Jewy goodness · whine and cheese

Fine tuning

When I tune my guitar, I can hear the second it slides perfectly into tune. It’s a minute adjustment, really, and yet there’s a huge difference between being pretty much in tune and being perfectly tuned. There’s a sweet spot, you see. Just beyond the sweet spot you might hear the correct pitch, but you won’t hear the depth of resonance that the sweet spot gets you. When the string is at the  perfect tension, all of the other strings sing when the one string is plucked.

My life doesn’t resonate like that yet, Jewishly speaking. I thought that by this stage in my life it would, but it doesn’t.

I’m very, very close. We have a kosher kitchen (although still not kosher by some standards, and sometimes I wonder why I bother), we celebrate the arrival of Shabbat with all the traditional blessings and foods and songs, our children demonstrate time and again that they understand tzedakah (charitable giving), chesed (acts of kindness) and hachnassat orchim (welcoming guests). We observe and celebrate the holidays. We attend shul some of the time (less often than weekly, more often that just on holidays). Our home is full of beautiful Jewish objects and books. I sing Hebrew and Yiddish lullabies to my babies.

But it’s still not quite right.

If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you already know that I’ve experimented with different levels of Jewish observance before. Tune up… no, too sharp. Tune back down… nope. Flat. I feel the need to experiment again and I have this strange sense of urgency, as if time is running out, as if I have to be fully settled and decided in my Jewish observance so that I know exactly what I’m teaching my kids. As if I would always express my Judaism the same way for the rest of my life.

For a long time, I’ve yearned for a Shabbat that is more… more complete, more peaceful, more refreshing. More Shabbat-y. It’s hard to achieve alone, and I’ve dragged Mr. December along at times but ultimately accepted that I can’t push him into something he doesn’t want as much as I do. Still tuning: we go to shul, but it doesn’t really work right now with the kids’ naptimes. Still tuning: I turn off the laptop and put it away for all of Shabbat, only to discover that without plans to go out or see friends, it’s a long day that the kids and I could come to resent.

There are moments that I think I hear the sweet spot: I’ll be baking challah, or taking food to a lonely neighbour, or sitting in the window seat just reading on a Shabbat afternoon, and I’m precisely the Jew I want to be. But something shifts, and I can’t get it back. So I go back to tuning.

It would help to know precisely what pitch I’m trying to hit. Did you know that North American orchestras tune to A440, but many European orchestras tune to A438? (You might ask what the difference is, and aside from the obvious – two vibrations per second – the answer is, nothing that the average ear would notice.) It’s basically the same pitch, comes across the same way to most people’s ear, but if you’re tuning to 440 and you’re at 438, it just isn’t right. Jewish observance can be like that. Shabbat can look like Shabbat, but the minutiae – do you host other people or do you accept invitations and eat out? sing any music that makes you happy, or just Shabbat music? – well, the minutiae can make it fall flat.

I’ve just realized that this is sort of an absurd post. Tuning is important, but it’s not something you do and then forget about for the rest of your life (or even the rest of the week). A well-constructed instrument should certainly stay in tune for a while, but the strings stretch and humidity affects the wood, and daily (or hourly) readjustments might be necessary to keep that sweet spot.

Sometimes I just have to give up tuning my guitar, accept that it’s “good enough”, and go ahead and play even though my ear is telling me that the music would be so perfect if I just kept seeking the sweet spot. That’s how I’ve been living recently – life goes on, Shabbat comes every week, and even though my soul thirsts for the sweet spot, I’ve had to make do with what we’re doing right now. But it doesn’t resonate the way it ought to. So I go back to tuning.

There are times when it all becomes muddled, the distinction between pitches becomes so minute that I’m not sure what I’m hearing anymore. When that happens I have to de-tune the string drastically – take it way out of range – and then bring it back in order to regain my ear. Do I need to do that with Shabbat as well? Should I drop back to just Friday night dinners and then run errands and use the computer on Saturday? And if I were to build my Shabbat day from scratch, what should I add first?

And, finally, sometimes I can’t get the guitar tuned to my satisfaction no matter what I do. That’s when I hand it over to someone else, perhaps a better musician or just someone with a fresh ear. And so… that’s what I’ll do. I’m handing it over to my readers. Please comment and tell me: if you became Shabbat Observant (halachically or not) at some point, how did you get into it? What obstacles did you face, and how did you address them? And if you’ve always been Shabbat Observant, just tell me… what is your favourite part of Shabbat? What new traditions or activities should I try?

The Shabbat that just ended was a bit flat for me, and my soul is cringing a bit in response. Will someone please hand me a tuning fork?

