Religion & Beliefs

Peace on That Holy Day of Rest

An essay about Shabbat and cocaine. Read More

By / May 30, 2014

On Friday nights, we had to wait a long time before we could eat. First, my mom lit the candles and made a blessing. Then there was a very long blessing over the wine, chanted by my father. Men did the wine, women did the candles, and children—my younger brother and I—did the challah. My mom would cover her eyes when she recited her part, chanting the words from memory; she didn’t know what they meant. Then we’d have to sing a song, still all standing up.

The worst was when we had to do this little performance in front of company. In front of non-Jews I could try to convince myself our rituals seemed exotic and interesting. But in front of non-practicing Jews, it became clear: they knew the truth; this stuff was stupid. They could do it, they just chose not to because they weren’t weird and old-fashioned. My dad would glare at us if we didn’t sing along at certain key points. If he was in a bad mood, he’d clear his throat to get our attention if we didn’t make eye contact. He wouldn’t make a scene in front of company, but if we didn’t sing—really sing, not just mumble—he’d be angry later. And we had to dress nicely, even if we were way overdressed compared to the guests. When a family would show up in jeans, I’d feel a moment of pure, palpable misery. I’d be in a black skirt, or, if I’d won the weekly battle, black “dress pants.” When a family walked in dressed casually, my misery would be for my parents too, because I knew, without them ever having to say it, that they took each piece of denim to be a sign of disrespect.

After the singing, the men had to go into the kitchen to wash their hands. It wasn’t real washing, like with soap. It was filling a silver pitcher with water and dumping it first over one hand, then the other, then drying hands on a dishtowel and reciting a blessing. Women are supposed to wash too, but my mom never did. My brother and I joined my father when we were kids, but I must have stopped at some point, though I don’t remember when or why. When the men and boys came back in, we could finally sit down. The chairs were dark wood with hard backs. If we tilted backwards in our chairs, rearing up on hind legs, that was very bad. Once my friend and her parents came. The dad tilted back in his chair, and my parents always talked about that after.

My mom would go through the swinging door into the kitchen to bring out the first course; watery yellow soup with no salt. And there was no salt and pepper on the table either. If guests asked for it my stomach would tighten in anxiety because I knew my parents thought that was rude. Then the shallow bowls would be cleared and the main course brought out. Chicken or a roasted meat, with oily asparagus or carrots, and potatoes or rice. The meat would have onions cooked clear. The chicken had faint white hairs sticking out of the skin. The adults would gossip, discuss Israel, and ask us about school. Then those dishes would be cleared and dessert was served, usually chocolate mousse cake and a big bowl of fruit. The cake was non-dairy so we could eat it after a meat dinner. Desserts like ice-cream were out of the question. Our separate meat and milk cutlery and dishes were a constant source of embarrassment to me in front of my friends, who were mostly secular or Reform Jews. “Oh, so you’re like, really religious,” they’d say. No, I’d defend myself. I offered up the Holocaust as an excuse.

When my mother got married she took a cooking class to learn how to make the traditional foods my dad’s mother had made. She served us the food while we sat at the table, and everything had to be the way my dad wanted it, the way he’d had it as a child in the middle of the century. My mom never touched any of the food herself. She stuck to Weight Watchers meals. My brother and I would sneak the Weight Watchers blueberry muffins. They contained a chemical used to make antifreeze, and they tasted good to us. The muffins were neither milk nor meat. You should never cook a lamb in its mother’s milk, the bible says.

My dad always had coffee or tea after the meal, even if no one else wanted it. He liked when meals took hours and hours. Then when everyone thought it was finally over it was time for the prayers after the meal. Little prayer books were passed around; dad assigned a “leader.” Then all the singing. Hands pounding the table for emphasis. My mom would sit there zoning out; she didn’t know the words and songs, and my dad got mad if she cleared the plates while we were praying. Finally it would be over and the guests would leave.

Things changed when Lee, the daughter of my parents’ close friends, discovered cocaine. I was 16 or 17; she was a year younger than me. She’d bring it over with her when her family came for Shabbat dinner. I smoked weed and got drunk with my friends sometimes, but nothing else. Lee knew how to be bad, and she was always trying to convince me to be bad with her. We’d excuse ourselves to go to the bathroom, with as much solemnity as the men going to wash their hands. In the bathroom, we’d perch on the sink counter, or hunch over sitting on the floor. We didn’t need to say a blessing over the coke. We could put whatever we wanted in our bodies—we didn’t have to wait for permission. There were no prescribed roles; anyone could do anything; it was like we were really in America, not back in old-world Europe. One of us would chop and crush with a student ID card. One of us would use the card to make interesting patterns. A heart. A squiggle. Letters. Roll up a dollar bill. Then we’d hold one nostril shut, put the dollar bill up the other nostril and snort up all the white crystal-powder shapes. After that, we’d rub the stray grains into our gums.

We’d return to the table feeling better, cleansed by our rites. Lee would giggle loudly and mouth something to me across the table. I think she wanted us to get caught. I felt guilty and nervous, but deep down I knew we wouldn’t get in trouble. My parents didn’t have the language to even formulate the right question. My mom would look over at us and smile in an annoyed way. “Girls,” she’d say sharply and stare back into space. I wished we could have included her, taught her to make her own white hearts and squiggly designs.

We weren’t supposed to make noise when my dad was talking, but Lee didn’t care. She’d interrupt him, argue with him, never get ruffled herself. I’d stay quiet and ignore my food, just drink red wine until my lips were stained dark. We’d grind our teeth and roll our eyes until finally the meal was over. The prayer books would be passed around. I wasn’t ever picked to be the leader anymore. But at the end of the meal, my dad would put his large hand on my head, close his eyes, and recite blessings in Hebrew. He’d say the special one for daughters: May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. He’d kiss the top of my head, and I felt a warm, familiar mix of rage and tenderness. I knew he wanted me to be happy, but I dreaded being like the women of the bible. Instead, Lee and I made identities for ourselves that didn’t have anything to do with being good daughters and wives. My parents never found out about the coke phase, which only lasted a few months. But it was long enough; Lee showed me an escape hatch from my family’s strict order. It was scary but exhilarating to follow her into a secret world where I got to make my own rules.

Soon after the blessings, Lee and her family would leave. My parents would comfort each other over any slights they had suffered during the course of the evening. We’d fall asleep to the sounds of separate TVs, even though you’re not supposed to use electricity on the Sabbath. For some reason, this was an acceptable transgression. My family’s idiosyncratic mix of rules and rituals confused me as a child and frustrated me as a teen. My drug use would have struck my parents as reprehensible. But now, it’s clear to me we were all doing the best we could to create order, make meaning, and find some peace on that holy day of rest.

Sarah Beller’s writing can be found in The Hairpin, The Toast, and other publications. Her twitter handle is @julesbesch.

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