My wife, Ruchama, picked an Airbnb off the beaten track in Florida, north of Fort Lauderdale. It was economical, and it had a beautiful swimming pool in the backyard. She showed me the photos—a pool surrounded by palm trees and wild begonias. The only catch, she said, is that the nearest shul is about 3 miles away—a very long walk on Shabbos. If you include Friday night, that could mean 12 miles of walking.
“I’m OK with the walk,” I told her. “Take the place.”
I mapped out my trek, first through a busy commercial area but then through a beautiful residential neighborhood called Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. South Florida is a massive civilization. U.S. 1 is a main artery among an endless blur of wide boulevards, dotted with shiny red and yellow Chevy Corvettes, and blondes in Bentleys. Near the shoreline, there were tanned men 20 years my senior on bicycles, an endless array of drawbridges and on the side streets, flat-roofed stucco houses, manicured lawns, and garbage cans out front, military-ready for pickup.
Truthfully, though I was concerned about the distance, I was looking forward to the walk. It was a chance to be with myself for an hour or more, to reflect on and perhaps silently bond with my very personal America—an America that I love even as I am so different than the mainstream culture around me.
Growing up as a rabbi’s son in the 1960s, I remember walking with my father to shul at the age of 3 in Atlanta. Even then, I was aware that we looked very different from the people around us. We were dressed in Shabbos finery—my father in his rabbinical suit and black fedora and me in white shirt and blue pants. Here, a man down the street changed the oil on his VW Bug and said, “howdy.” There, men with Southern drawls bade my father good morning, rabbi, as they waxed their Buicks and Pontiacs.
Yet what began as a source of pride as a little boy grew into resentment and deprivation by the time I became a teenager—not uncommon among preachers’ kids who may have felt as I did, “pressed” into the family ministry. I was stricken with envy. America, and by that I meant a youthful America, got to have a good time on Friday night in places like Harvard Square and Coolidge Corner and do “American” things like go to the movies and smoke weed and study at fancy colleges. I was stuck somewhere eating a noodle kugel and listening to my father expound on the malbim or some other sacred text.
Now, in Florida on Saturday morning, I paddled along in the sun with my dark suit and Kenneth Cole dress shoes and customary black hat, even though I am no rabbi. As I walked past trendy bars and clubs, memories stirred of gargantuan cravings for “American culture.” When I was young, I fantasized about being a jock and how I would “get” a girlfriend the likes of Ali MacGraw in Love Story. I yearned to be part of a people who I imagined to be at once blessed by God yet unrestrained by Moses and his laws.
I turned the corner to Ocean Drive. Surf-boarders—young men and women who, in their physical perfection, seemed to represent a third species of human—glided toward the ocean in flip-flops. They greeted me politely as though I were a constable or a magistrate—someone they hallucinate might be in charge of the world—instead of a garden-variety man in late middle age. This was an America of good looks and seemingly super good times, one giant beach party that in my youthful unripe mind I had felt uninvited to.
Yet that was all a myth. I had been invited to it. In fact, I had “challenged” myself in those years to “break” the Sabbath. When I was in my 20s, I asked myself, why not go bike riding on a sunny Saturday in Central Park, or sit at an outdoor Broadway cafe and order lunch? But I would not do it. “Go ahead, grab the America that awaits you,” I’d taunt myself. “Who needs all the ancient burdens and arrangements? Seize your own life. Seize the day.” Yet for reasons deep and shallow, I remained loyal to my Shabbos heritage. Why?
The Chabad shul was a storefront in a strip mall. The sun was already high in the sky when they began shacharis, morning services. Not too late for the God of Israel, but it was after 10. There was more than a minyan. The rabbi was tall, young, and handsome. He was at the prayer stand, moving through prayers at a healthy trot. The shul was getting fuller. People—men and women, Jewish Americans—walked in. They stuffed their key fobs and cellphones into pockets and the men wrapped themselves in talises. The rabbi had a pleasant singing voice, too. I became happily lost in the davening.
After the laining, the rabbi delivered a sermon. It was Parshas Bo; the ancient Israelites were commanded by God through Moses to sacrifice a lamb as a condition of their liberation. He told a story of a man whose daughter had been gravely injured and he begged the rebbe for heavenly intervention. The rebbe told him he could do nothing for him until he was willing to sacrifice, to give up something. When the man said he would give up his business activities on the Sabbath, the rebbe promised his daughter a full recovery. And so it was.
What are you willing to give up, the rabbi asked the congregation. Everyone must yield a sacrificial lamb. For one it is this, for another it is that.
Naturally, being a Chabad house, following services, there was a robust Kiddush. Men and women in what seemed young retirement age traded l’chaims and talked about the weather and Gov. DeSantis. They were snowbirds from Michigan and other Northern states. They seemed prosperous and with a glow of life-gladness, happy to make a blessing on the Torah or the challah. Clearly, they had not grown up with much knowledge or tradition—when a few took out their smartphones, it was a shock to me—yet they clung to this minyan next to the Dollar Tree and their handsome rabbi. I drank a l’chaim and ate well. We said Grace together.