13 thoughts on “Fine tuning

  1. I started keeping Shabbat when I was seven. My dad was in the middle of converting to Judaism and so our family was taking on things around me. What I remember is small things like picking up the phone on a Shabbat and my Mom running down the stairs to telling me not to answer because it was Shabbat. So I did what any kid would do and slammed the phone down! Then my mother and I had a laugh about what the the person on the other line must have been thinking. I remember the day I read the whole benching in the NCSY bencher in Hebrew! not just the transliterated version. I remember as a kid the long lazy Shabbat of summer where we used to play with our friends, start an impossibly long game of monopoly or risk, walking to Bnos, long dog walks with my dad and faithful golden retriever, Shabbos parties where I ate way too much candy, goofing off around the Bimah, going under my dad’s talit for Birkat Cohanim and the playroom at our shul. When I was a teenager I remember going to hang out with all the teens at the park in Chicago, long walks visiting all my friends, running shul programs for little boys at our shul (G-d I loved those little guys!) and daydreaming with my friends about what we would do when we grew up. When I was a young adult travelling the world my shabbat was waiting till midnight in Ireland till shabbat was out, going to amazing classes at the JLE in England, kabbalat shabbat Carlebach style!, seudat shlishit with singing well past havdallah and long exciting meals at peoples houses that took me home because I needed a place to eat and was a Jew. My Israel Shabbats were spiced with long afternnons napping on the kibbutz, long walks with my boyfriend, singing seudat shlishit with my kibbutz. When I moved to Jerusalem and got married my shabbatot were filled with walking to the kotel on fri night and watching the incredible dancing there, going to friends houses, taking wonderful walks with my husband and daydreaming the afternoon away. When I had kids the holy shabbat day was full of sleeping bunnies (my daughter calls the Village shul program), going to inspiring lectures, eating amazing kiddushes and having tons of guests over, playing buzz word and apples to apples and ending our summer afternoons in the park with you!

    1. In that case, I really need to come over and play apples to apples with you! (Oh, and we looked for you in the park today, but apparently you weren’t as desperate as I was to get out of the house.)

  2. There are so many times when I could have written a post like this. I love the guitar analogy…since I sing, play and am musical this really ‘resonates’ with me. I have been all over the ‘observant’ map throughout my adult years as well. I don’t know if I can help with your tuning but I can share some of my song.

    The closest I came to being ‘in tune’ re: Shabbat was when I focused on the ‘feeling’ behind the halacha. (I sound so Reform, I know!). I would add a mitzvot every week or two and try them out, keep them for a while and would regularly re-evaluate in terms of whether or not they made me feel more spiritual, closer to G-d, etc. (This sounds very mechanical but it was much more organic and intuitive). I was ‘tuned in’, I remember when I decided I to try not writing on Shabbat. That one resonated with me for a long time and actually, when I’m tuned in it still does. Meeting Sariel and making a home and life together further challenged my equilibrium, my fine tuning as he was and is in a very different place then me. As we worked on making a family we felt that sense of urgency that is maybe similar to what you refer to. As our dreams fell apart and we lost one baby after another, I felt so bitter. Like Naomi, I wanted to be called Mara. I felt betrayed by Shabbat. It became a quiet time to remind me of what was missing in my life.

    So the past couple of years have been a recognition that things are still out of tune and I NEED Shabbat.

    Thanks to you, I was inspired to also turn off my computer fully this weekend. Sariel was sick in bed, which strangely, made it easier to have a low key, soul edifying Shabbat. But, like you, I feel less than satisfied. I think though, that you are farther along the continuum than I am.

    I know that when I focus on feeding my soul, it guides me to that ‘sweet spot’, I have slowly come to accept that my Shabbat, and Jewish observance, is an evolving, fluid melody….and sometimes it’s lovely and harmonious and other times, falls flat or even feels dissonant.

    I pledge to keep exploring. I will also try to blog about it.

    I so appreciate your sharing of your journey, your metaphor and your yearnings. Thank you, my friend.


    1. Thank you… I’d love to read more about your explorations. And you know what? We should make a Shabbat date. For me, that would be very much in tune with the feeling behind the halacha.

  3. Hmm… so much in my life is out of tune right now that Shabbos gets lost in the buzz lately. We just do our thing and move on.
    But I do know that I was keeping it for many years before I realized I no longer dreaded its arrival, the preparations, the hassle, the STOPPING everything that always seemed to come at the moment I was inspired to write something or do something.
    Music is a powerful metaphor; the last time I consciously broke Shabbos was for a concert I absolutely could not, would not miss, so I broke down, hopped on the subway and headed downtown to spend a sunny afternoon hanging about at the stage door. I won’t name the band and year because it will date me. You were probably still in diapers. :-)))

  4. I think that you are right to recognize that observance is a process, and you will need to find something that fits your family and your location (let’s just say I grew up in one of those odd places where you drove to shul but didn’t turn on the lights at home). We are really struggling at the moment as we are not only a family with more than one set of traditions, but also on the verge of starting school and feeling particularly excluded from our local community (which is observant and assumes that we are too). I also worry that when the children get older we will need to make a clearly commitment because I don’t want to be the family who makes our kids keep “secrets”, like the fact that one set of grandparents happily takes them out to eat for Saturday brunch while the other doesn’t. No idea what the end outcome will be, but it’s always nice to read someone else honestly grappling with these issues.

