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Observing the Sabbath

How nine fiction writers handled the theme of the seventh day

March 16, 2010
Children at Beth El Synagogue Nursery School in Minneapolis practicing the candle blessing for Shabbat, 1939(From the Steinfeldt Photography Collection of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest; some rights reserved.)
Children at Beth El Synagogue Nursery School in Minneapolis practicing the candle blessing for Shabbat, 1939(From the Steinfeldt Photography Collection of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest; some rights reserved.)

As she made clear in this week’s Vox Tablet podcast, Judith Shulevitz has, with her new book The Sabbath World, offered us nothing less than a kaleidoscopic picture of the day of rest. Below, with excerpts from eight of today’s leading Jewish fiction writers (and a posthumous entry from I.B. Singer), we offer a different set of takes on the day.


Elisa Albert, “When You Say You’re a Jew,” from the collection How This Night Is Different?

“Services?” Debra says, waiting for that moment when it becomes clear to the woman that she should envelop Debra in some sort of embrace. “Shabbat?” She fingers the phrase book but knows that nothing in it will be of any help. It is broken down into five sections: Conversation, Food, Transportation, Hospitality, Emergencies. There are things she wants, to communicate that are not included in these basics. Were there a Religion-Seeking section, perhaps things would be easier. “I have come for Shabbat services,” Debra would say. “I am a Jew.” And then, ritually, defensively, to explain her visage: “My mother converted.” Then she would flip over to the Food section: “What’s for dinner?”

The woman crosses her arms over her chest. They face off in monolingual obtuseness.

Okay, Debra thinks. It is Friday night; there must be Shabbat services. There are certain immutable rules involved with religion. Just because she is in a borderline second-world country (bastard child of Europe)—a place where she had, the day before, for complete lack of alternative, cuisine, been forced to eat tripe, for fuck’s sake—does not mean that she should feel stupid for having shown up, unannounced, at Lisbon’s only synagogue, sans a way back, at dusk on Shabbat. A Jew could do that, find a home anywhere in the world with other Jews. Wasn’t that the point of the entire freakin’ deal? Covenant, whatever?


Shalom Auslander, Foreskin’s Lament

It was one thing to use the pay phone on Sabbath—doctors did it all the time. But getting into a car? Going to the mall? That was pretty serious. —Violating the Sabbath, I heard Rabbi Blowfeld say, —was like violating all 613 commandments. Moses had committed one sin in his whole life, and because of it, God killed him before he could reach the Promised Land. One sin. Sarah laughed—she chuckled— and, knowing that one day she would, God had made her barren.

I stood in the vestibule of the synagogue, waiting for my taxi, and wondered how God might punish me for 613 sins. Would He make me barren? Was there a Promised Land I would never reach? Maybe God had already punished me and I didn’t know it. Maybe He had killed my family. Maybe He burned down the house while I was walking here. Hadn’t I heard sirens earlier? Did killers break in after I had left? Were they in my house right now? Maybe they were tying my family up at this very moment, guns pressed to the side of their heads, and maybe God was waiting to see what I would do—if I left right now, He would make the kidnappers leave. But the moment I got in the cab. He would…

I jumped as the cabdriver leaned on his horn. I grabbed my bag, ran outside, dove into the backseat, and slammed the car door shut behind me.

Bam, 613 sins.


David Bezmozgis, “Minyan,” from the collection Natasha

Three Russians who didn’t understand Hebrew sat in the back of the synagogue. One was missing an arm. Two Polish Jews sat in front of them. One had his place by the partition so that he could stretch his bad leg, the other kept his walker near for emergency trips to the washroom. I was between them and the front row where my grandfather sat with two other men. Herschel, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, sat beside my grandfather, and Itzik, a taxi driver from Odessa, sat beside Herschel. Zalman was at a small table beside the ark. On the other side of the partition were half a dozen women. There was no rabbi and so the responsibilities for the service were divided between Zalman, my grandfather, and Herschel. The task of lifting the heavy scrolls fell to me, as I was the only one with the strength to do it. The Saturday morning services started at nine and lasted for three hours. Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.

After services everyone went to the common room for a kiddush. Zalman brought a bottle of kosher sweet wine and a honey cake. The Russian man with one arm contributed a mickey of cheap vodka. It takes only one arm to pour and only one arm to drink. Thank God, he said, this is one thing where it is no disadvantage to be a one-armed man.

One of the women distributed the wine in small paper cups and also circulated a dish with the slices of cake. When everyone had drunk their wine and munched their cake, they wished one another a gut Shabbos and wandered alone or in small groups back to their particular lives.


Nathan Englander, from the title story of the collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

“You are pure,” Dov Binyamin said to the back of his wife, who—heightening his frustration—slept facing the wall.

“I am impure.”

“This is not true, Chava Bayla. It’s an impossibility. And I know myself the last time you went to the ritual bath. A woman does not have her thing—”

“Her thing?” Chava said. She laughed, as if she had caught him in a lie, and turned to face the room.

“A woman doesn’t menstruate for so long without even a single week of clean days. And a wife does not for so long ignore her husband. It is Shabbos, a double mitzvah tonight—an obligation to make love.”

Chava Bayla turned back again to face her wall. She tightened her arms around herself as if in an embrace.

“You are my wife!” Dov Binyamin said.

“That was God’s choice, not mine. I might also have been put on this earth as a bar of soap or a kugel. Better,” she said, “better it should have been one of those.”