I was ready for the walk home now, past Publix and Olive Garden, the Lexus dealer, Target, and Whole Foods. I had to admit I was pretty content. What brings such contentedness, I wondered? Was it the services? Was it the Sabbath itself? Why, I had spent the morning only doing what I have done all my life: going to shul, praying in a group, reading the Torah, studying Torah, making Kiddush, eating good food. I was 60 now and yet Shabbos had not grown old. These simple acts made Shabbos beautiful in my eyes and on the faces of those people; beauty makes demands.
Even still, I wondered, what kept me loyal to such a restrictive creed? No phones, no cars, no turning on lights, no sports, no cooking. After all, there were all kinds of versions of Shabbos that people observed. What was it that kept me in this particular brand of faith? Was it the stern upbringing that I received from my rabbinical father? The imprecations of Moses and the rabbis? Or my mother’s devotional love to the Sabbath and to her inheritance from the rebbes of Novominsk and Trisk-Chernobyl?
The very first time I saw desecration of the Sabbath up close, I fainted. I was 10 or 11 and at the house of an acquaintance who I thought was observant, when smack in the middle of Shabbos afternoon, he answered the phone. On seeing such a sight, the blood flow in me stopped. I felt faint and fell backward. When the fellows at Chabad whipped out their cellphones 50 years later, I didn’t faint, but it still gave me a start. Yet when they made their blessings on the Torah, it was with such gladness and sincerity that I felt a holiness with these people even as their Shabbos was not the same as mine.
What is Shabbos, then, and how does one grow with it over the course of a lifetime?
It would be easy to say that one should simply follow the rules. The reality is, however, that we often must do things to find out how we feel. We also must feel sometimes in order to find out what we should do.
One Friday night when I was in my 20s, I was with a friend whom I loved who broke the Sabbath and was quite smug about it. We were going to a get-together on the ninth floor in a sleek Upper West Side building. I was about to dutifully climb the stairs when the elevator door opened in the lobby. He playfully “pushed” me into the elevator and I did not resist. We rode fast up to the ninth floor.
I felt intoxicated as the elevator shot up. My face was flushed as though I had just drunk wine or kissed somebody else’s girlfriend, even as a ride on the elevator may have been technically somewhat permissible. (A resident had pressed the button.) Yet I felt as though I had played fast and loose with a delicate feeling—a feeling of Sabbath. I had trifled with the Sabbath Queen and I didn’t do anything like that again.
As my years on this Earth dwindle, my Shabbos observance has become more cultivated, more elaborate. I have become influenced by my surroundings. Here in my home base of Passaic, New Jersey, davening begins at 7 a.m. and we spend much of the day afterward immersed in the word of God, His Mishnah, and Talmud. What should a Jewish man my age do? Make a killing in the stock market? Make believe he is young again, only this time with a little more money?
When I walked with my father to shul as a child, he would teach me the Mishnah by heart. There was so much urgency: I had to get it right. How does one make a blessing on fruit? On the fruit of the tree one says, “Blessed are you God who created the fruits of the tree!”
The previous evening in Florida, Friday night, my wife had joined me for shul. On the long walk back, I shared with her a complication in the Talmud our group was studying back home in Passaic. What if you had an orange and a grape in front of you? Which one gets the blessing first, the grapes or the oranges? The one you like (oranges) or the more important (grape) since grapes are mentioned in Scripture? Ruchama pointed out that in Judaism there is a hierarchy even among fruits and vegetables. The Talmud records two versions of a rabbinic dispute that would pertain to: olives and grapes, oranges and blueberries, or grapes and crackers? Which one trumps which? It is left for the medieval giants to settle.
It was warm and Florida beautiful as we strolled back to the Airbnb. Old men on bicycles pedaled past. Cars whizzed by. Purple neon lights of clubs and bars flickered and reflected on my wife’s face. A man came out of the Walgreens and asked us what time it was. We didn’t know.
God and the Jewish people have a tendency to disappear on each other. We leave Him, He leaves us and yet neither has disappeared yet. We seem to meet each other not always in shul and not always over a page of Talmud but in moments of wonder: How did we survive? How come we haven’t yet died off? Can we still be here studying your laws and the laws of Moses, in the fluorescent glow of the Walgreens or at a Chabad house?
The Talmud says that to keep the Sabbath is to testify that God created the world in six days. Nice words, but in practice not so simple. Love, belief, and religion are survivors. They must endure intermittent hate and doubt. On my walk, the appetites of my youth rose up to bear witness that I could have had a different life—that I could yet still have a different life.
I came home on Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. and made a beeline for the fridge for a cold drink of orange juice. Ruchama and our daughters had retired to the living room to read or for a Sabbath nap, yet remains of the Sabbath meal were out: a cup of wine, scraps of challah, chulent-stew, and chicken. The family had expected me home much earlier and had eaten without me. My youngest daughter though, still a teenager, was at the table, singing an old man’s Sabbath song.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.