Two decades ago, Susan Goldstein (not her real name) was your typical frazzled suburban mom of two toddlers. The East Coast native stayed home full time in suburban Seattle, using her Ivy League engineering degree for her “household engineer” position: changing diapers, cleaning bottles, stacking up blocks, picking up toys and folding endless loads of laundry.
“My husband was working overseas for a tech firm, coming home every three or four weeks,” Goldstein recalls. “I was home alone, without any family around, and my only social interaction was a Mommy-Baby class once a week.”
Exhausted and stressed, Goldstein realized something needed to give, so she decided to take a break from laundry just one day each week. “I just got sick of it, so I started saying, ‘I’m not doing laundry on Saturdays, because it’s against my religion.’ “
Ironically, before long, it truly was.
Raised in a non-practicing, “reformed” Jewish family, Goldstein completed her Bat Mitzvah but, she says, “I was not serious about religion. As an adult, I would do the major holidays with my family, schlepping the kids out east, but it wasn’t until my daughter started preschool that I really started thinking about Judaism.”
At two years old, Goldstein’s oldest daughter began preschool at the Jewish Community Center, where on Thursdays, during the weekly Shabbat observance, parents were invited in for candle-lighting and challah.
Intrigued, Goldstein started reading children’s books about Judaism, and soon moved on to the Torah and Rabbi Kornfeld’s Monday-night lectures.
Soon, she became engrossed in learning about and observing Judaism.
“In the Torah, there’s a whole section on Jewish law, explaining the 39 categories of work [that are forbidden] on the Sabbath,” Goldstein explains. “The list includes writing, making a fire, creating or destroying, planting or fixing. I didn’t want to take on the whole thing at first, so I focused on [not doing] any chores on Saturdays, including cleaning, laundry and shopping.”
She felt renewed, both in finding her religion and in lightening her load.
Goldstein took small, cautious steps on her route to Conservative Judaism. First, she started inviting friends for Friday night Shabbat dinners, but she struggled to let the dishes sit unwashed until Saturday evening. However, “I [soon] learned that the dishes weren’t going to go anywhere,” she says.
“I gradually took on more restrictions, which eventually meant attending services every Saturday morning, and then cutting out electricity from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown,” she says. Soon, the Goldstein household had no TV, music, telephone or driving on Saturdays.
“The best thing I did was stop answering the phone on Saturdays, not even for my mother,” Goldstein says with a smile.
For Goldstein, Saturdays became a time to relax, a “timeout” from her overwhelming household duties. “It became my chill time, when I could do what I wanted to do and eat what I wanted to eat,” she says. “I started doing a lot of reading, not just the Old Testament, but also Jane Austen and Harry Potter books. I also did a lot of walking on Saturdays, sometimes eight to 10 miles.”
Along the way, Goldstein made peace with her family’s past. After her grandmother passed away, Goldstein wrote an essay (excerpted here), as an effort to understand that woman’s experience during the Holocaust:
Her childhood was difficult. She lost a sibling to starvation. There was sawdust in the flour to make the bread go further. Her family snuck under fences to leave Hungary for Vienna. At 15, she had to leave home because her family could not support her. She opened a sewing shop in Vienna. Then the Nazis confiscated the shop and told her she had two days to leave….She did not practice or understand her religion, but she was persecuted for it….[She] came to this country in 1939 with…four dollars in her pocket and an 11-month-old baby in her arms….[She] and her baby slept on a mattress on the floor.
It was a year before Goldstein’s grandfather could travel across the ocean to join his wife in New York, but the couple gradually built a secure life for themselves, and watched their three grandchildren and four great grandchildren attend college and find fulfilling careers.
And, Goldstein writes, her grandmother “instilled in her daughter proper values and beliefs, and her daughter, my mother, passed these on to her children. She also opened the door for us to learn about our religion, [although] she had no religious training.”
While Goldstein has since relaxed somewhat in her practice of Judaism, she still steers clear of cars, chores and phones on Saturdays. Shabbat “is something to look forward to all week,” she says. “It changes the rhythm of my life.”
So, at the advent of both Hanukah and Christmas, I think mothers practicing any religion could take a page from Goldstein’s book: Don’t feel guilty about giving yourself breaks, time to recharge or permission to put off chores; and remember to cherish and celebrate family, faith and community.
– Linda Williams Rorem, 19 Dec 2011