Not-So-Observant’s Orthodox Shabbat
Written By Amy Landsman
Photographed By David Stuck
It’s a warm Friday afternoon and I’m standing in front of my closet. I peel off my shorts and T-shirt and wiggle into dark pantyhose. I reach for a long skirt, a long-sleeve shirt and closed-toed shoes.
This is not my usual getting-ready-for-a-summer weekend routine, which generally consists of … well … shorts, a T-shirt and a nice glass of chardonnay.
I’m spending this Shabbat in Pikesville, eight miles and a world away from my Lutherville home. Fellow BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES freelancer Maayan Jaffe has invited me to share Shabbat with her, her husband Yitzchak and their three children, 7-year-old Shlomo, 3-year-old Netanya and little Devarya, 14-months.
“Shabbos is the best day,” Maayan Jaffe told me. I was struck by her enthusiasm, because it seemed so different from my experience.
Sure, I usually light candles and occasionally go to synagogue, but I can’t say that the day seems particularly special to me. It’s just something else on my ‘to do’ list. And I’ll be honest with you, when services end, I can’t get to my car fast enough. So what am I missing?
Friday afternoon at the Jaffe’s house is probably typical of anyone’s home on Friday after a long week. There’s a flurry of activity as Maayan and Yitzchak Jaffe get everything organized for Shabbat while the kids bounce around and go through the typical late afternoon grouchiness anyone with kids knows all about. The family washes up and changes into good clothes. Maayan Jaffe removes the tichel (cloth head covering) that she wears while cleaning and finishing last minute cooking and puts on her wig.
Although I often interview members of the observant community (usually by phone), I really don’t know much about their lives. So while what I learned may be old news to anyone familiar with an observant Shabbat, it was all new to me.
Maayan Jaffe starts preparing for Shabbat as early as Tuesday, when she goes shopping and plans her menus. On Wednesday, she starts prepping vegetables and other food that will hold for a couple of days in the ’fridge.
When I get there, the table is festive with a white tablecloth and pretty paper plates: Maayan Jaffe generally uses her good Shabbat dishes, but when she is expecting many guests, she opts for fancy paper so that there’s less clean-up and she can enjoy the day more.
We’ll have ten for dinner this evening. All the food is already prepared. Paper towels, toilet paper and aluminum foil have been pre-ripped in preparation for the day of rest, as it is one of the 39 prohibitions of Shabbat to tear. The Jaffes have turned on various lights and covered some of the light-switches so the children won’t accidentally touch them. Phones and the computer are turned off. Stray pens are collected so the kids don’t scribble or draw on Shabbat.
The Jaffes don’t need to turn off the TV. They don’t have one.
“Sunday is nice too, but we’re all running around. On Shabbat we actually get time to be with each other and there are no distractions. I can’t look at my Blackberry. My kids appreciate that!” she tells me.
It’s summer, so there’s plenty of time to prepare. In winter the time crunch can be a lot more stressful.
Shabbat candles must be lit no later than 18 minutes before the sun begins to set. (Shabbat starts an hour before actual sunset.) Some families light a little earlier, some a little later. Shlomo and I put coins in the tzedakah box and Maayan Jaffe lights candles. In addition to the two traditional candles, she lights a candle for each of her children.
A neighbor has a last minute glitch. They’ve started Shabbat, but the oven was accidentally left on. He drops by to ask if Maayan Jaffe can help. She can’t, but a neighbor is quickly located who can swing by to turn it off. Later in the evening, a neighbor’s kid stops in to ask if the Jaffes have a non-battery operated thermometer. Someone at their house is sick and they want to take his temperature.
We’re joined at dinner by the Jaffes’ next door neighbors, the Hexter family. The Hexters have 10 children, though most are grown and only their young adult son and daughter join us for dinner. After Yitzchak Jaffe makes the blessings and we wash our hands, Maayan Jaffe provides an amazing meal.
Our first course consists of some half-dozen different salads and salmon. From there we dine on a second course of chicken soup. Then comes the main course: chicken, kugels and vegetables, then cake and fruit for dessert.
Yitzchak Jaffe leads a brief discussion of the week’s parshat, the weekly Torah portion, then he leads some lively singing around the table. We say the birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meals, after dinner. We do that at each meal I share with the Jaffes and their neighbors. I know so little about the observant lifestyle, I wonder if families even did dishes or took out the trash on Shabbat. The Jaffes wash the dishes they needed and also those that fill the sink too much, so they can use it during Shabbat. Trash is taken out.
