My 22-year-old daughter walked into the kitchen a few weeks ago to find me lighting the Shabbos candles. Golden-brown challah baked earlier that morning at a bakery in town took center stage on the table and the aroma of roasting chicken filled the air.
She gave me a quizzical look and asked, “Are we Jewish again?”
Of course, we have always been Jewish. But I understood the sentiment.
It has been many years since our family had done anything to welcome the Sabbath. So, why was this Friday night different from all other Friday nights in the past decade? The COVID-19 pandemic.
When I was a kid growing up in Queens in the 1970s, my family maintained an odd mix of Jewish traditions and rules. My parents are both Jewish, but that meant something very different in each of their homes.
My mother immigrated with her parents and two siblings from Europe when she was 6 years old. They settled in the Lower East Side. They were Orthodox and they went to a temple where the men and women sat separately. Their house was strictly kosher; my mother had never eaten pork or shrimp. Shabbat was a day of rest, the only day her father did not work.
They left a pilot light on the stove on a low flame so my grandmother could cook without desecrating the Sabbath.
My father was born in Brooklyn. His family was culturally Jewish but not religious. They never went to temple (except for when his grandfather passed away, and his dad made him go with him when he said Yizkor). His mother made bacon regularly, and on Yom Kippur they didn’t fast (but they did draw the blinds so their neighbors wouldn’t see them eating). My dad had a bar mitzvah but he hated learning Hebrew; he did enjoy the Jewish history lessons, something he is still passionate about to this day.
Creating a home that melded my parents’ distinct views of religion meant that my family cherry-picked what rules we followed. My parents sent me to religious school at an Orthodox temple, but only because it was the one closest to our house. We had a “kosher home” according to my mom, which is why when we ordered in Chinese food or chicken Parmigiana, we had to eat it on paper plates. When we went to temple on the High Holidays, we drove but parked a few blocks away, so it looked like we walked.
One ritual my mother was very consistent with was lighting the Shabbos candles.
Sometimes we had a family dinner on Friday nights, and she would buy a challah or bake one from the blue Kineret boxes she stockpiled in the freezer. But even if we weren’t having a meal together, she would still light the candles.
I remember watching my mother as she waved her hands over the flickering lights and whispered the prayers. She was standing in front of me, but her eyes seemed to be far away, like she was traveling back in time. Her staring at the flames for a few minutes became even more pronounced after my grandmother passed away.
Shabbat reentered my life when I was a young mother. With three children each several years apart, I would be in the preschool pickup line at our temple for close to a decade. On Fridays, they would get in the car with multicolored backpacks filled with finger paintings, as well as other assorted art projects, a weekly newsletter and a freshly baked challah.
Try as I would to save that challah for the evening (and possibly some challah French toast over the weekend) there were Friday afternoons when I couldn’t help but rip into the plastic bag and tear off a piece in the car.
During the rest of the week, my husband worked late, so I fed the kids before he got home. Fridays, however, he got home early enough to have a family dinner. I lit the candles, said the prayers, and served the challah (or what was left of it). The kids talked about school and sang songs. Sometimes we would watch a movie or play a game altogether. I thought Fridays would always be special in our lives.
Then the kids grew up and Shabbat faded from our lives again.
Instead of preparing dinner, I spent Friday afternoons driving my kids all around my town—to soccer practices, track meets, and friends’ houses. If the kids didn’t need me for a ride, my husband and I would go out for dinner, either by ourselves or with another couple.
I didn’t light the candles any more because I didn’t want to leave a fire burning when no one was home. And to be honest, I forgot about the ritual. Sometimes I’d grab a challah if I happened to be near the bakery on Friday afternoon. But I tried not to, afraid I would eat the whole thing as I did years ago (and I didn’t have the metabolism anymore).
Then the pandemic happened, and we had to shelter in place.
For one of the first times in many years, my family (except for my oldest daughter, who works in Boston) was going to be home on a Friday night. I decided to order challah from our local bakery.
In the pantry, I found not one but two big boxes of white Shabbos candles—purchased in good faith many years ago and then left abandoned behind boxes of pasta. That evening, I lit the candles and we said Kiddush. I roasted chicken to serve with our challah and we all sat at the table together to eat dinner.
We have continued to usher in Shabbat each week that we have been sheltering in place. With each day blending into the next, these rituals give my week structure and purpose. Even though we are eating dinner together every night, our Shabbat dinner is special. I’ve had to set my phone alarm, so I remember to preorder the challah on Thursday evenings. One week the bakery was sold out (I guess many others in my community have the same idea) and I wished I had those blue boxes in my freezer like my mother. I used to look at the challah and see calories. Now, I eat it without guilt and I taste comfort.
I find when I light the candles, like my mother, I am deep in thought. My mind travels to the past, thinking about when my kids were small and reminiscing about my childhood. Then it ventures into the future, praying for a cure and a return to normalcy. But mostly I am present: grateful that my family is safe and healthy and feeling blessed to have found the gift of Shabbat during this stressful time.
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in parenting, mental health, wellness, and pop-culture.