It occurs to me that I don’t spend near enough time pointing out the lunacies of the religion I was brought up in. And since I am leaving today to go to Florida, where I will visit my kooky religious mother, it seems a perfect time for the the first installment of Growing Up Jewish.
My mother was brought up orthodox. Her parents immigrated to Montreal from the old country. Picture Fiddler on the Roof, but with less singing. Not sure if I should be happy or sad about that. Who doesn’t love a good show tune?
But I digress.
My mother wanted to continue observing the sabbath. By Jewish law, that meant that from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday there would be no electricity, no car, no writing, no cutting, no pressing buttons, no flipping switches… There was to be nothing that had any potential for fun whatsoever.
For a little background, the sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest. I can see where observing a day of rest has had its advantages over the years. We all need a break. I’m sure the idea of a sabbath gave people leverage over employers who would have preferred seven day a week workers.
Of course whatever usefulness the idea of a sabbath had was long ago overwhelmed by the absurdities that institutionalization and modernity have caused. So while giving your transportation a day of rest may have been kind when your transportation was a horse, making your family walk 10 blocks to shul (temple) because you aren’t allowed to use your car is ridiculous.
My father, in contrast, grew up in a much less religious household. He was not prepared to give up his car, his television, or his morning cup of coffee. So my parents had to do quite a bit of compromising. This led to some incredibly nonsensical rules.
We could go out in the car, use electricity, watch television, and boil water. However, we were not allowed to draw pictures or make toast. I distinctly remember getting into trouble with a friend of mine for attempting to punch rhinestones into a t-shirt during the sabbath. (Hey, I was like eleven and it was the eighties, so shut up.)
The rules were arbitrary and made sense only in the twisted mind of my mother. Is it any wonder I don’t like rules?
Friday night sabbath dinner was a big friggin deal. There was no such thing as missing it. It was in the dining room. You had to wear shoes. My mother lit candles, which she ran her hands over three times and then prayed over with her hands over her eyes. She did not appreciate it if you took the opportunity to play peak a boo.
There was special bread (Challah, egg bread) and special wine (Manischewitz, sickly sweet). We prayed in Hebrew over the wine and bread, but nothing else. Apparently, jews don’t think it is necessary to thank god for chicken. In fact, my family never prayed over food any other day of the week. This may be the source of my lifelong thankfulness for alcohol and alcohol alone.
My father went through the ceremonial motions reluctantly. He was forced to wear a yamulka (beanie), which he threw half-assedly on his head for exactly as long as the prayers took and then immediately removed. On at least one occasion, my father and I took the opportunity of my mother covering her eyes for the candle prayer to chuck pieces of challah bread at each other across the table. Often, after the wine prayer was over, my father and I made lovely wine spritzers, which actually makes the Manischewitz somewhat drinkable. My mother tolerated this reluctantly.
Once I became a teenager, the special hell that was Friday night dinner became particularly unbearable. Each minute at the table was a minute I was not out getting into trouble with my friends. My social life was further delayed by my dishwashing responsibilities. And while our sabbath dinners ended well after sundown, no amount of arguing would convince my mother that washing the Friday night dinner dishes was work and not rest.
To this day, I have no idea why my mother chooses to follow these bizarro rules. I think part of it is that she was brought up to think she had to be doing something every minute of every day and the sabbath gave her permission to do nothing. Why she needed permission, I don’t know. I also think she is a control freak and that the rules gave her the opportunity to make her world the way she wanted it with the veneer of god’s authority.
Then there is tradition. That’s a big one in Judaism. And finally there is is the sick belief that all Jewish suffering is caused by Jews not being good Jews. I remember hearing once that if all Jews observed the sabbath just once then all their suffering would end. Get it. Light the candles, drink the wine, say the prayers, and…abra cadabra…no more holocausts!
At least I got to drink wine.