The next morning, because she has her hands full with the children, Maayan Jaffe asks her neighbor, Shoshanna Fishkind, to walk with me to Darchei Tzedek, their shul. Shoshanna has six children, and we talk about Orthodox life.
I tell her I’ve heard non-observant women pity the frum (pious) women with their dark, heavy clothing in the heat and humidity of a Baltimore summer. “Hot is hot,” Fishkind says. “You’re just as hot
in skimpy clothing as you are in modest clothing, so why not be modest?” (I’ve paraphrased some comments, as I couldn’t take notes during Shabbat.)
In fact, there is a lot of diversity and personal style in the women’s dress. The clothing should cover the elbows and knees and have a modest neckline. While some women wear long skirts, others wear skirts just below the knees. Many of the women and girls wear white, long-sleeved shells under their sleeveless summer tops. I see women in greens, blues and patterns. All the little girls in the neighborhood wear pretty summer dresses. At about age five, girls start wearing long sleeves.
At shul, I sit with the women behind the mechitza, the partition which separates the sexes and prevents the men and women from seeing each other during services. Twenty years ago, this would have driven me nuts. Now I’m OK with it, because I can see how it’s the right choice in the context of the observant community. I am wearing dark pantyhose, a long skirt and long-sleeved sweater, but didn’t fool a soul, of course. Several women come up to me after services to welcome me and offer a friendly “Good Shabbos.”
After shul, Maayan Jaffe serves our main Shabbat meal. This time, in addition to the abundant salads, she serves the brisket that had been cooking in her Crock-Pot since before Shabbat. “It’s like Thanksgiving every week,” Maayan jokes. Again, another family joins us, the Soskil family and their six kids.
Then it is Shabbat afternoon. We are actually pleasantly busy. Yitzchak Jaffe manages a brief nap and then leaves to study with a friend. The children play in the house and outside on the swings. We walk a few blocks to pick up a friend of Shlomo so they can play with Shlomo’s impressive collection of Legos. All along our walk, we see families on their front porches or lawns, relaxing, kids playing. A neighbor and her daughter stop by to visit. The little girl starts playing with Netanya’s Disney princess dolls. She dresses one princess in both a blouse and a ball gown. “She gave the princess tznius (modesty)!” laughs her mother.
Steering their children away from unhealthy influences is truly a genuine concern of the mothers with whom I speak. They don’t want to be completely cut off from the modern world. “We don’t live in the 19th century!” Fishkind tells me. At the same time, they want their children to have a wholesome, healthy upbringing. Prudish isn’t the right word. It’s more that they want their children to focus on the more meaningful aspects of life.
Do the children ever question why everyone else wears jeans and they don’t? The mothers say the children don’t seem to dwell on it, though they will notice if someone has purple hair or some other particularly outrageous look (which my kids also did when they were younger).
There are different levels of observance within the Orthodox community. One mother tells me she lets her sports-obsessed teen play Madden games, but makes certain the electronics are put away when more observant friends come to play.
I tell Maayan Jaffe and some other women I chat with that I hear a lot of criticism of the Orthodox: that they are insular and unfriendly. I know women who avoid some stores popular with the frum because they feel they aren’t welcome.
The women seem genuinely puzzled by this, saying in their experience the community is warm and welcoming to everyone. One suggests that perhaps the observant seem unfriendly because they have large families and a long shopping list, and are too busy trying to keep everything together to be very outgoing. Another thinks it was the non-observant who might feel a little self-conscious when in the company of many observant families and may imagine that as hostility.
In other words, they are judging themselves and misplacing the judgment.
For our third Shabbat meal, the Shalosh Seudos, we cross the street to the Fishkinds’ house for yet another abundant feast, this one dairy.
The day is winding down. Maayan Jaffe puts Netanya and Devarya to sleep. Yitzchak Jaffe goes to Ma’ariv, the closing Shabbat service. When he returns, he lights the Havdalah candle. We pass around the spice box.
Yitzchak Jaffe unplugs the Crock-Pot, which had simply been left on throughout Shabbat, and removes the cover from the kitchen light-switch. Shabbat is over. I get in my car and swing onto Smith Avenue, where I find the busy traffic momentarily jarring. I shrug off the sweater. I couldn’t wait to get home and ditch the pantyhose.
OK, so clearly I’m not ready to adopt a fully observant lifestyle. I did, however, take away a far greater appreciation of the spirit of Shabbat than I’ve ever had before. I realized that Shabbat isn’t defined by what you can’t do, but by what you can. I had a lovely time.
All photos were taken before Shabbat.