Good Night Irene, You Shabbos Queen

There is much to be grateful for today in New York City, where I happen to be for a week-long, ultimately called-on-account-of-weather Storahtelling training. The hurricane was called Irene, a name much more suited to the sweet love object of the famous Leadbelly ballad than the personification of a deadly storm the size of California. But Irene proved more bluster than bluster as she passed through New York City last night as a “mere” tropical storm or perhaps less. The damage in Manhattan is minimal. Businesses are pumping out their cellars, but had enough warning to clear out those cellars in advance. Fallen branches share tight parking spaces with the compact cars of the West Village. Fallen awnings punctuate Chinatown. No broken glass is in evidence.

Still, Irene was significant. She ushered in a shabbat like I haven’t had in years. On Friday, New Yorkers of all religions, classes and ethnicities left their jobs early to shop so they would have food in their homes to last the weekend. They bought candles and flashlight batteries, anticipating hours or days without electricity. They bought bread and fruit and wine. They envisioned a weekend without internet or cell phone service. They planned for home; they planned for cozy.

All subways closed Saturday at noon.

Friday afternoon Mayor Bloomberg announced the closure of all public transit as of noon on Saturday. And so on Saturday New York simply didn’t travel. No one came into Manhattan to work; no one left Manhattan to work. All but a handful of restaurants were closed, but it was okay. People didn’t need restaurants; they had thought and planned and prepared their own food, simple or fancy, in their own kitchens.

Saturday became a day of suspended time. Anticipation more than fear was in the air. And unexpected leisure. For a change, no one – really, no one – was expected to work. No one felt like they had to be attached to their cell phones for fear of missing a call from a client or colleague or boss. Everyone was excused from everything. Phone calls were for checking in on loved ones rather than for participating in commerce or scheduling carpools. Undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people sat inside watching the Weather Channel. But many instead left their computer screens be – perhaps to make sure they remained fully charged. Or maybe, aware that they might be shut up for 24 or 48 hours in their tiny Manhattan apartments, they wanted to delay their confinement as long as possible.

New Yorkers passing the time in Washington Square on Shabbat afternoon before the storm.

And so when I took a Saturday afternoon walk I found a city filled with shabbat. Families strolling. No special place to be, or at least no place more special than this one. No one straying too far from home. No work. No expectations. Connectivity radically reduced if not eliminated altogether. Parents appreciating their children, playing with them in Washington Square fountain. Friends talking intimately. Strangers talking kindly. Neighbors double-checking that the familiar homeless of their street had found shelter, or that neighborhood shopkeepers who were keeping their stores open had places of safety to go to.

New York was being treated, we were all being treated, to shabbat as it’s meant to be, doing what it is meant to do. Not shabbat as a series of prohibitions and not shabbat as a potentially problematic and all-too-often tedious synagogue ritual. It was shabbat as we need it in the 21st Century; at least as I need it. A day of being “unplugged.” A day of complete release from the burden of ambition. A day of being with loved ones, checking in on loved ones. A day of noticeable quiet. A day without reliance on technology. A day of enjoying a home that has been prepared in anticipation. A day in which religion is optional but holiness is not.

Why can’t I do this at home, I wondered. Does it really take such an unlikely circumstance?

On this trip to New York, I happened to learn about the very creative Sabbath Manifesto project, and ten principles they’ve developed to encourage us all to find quiet in our lives, using shabbat as the occasion to do so. The principles are these:

  1. Avoid technology.
  2. Connect with loved ones.
  3. Nurture your health.
  4. Get outside.
  5. Avoid commerce.
  6. Light candles.
  7. Drink wine.
  8. Eat bread.
  9. Find silence.
  10. Give back.

I did all those things. I did them because that is what we all did yesterday in New York. (Okay, I forgot the wine.)

The day was a beautiful one. It made me crave a shabbat-honoring community. Not a community that enforces prohibitions, builds eruvim or hurls stones at drivers of cars. But a community that supports each other in choosing to disconnect [at least] one day a week; a community that values having some time when one doesn’t have to check emails or voicemails. Yes, unplug, baby, unplug, I thought to myself. It’s so completely possible. After all, most New Yorkers weren’t even aware it was shabbat. Still, we rested.*

So this is my new year’s resolution for 5772. More shabbos. More shabbos. And for this overdue lesson, I have only Irene to thank. Goodnight Irene, you Shabbos Queen. I’ll see you in my dreams.

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