We are blanketed now in three feet of snow, the outside world has become muffled and distant, and we are forced into a pause one could describe as an extended Shabbat. On the first night of the storm, which happened to be Friday, we had a spontaneous music jam with close friends who walked and skied to our house to play saxophone, ukulele, guitar and viola. On the second night, still without power, our family huddled by the fireplace, in a pile of pillows and blankets, with the dog, the cat and the guinea pig all snuggled with us for warmth. With no internet or television, my daughter read out loud from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, not exactly the “good book,” but indeed a very good and thought-provoking book that she happens to be reading for 10th grade English. The entire experience was restorative (until it got too darned cold, at which point we moved to a friend’s house).
I was lucky to have many moments like this one in my childhood, growing up in a happy interfaith family. But we rarely performed the specific rituals of the formal Jewish Sabbath. We went faithfully to religious school every week at our Reform Temple, and we celebrated Passover and the High Holy Days, but Friday nights were pretty secular–devoted to school or social events. My mother, raised Episcopalian, did everything she could to raise us as Jews. But the 1960s and 70s were an assimilated period in Reform Judaism–rather dry, without the joy and juice of the Renewal or Chasidic movements. None of our Jewish friends seemed to celebrate the Sabbath very often, either. It probably didn’t help that we lived in a very Protestant little New England town, filled with white steeples and dominated by a Puritan anathema for displays of emotion or exoticism.
My children, though we are raising them in an interfaith community and not exclusively as Jews, have grown up celebrating Shabbat rituals more frequently than I did. And as often as not, it is my husband who reminds us to light the candles and say blessings on Friday. My husband, who grew up as an acolyte in the Episcopalian church. My husband, who offered to agree to raise our children as Jews.
Instead, I found and embraced the interfaith spiritual home I had sought all of my life. And my husband followed where I went, helping to pioneer this new pathway, even stepping onto the Board of the Interfaith Families Project after I stepped down as a Board Chair. We are deeply committed, together, and our children see this and it helps to water their deep roots in this radical interfaith soil. And it also helps that our interfaith community, along with many Jewish and Christian communities these days, infuses song, spirituality and even mysticism into old rituals.
So on Friday nights, my daughter is happy to put to use the silver Kiddush cup and candlesticks that she received for her interfaith Coming of Age ceremony when she turned thirteen. My 12-year-old son shows off his mastery of the prayer over the fruit of the vine. Together, we sing the English/Hebrew “camp” version of the blessing over the challah: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz, We give thanks to God for bread. Our voices raise in song together, as our joyful prayer is said: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam. Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. Amen.”
While this version of the blessing seemed hokey at first, I like the fact that it incorporates the English, so that if we have non-Jewish visitors, they understand the meaning of the prayer without having to wait for the translation. In our interfaith community, this version feels more inclusive of the Christian spouses, and of the children who are just beginning to learn Jewish rituals, because of the way it weaves in the context.
Even when it’s not Friday night, we try to pause before a meal with friends or family to acknowledge the communion of breaking bread together. Feeling thankful in this sense does not require a creed or dogma; it does not require a belief in God at all. Sometimes, a few words of thanks to our guests for being there is all that is needed. Or sometimes, we use a “grace” we learned at Appalachian folk dance camp. It sounds Buddhist to me: if anyone knows its origins, let me know. It is sung to a jaunty little tune, which can be sung in a round, and the words are: “Thank you for this food, this glorious, glorious food–and the animals, and the vegetables, and the minerals, that make it possible.”
As the snow continues to fall here, we pause to appreciate warmth, electricity, food and friends. Nature is reminding us to stop, unplug, experience the power of the blizzard, and take a deep breath of the frosted air.