Tova Mirvis, The Outside World

Their shul in Laurelwood was the largest of five. In the past ten years, it had expanded twice. A capital campaign was under way to raise money for yet another expansion, though there was no space left on this lot for one more inch of building. They already stretched to the curb. The parking lot had long ago been turned into the youth wing.

The men came first, filling the main section of the shul. The women came later. When shul was more than half over, it became the mommy hour. Hoping to arrive at the end of services, they walked slowly, laden with double strollers. The walkway that led to the front door had been transformed into a parking lot of Peg Peregos.

In the sanctuary, children roamed the aisles, while the men and women whispered in their respective sections. They spent so much time at shul that they knew how to make themselves at home. The service was like a show they had seen before. They knew all the words. They knew exactly what would happen. Sometimes they paid attention. Other times the prayers became the background noise to their whispered conversation.


Lev Raphael, “Another Life,” from the collection Secret Anniversaries of the Heart

Even at services, alone with the other men, trying to stay deep in prayer; his thoughts sometimes wandered: to a barefoot guy in cutoffs hosing down his car across the street, who’d glanced at him one morning as Nat entered the building; or two wide-backed, tanned bikers damp with sweat and exhaustion shouting to each other as they cut down the street; or even Italian looking Clark, who helped run the minyan, Clark whose weight lifting had left him as bulging and tight as a tufted leather sofa. Nat’s private gallery. He felt then lonelier than ever, tracing the path of his unquenched thirst for men, to be a man (was that different? the same?) back to childhood. When he had not felt this way? And what would it be like never to look at men but only see them: pure registration without excitement, interest, pain? He was always feeling helpless, like turning a corner in town and almost bumping into a guy in sweatpants with those seductive gray folds, whose belly seemed harder, flatter over the shifting, jock-rounded crotch, or watching someone’s tight, jutting ass in the locker room at the gym as he bent over to pull up his shorts.

Still, he could lose himself in prayer often enough, long enough. And then his sister, Brenda, finishing her Ph.D. at State, began to join him at services after he’d learned the cantillation for reading the Torah. With her, he felt more anchored, sure this might be an answer if only he waited. Brenda wasn’t pleased with sitting on the women’s side at first, but she respected what he’d learned, or at least all the weeks of practicing at her apartment with a tape recording, chanting to himself there because It drove neighbors at the dorm crazy. And he was pleased that his pretty sister drew attention from the men, as if her presence made him less of a shadow or a blank, less suspiciously alone. With Brenda at services, he felt he could be normal—or seem that way—and sometimes it was easier to concentrate. Thoughts of men were not so intense; she was like a powerful signal jamming pirate broadcasts.


Jonathan Rosen, Joy Comes in the Morning

That night was Shabbat. Deborah felt almost drugged as she stood up on the bimah of Temple Emunah in front of the congregation. The peaceful blue rug and the giant vases of white and yellow flowers, the rainbow light from the stained-glass windows as the sun set through the western exposure, the organ tones rising from their high, hidden pipes, the congregants dressed and expectant and spread out like a sea before her, usually filled Deborah with peaceful joy. But she felt like someone in a dream, naked and conspicuous and out of place. What was she doing up there? What was anyone doing there?

But that was her voice singing, “You shall love the Lord your God,” and that was her head bowed, adoring the “ever-living God.” And now Rabbi Zwieback was blessing the congregation, his stubby cloven like hooves, raised in benediction. She lifted her own hands mechanically. Cantor Baumwald sang “Shabbat Shalom” and it was over.


Philip Roth, “Defender of the Faith,” from Goodbye Columbus

I turned to Grossbart. “It’s five after seven. What time are services?”

“Shul,” he said, smiling, “is in ten minutes. I want you to meet Mickey Halpern, This is Nathan Marx, our sergeant.”

The third boy hopped forward. “Private Michael Halpern.” He saluted.

“Salute officers, Halpern,” I said. The boy dropped his hand, and, on its way down, in his nervousness, checked to see if his shirt pockets were buttoned.

“Shall I march them over, sir?” Grossbart asked. “Or are you coming along?”

From behind Grossbart, Fishbein piped up. “Afterward, they’re having refreshments. A ladies’ auxiliary from St. Louis, the rabbi told us last week.”

“The chaplain,” Halpern whispered.

“You’re welcome to come along,” Grossbart said.

To avoid his plea, I looked away, and saw, in the windows of the barracks, a cloud of faces staring out at the four of us. “Hurry along, Grossbart,” I said.

“O.K., then,” he said. He turned to the others. “Double time, march!

They started off, but ten feet away Grossbart spun around, and, running backward, called to me, “Good shabbus, sir!” And then the three of them were swallowed into the Missouri dusk.


Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Wager,” from A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories

The Friday evening meal was over, but the candles were still burning in the silver candlesticks. A cricket chirped behind the stove, and the wick in the lamp made a slight sucking sound as it drew up the kerosene. On the covered table stood a crystal decanter with wine and a silver benediction cup, an engraving of the Wailing Wall upon it; near them lay a bread knife with a mother-of-pearl handle and a challah napkin, embroidered in golden thread.

The master of the house, still young, had blue eyes and a small yellow beard. His Sabbath caftan was not made of satin, as was the custom with the Hasidim, but of silk. He also wore a crisp collar around his neck and a ribbon that served as a tie. The mistress wore a dress with a design of arabesques and a blond wig adorned with combs. She had the face of a young girl: round, without a wrinkle, with a small nose and light-colored eyes.

Outside, the snow lay in great drifts, gleaming under the full moon. The frost was forever trying to paint a tree, a flower, a palm leaf, or a bush upon the windowpanes, but in the warmth of the room the patterns quickly melted away.