Originally published in the Jewish Press
“Should we eat at home this week?” I ask my kids on Monday night.
It’s time to start planning for Shabbos. My question is rhetorical, since the final call is mine, but since we’re a threesome, they’re usually consulted too.
Shabbos means different things for us than it does for the average Jewish home. Soon after my divorce six years ago, I made a valiant effort at conducting a Shabbos meal for my two toddlers, aged three and a half and two and a half. With emotional resources severely depleted and time and energy limited, the store-bought roasted chicken and greasy soup with heavy matzah balls did little to enhance the atmosphere, and the gnawing loneliness threatened to engulf me. Is it any wonder I gave up?
Since I’d moved down the block from my parents, it was easy enough to slip back into routine at their house. My younger siblings whooped it up with their nephews, while I occasionally pitched in with a creative kugel or a new dessert – when I was in the mood. We were frequently invited to friends for the day meals and ate at home only for the third meal – a quick, impromptu affair with minimal prep time and few emotional challenges.
I’m a coward, I know, but I couldn’t face the idea of having either of the two main Shabbos meals at home alone. Even if it meant swallowing my pride and calling friends to ask if we could join them for a meal, even if it meant accepting invitations from people I didn’t know well and couldn’t care less about, I couldn’t face those claustrophobic four walls at the point of the week that screams of family bonding time.
I heard tales of heroic single moms who, week after week, created a Shabbos atmosphere for their kids, and even hosted company. Not me.
But then a funny thing happened. My children turned from toddlers to elementary-school-aged children, and somewhere along the way they were no longer interested in being guests all the time. It began with quiet mutiny, then became more vocal. “We don’t want to go to that family. They only have girls!” “The Schwartzes don’t have any toys I like.” “I’m going to Bubby and Zeidy’s.”
We spent four months battling it out. I tried laying down the law. “You’re coming with me whether you like it or not.” I tried bribery. “If you come nicely, you’ll get a treat on Sunday.” I tried threats and even caved in a few times, showing up at my hosts alone, while my kids trotted off to crash my parents’ meal.
Ultimately, my son’s therapist provided the solution: “You guys need to do your own Shabbos meal.”
“I can’t,” I protested.
It’s too lonely. I’m too scared.
But the kids are bigger now, and you can talk to them.
I feel stuck, trapped, by myself at home, with no adults to talk to.
So invite company.
I took a deep breath, and decided I was ready.
My kids had definite opinions on everything.
“We need to have pickles and olives after the challah,” they instructed me. “We have to decide a time to eat, and not just start whenever.”
“We have to prepare divrei Torah,” I countered. “We have to sing zemiros.”
The first meal was an instant success, and we repeated it two weeks later (to markedly less success), and then another two weeks later, and then two weeks after that.
Hey, this isn’t so bad.
It was a bit lonely, yes, but fun to sing Dror Yikra and prepare my own chicken cutlets and salads and desserts after years of eating other people’s. I even invited company – my younger siblings, a divorced friend. And best of all, my kids had stopped rebelling on the weeks that I accepted invitations to friends.
After four months, I psyched myself for the next milestone: Friday night.
My son’s therapist (my cheerleader? My mother thought I was nuts) offered enthusiastic support: “Your kids will love it, you’ll see. Staying home, especially when it’s late, is so much nicer than going out.”
I wasn’t so sure. This was the meal when, during my marriage, we tried to avoid having company, preferring to keep it family time. It’s the meal when the night stretches long and empty ahead. It’s the meal that symbolizes warmth and coziness the world over. But why should my kids (and me) be deprived of that coziness? It was time.
I took no shortcuts. No food ordered in; my chicken soup and knaidlach simmered on the stove for the first time in many long, painful years. I laid six pieces of chicken in the pan, enough to serve the leftovers during the week, hoping they’d be tempting enough for two children in an anti-chicken phase. I grated potatoes for kugel and stir-fried string beans with garlic and honey and baked my trademark chocolate chip bars for dessert. The kids cleaned up the living room with only a bit of encouragement and I set the Shabbos clock for the hotplate.
A few hours later, I sang Shalom Aleichem and Eishes Chayil alone over the sounds of a busy card game in the other room. I served soup and chicken and kugel and no one ate except me. Challah and pickles and olives were scarfed down quickly enough.
The worst part was when one of my kids, in a turncoat moment, said, “Why can’t we just go to Bubby and Zeidy every week?”
Yeah, why can’t we?
Family bonding time – for me and them? Oh, right.
“I like the food better at home,” I said. “I like spending time with you guys.”
One likes it better at home, one wants to be down the block at my parents. I empathized, but I stayed firm.
As small as our family is, we too can have Shabbos at home.