We’re having discussions about penalty rates for weekend work and what a can of worms that’s proving to be! How complicated the notion of ‘the Sabbath’ can be, particularly for those attached to a particular religion or political perspective. Back in the 1950s, when I was a newly-arrived ‘ten pound Pom’, I used to call Australia a lotus land. Office workers worked Monday to Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, enjoyed a morning tea break and a full hour for lunch; shops closed at mid-day on Saturday. Families practised togetherness and the sound of lawnmowers was heard throughout the land.
If you were Christian, then Sunday church followed by Sunday lunch with family and friends might be on the agenda. If you were Jewish, then the days were reversed and Saturday was your Sabbath, although the observances really start at sunset on Friday. And this is where my reflections begin:
When I was a child, there were things we couldn’t do on Shabbes and Yom Tov, such as go to the pictures (involving money) or use scissors (involving work). Solly’s Girl Ch. 18
But my father, Solly, was a tolerant man and believed in compromise. During the height of the Blitz he decided that for the sake of our sanity we would join the queue outside the local cinema and see Fantasia and I remember the slides that appeared on the screen announcing the start and conclusion of the air raids that were taking place outside.
Fast forward to Melbourne suburban life in the 1980s. Alan and I were back in Elwood and he was a crew member on a friend’s yacht. They were a lovely bunch of ‘seniors’ – we dubbed them ‘Dad’s navy’ – and they sailed sedately across Port Phillip Bay from the marina at St Kilda to Williamstown and back, admiring the dolphins, drinking tea and taking turns in kipping down below in the little cabin. The yacht was called Dreamboat and indeed it was a dreamy time for this little group of Jewish ‘elders’. They sailed on the Sabbath and Alan, who would have observed the observant attending morning and evening services as he drove along, wrote a poem, ‘My Sabbath’ which was published in Generation Magazine, July 1990:
On Saturday I wear my shirt with nautical flags on it.
In my street other Jews are wearing their signals too.
Their signals speak to me in sable semaphore
of how my Sabbath shuns synagogue for sea.
They frighten me with their testamental blackness,
like reproachful gannets that line the breakwater
as my sails belly to the first swelling wave –
an admonitory minyan, streimel-ed with feathers.
It’s my Sabbath too I say to the whitefaced side-curled child
but not to his father who worries my conscience
nor his mother whose sheitl is so set, the wind that drives
my boat could not stir her waves. To the light-house we go.
They to theirs, me to mine. A boat is a holy vessel,
an ark of triumph that bows down only to the elements.
On Friday night I pray before my barometer. Then cut the
challah, salt it, pass it around: blessed art thou O Lord
who brings forth bread from the earth (and kindly winds for
Saturday that won’t give the testamental ones all the
righteousness). Tomorrow, tomorrow, my tallit shall be a sail
around my shoulders, its ropes the side-curls of a white-faced boy.
[Just in case: minyan – a quorum; streimel – a fur hat worn by very orthodox Hasidic men; sheitl – a wig worn by very orthodox women to hide their hair; challah – the plaited Sabbath loaf; tallit – prayer shawl]
Alan wrote only a handful of poems and he was feeling his way with an unfamiliar genre. But he makes his views clearly. I understand where he’s coming from with his worried conscience and desire for a share of the righteousness. I’m not so kind; however, his conflicting emotions about the Sabbath mirror my own.
His ideal agenda was Friday night dinner with the family, a Kehilat Nitzan synagogue service on Saturday morning, and then sailing on ‘Sat’d’y arvo’. This mixed bag of Jewish observance and Australian recreational customs has surely given our children the message he and I would have always wanted for them. I would wave him goodbye with ‘Have a nice pray!’, ‘Have a nice sail!’ I was content to garden or read. I don’t think this dilutes Jewish identity one bit and is more like a tribute to life. L’chaim! Solly’s Girl Ch. 18
Fast forward yet again to 2015. There’s something planned called the Shabbat Project and the Australian Jewish News has been vigorously bringing this world-wide event to its readers. The lead article last week was headlined: Observing Shabbat in the Home; for me it is just one huge guilt-trip.
‘Simple tips on how to prepare your home to ensure a seamless Shabbat’ fill me with – what? Despair, exasperation, frustration, nostalgia, amusement are just some of my emotions at the following instructions: clean the house and polish the silver; hide the remote controls for all gadgets and disable the equipment to which they relate; wash and iron my clothes for Shabbat; turn off lights and leave on only those that will stay on for the entire Sabbath; fill an urn with water and switch it on; tape down the light switch inside the fridge; pre-tear foil and food wrap; same for toilet paper (or use tissues); pre-cook all meals and keep them edible on a warming tray; record a phone message saying I’m not available until after Sabbath.
My orthodox family never went thus far and I wonder how many of us world-wide do, in fact, practice such a strict regime. The Australian Jewish News seems determined to shame me but, like Alan, I find the ‘testamental blackness’ intimidating. They to theirs, me to mine.
I reflect on my relationship with all my grandsons and my role as matriarch of this small family. The glue that holds us together is Shabbat dinner every Friday night. It is only a perfunctory nod in a religious direction, yet each of us knows this is an important punctuation point in the week, a moment when we reconnect. It’s always a proper dinner, never take-away fish and chips or pizza. I battle to be heard over the conversation as I bless the candles and watch small Eli’s eyes light up. Traditionally, the mother of the family covers her hair with a lace scarf and hides her eyes behind her hands, but I don’t do that because I want to see my family and lace scarves are not me. This ritual meal has been a fixture throughout my married life. Now I take over Alan’s chair, and his presiding photograph is ceremoniously placed on the mantelpiece by Isaac. We don’t have silver candlesticks of our own, and the Art Deco ones Sadie and Solly used are so worn from my mother’s polishing I’ve put them away in favour of small bronze enamel Israeli ones. Rhonda, Toby’s wife, is usually at work, but she will have sent the challah she baked, and Eli and Isaac will cut and salt it. Toby, the total rationalist, will bless the wine; Daniel will recite the brakha in respectable Hebrew, with interpolations from Peter in a mockery of Yiddish accents. Then we can get down to the serious business of the weekend – football matches. Solly’s Girl Ch. 18