My husband and I have been doing Shabbat dinners for most of our nearly decade-long relationship. What started as an important tradition from his childhood has morphed into something I truly appreciate, too. I love having the opportunity to relax and reconnect at the end of a busy work week.
However, while many people turn to religious rituals once they have children, we found that having Shabbat dinner became more difficult once we had a baby. When our daughter was an infant, we could generally tuck her into a rocker or put her to sleep, then do our thing like before — catching up about our week over good food, even if it was just a main course that we’d found the time to cook, without rushing off to do something else afterward.
But as she’s gotten older and would arguably begin to benefit more from these traditions, our schedule has also become more complicated. Prior to the coronavirus lockdown, her daycare didn’t even let out till 5:30, which gave us slim margins to work with. We’re two working parents, which means that Shabbat dinner would require a lot of advance planning, since we’d need to pre-cook on Wednesday or Thursday just to have dinner on the table by 6 o’clock on Friday.
The pandemic, of course, has changed all that. Since lockdown, I’ve been making an effort to pump up our Shabbats. The weekly ritual has come to feel more important than ever. After all, without a signifier like this, would there be any differentiation within our week anymore?
Ironically, it’s been easier to put together a meal in the new world order. To be sure, with two jobs and no childcare, we are barely holding it together. But although my 2-year-old might not be good at letting me sit in front of the computer or take calls during business hours, I can generally find the time to put some semblance of dinner together. That’s especially true if I “cook with her,” which mostly means letting her overturn measuring cups into bowls. (She has become weirdly proud to be my “dumper.” Hey, I’m going with it.)
And after two months of consistent Shabbat dinners, my daughter has been getting super into it, which I didn’t see coming. On Friday afternoons, she now helps her dad clean up before Shabbat — and is even a little bit helpful, too! She picks up her toys, helps take laundry from the drying rack, and when there’s nothing else useful for her to do, she’s perfectly glad to pretend to scrub the floors with a towel. For a girl who often resists bath time, she gets excited to bathe on Friday nights because she wants wet hair. Then she insists on wearing her most frou-frou dresses so she can be a “fancy kid.”
These passions are palpable throughout the week. Recently, when I was reading to her, she pointed at a random dress in a book and announced, “Fancy Shabbat dress!” When she plays outside, she’s liable to use a pine bough as a broom for pretend Shabbat cleaning, or two sticks as play candles, over which she tries to sing the blessing. It’s not rare for her to look up on a random Wednesday morning and say, “Shabbat?”
Her new love for Shabbat has produced some unexpectedly beautiful family moments. The sweetest one started as a simple way to try to keep her quiet while we sang “Shalom Aleichem” and did the blessings: My husband and I reached to hold her hands, and it quieted her down. But now she insists on holding our hands every week during “Shalom Aleichem” and the kiddush. It’s a new family tradition, and I love it.
Beyond the Jewish connectedness, she’s also been learning practical lessons. The first few times we sat together on Friday night, she whined wildly while we tried to get through the blessings; she just couldn’t hold in her eager anticipation of grape juice and challah. Since then, her patience has gotten better: she’s not only able to sit through five minutes of singing, she even tries to join in.
I’m learning from this experience, too. On more than a few harried, quarantine-laden occasions, after I’ve barely put in a full workday, I would kill for an extra hour to catch up on my emails by the time Friday night rolls around. On nights like those, I’ve shown up to dinner in sweats, only to be confronted with a toddler who has gotten herself all gussied up (did I mention her obsession with clip-on earrings?). I’m not prepared to go full-on fancy every week, but she’s inspired me to at least wear real clothes and cultivate a sense of occasion.
Even on Shabbat, it’s tempting to engage in the tit-for-tat trading of childcare with my husband, especially if either of us wants to use the day of rest to, you know, actually rest. (“OK, I’ll watch her for a few hours, but then it’s your turn so I can take a nap.”) But I’m trying to make Shabbat feel different from all the days that come before and after. That includes spending at least some time as a full family unit, whether it’s Friday night dinner or Saturday lunch.
I still fantasize about the day when I can actually hire a babysitter again, or put in a full day’s work without negotiating my schedule around naptime. But in the meantime, one unexpected upshot of quarantine is that my daughter has achieved a fairly advanced sense of Jewish identity without us trying too hard. She’s gotten better at patience, developed a taste for extremely diluted wine when we run out of grape juice (oops?), and has surely become the fancy kid she aspires to be.
Header image by Grace Yagel