  5. I found it a lot easier to be the Jew I wanted to be when small people were not relying on me. Food! Nap! Milk! Cuddles! Read me a book, Mama! I need to go pee! Mama mama mama! (Or Daddy Daddy Daddy, depending.)

    We do, reluctantly, drive to shul (it’s way too far to walk) but otherwise don’t use electricity or cook, etc. I find it easier and less confusing to make it a ‘family day’- nobody is working, nobody is cooking, nobody is washing dishes. Something needs to be fixed? Not today. Somebody wants pancakes? Tomorrow. Have some challah and fruit.

    The spouse is a Presbyterian, but, as I joke, jew-ish, in that we keep a kosher kitchen with all four sets of dishes (Pesach!) and observes the sabbath day). We trade off on who gets the morning ‘off’- so half the time I go to shul with the baby (moo) and go to at least most of the service, or we all go and he takes Bug to the kids’ service The other half the time I take the kids alone. Some of the time he’ll take Bug to the zoo, which is free and two blocks from shul, or to the library, which is free and two blocks from our house. That way, everyone gets the day of rest they want at least some of the time.

    The rest of Shabbat, we take a nap, take a walk, go to the park, kick a ball around, and read books.

    When I didn’t have kids we had even more ‘fun’ shabbatot, in a more adult way: we’d have people over for dinner or go to someone’s house, play board games, sit around in the sukkah drinking bourbon all afternoon, make gingerbread houses on chag, go for long walks up the nearest almost-mountain, have a brunch-and-torah-study with friends.

    I do make exceptions and ‘skip’ Shabbat for two things: weddings and funerals. One hopes they’ll only come around once each per relative.

    My mother sometimes reminds me that, like everything else, Judaism has seasons in one’s life. The small-children season is when you spend all of Yom Kippur singing ten-word songs and eating crackers (I was 36 weeks pregnant this year!). In her after-kids-leave-home season, she’s one of the chazzanim for High Holidays.

  6. I had no idea that orchestras in Europe tuned to 438. Fascinating! There was a time when I had my tuner set to 442, and I couldn’t figure out why it kept telling me the electric keyboard was out of tune. Facepalm.

    I can so relate to this post. I suppose I would be categorized as “Yeshivish,” but my husband and I discuss how maybe it’s more like “Yeshivish Lite” or something. And we also keep tuning our observance, finding the right balance of which mitzvos we try to work on more, which ones seem to come easier right now, etc. I think part of the Jewish experience is being attuned to how our observance fits with our family, our stage in life, our personality, etc.

  7. Sigh… So difficult – especially when one has no choice but to work on Shabbat. All I can say about this is “mindfulness.” sounds cheesy, I know (and like a previous commenter very “reform”… Although I’m not sure what’s wrong with that…) but you well know that your observance is going to change weekly. Even if your actions remain the same, the meaning will always be in flux. What I tell my congregants ( and what I try, often poorly, to do myself) is not to bemoan or begrudge the actions but be mindful of your intention. Ok- so you may not have it “perfect” yet ( no one does!) but taking that moment to recognize “yes. This is Shabbat. This is beautiful” goes a long way to making the day what it’s supposed to be about – wholeness. And yes – you know this already! 🙂

  8. I know this is quite late, but I’ve been mulling your post over for a while, and while I am not Jewish, I’ve really enjoyed reading about your family’s traditions and beliefs. It has been incredibly interesting and enlightening for me, and I wanted to share that with you. My take on your “fine tuning” search is simply this – it is through the discordance that we learn what we truly believe, and in seeking to get back in to spiritual tune, we show the depth and honesty of our faith. The fact that you CARE that your Shabbat traditions do not quite fit yet shows true devotion. If it was “all for show” you would simply take care to APPEAR to observe Shabbat and leave things at that… This applies to every belief system I’ve ever encountered – there are those that follow and believe out of honesty and faith and those that simply go through the motions to impress others. The fact that you are fine tuning clearly shows where you and your family stand, and while I can’t give any tuning advice, I can say this – The simple fact that you wrote this post tells me that you are on your path and will find your perfect tune in time.

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