Meeting David was beshert in many ways, but one of the most “meant-to-be” things about it was how he helped me shift from being a bystander Jew to a candle-blessing, challah-baking balaboosta who embraces the warmth of the burning candles.
Andrea Atkins, is a writer in Rye, New York, whose work frequently appears in national magazines. She also teaches personal essay writing in Scarsdale, NY, and can never eat just one slice of challah. She and husband David Hessekiel, the founder and president of Engage for Good, have been married for 32 years. They have two daughters, Kira and Sophie, and are members of Community Synagogue in Rye.