by Rita Plush (New York, NY)
Covid-19 brought the life I knew skidding to a halt and no amount of phone calls, long walks, or scarfing down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Brownie could soothe my fears about it. But when my older daughter Rhonda, an occupational therapist in a rehab facility, became a front line worker, and my younger, Leslie, had to go through rounds of treatment for stage 4 breast cancer, my worries took on new meaning. My girls’ lives were at risk. Beside myself with worry, I didn’t know where to turn. And then for some reason, I turned to candles.
When my mother died, I had been a twice a year Jew, showing up at temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But I wanted to honor her with the kaddish prayer, so I started going every day. I found comfort in that ancient ritual and a connection to my people who for centuries had recited those very same words in their own grief. Maybe candle-lighting, my mother’s ritual, would help ground me now.
I dug up her Lenox candlesticks and dusted them off, remembering my mother, her arms stretched out over the flickering lights, the circular motion of her hands toward her face as she recited the prayer. That Friday night when I lit the candles, to my surprise, I also remembered the blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.” Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot [blessings], commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat. It had lived in me. I had learned the prayer without knowing I had.
The following week, I posed the question to my daughters: What do you say we all light candles via Facetime this Friday? (God bless technology!) Sure, they said. We came up with a time that would work for all of us.
My mother’s candlesticks at the ready, I made the call from Queens to Staten Island and then to Seattle. My daughters gathered their families around their screens. “Why are we doing this?!” said my grandson, as only a 16-year-old torn from his video game can ask.
“Because we’re Jewish. And that’s what Jews do!” said Rhonda, working her mom mojo.
We lit the candles and said the blessing; then, we blessed the wine: “…borei p’ri hagafen.” Rhonda had bought a challah, or what passes for challah in their Washington town with only two Jewish families, and we said the motzi: “…haMotzi lechem min haaretz.” Behind the burning flames, our FaceTime images smiled; we wished one another a Shabbat Shalom. My daughters and I remained on our phones while the rest of the family drifted away to their own interests.
Work, friends, the dreaded virus, the minutiae of our lives — our talk was the same as our regular, day-to-day conversations. Yet there was something different. Something special had been added to our post candle-lighting chat. A kind of peace? A sense of hope? An overall feeling that it was going to be okay? (The it being Rhonda’s safety; Leslie’s health.) I can’t put a finger on it, but whatever it was, they must have felt it, too. Because when it was time to say goodbye, Leslie offered, “Let’s do this again next week.”
As the weeks went by, my sons-in-law, Andrew and Larry, remained on the call commenting here and there on the past week’s events, their thoughts about them, and whatever else came to mind. I was getting to know them in a way I hadn’t known them before. Friday night candle-lighting became an event we all looked forward to. Even my grandson came to the table sans gripe (well, most of the time).
I decided to download Zoom so we wouldn’t be confined to little squares on our phones. Big screen here we come. I opted for the free 40 minute deal and with a little help (a lot of help actually) from online tutorials I managed to set it up and send my daughters the link.
The thick of Covid thinned in the rehab facility where Rhonda worked. Leslie was responding to her new treatment. My anxiety dimmed, but not my enthusiasm for our candle-lighting — or my daughters’ interest in it. “What time is Shabbat?” they texted me each Friday. It made me smile: I loved how religious they sounded, even though they were anything but.
Two months into our new tradition, I suggested we ask my brother, their Uncle Steven in Puerto Rico, to be our guest that Friday night. Sure, they said.
My brother seemed not to know what to make of our get-together, the joking around we did, the talk of food and recipes after the prayers. He watched rather than join in, but his smile showed he was happy to be included. We asked him to be a regular. He was “honored.” Thinking he didn’t have candlesticks, I sent him a traveling set via Amazon. Now he was a full participant. That Friday he asked us a riddle: “How do they throw a party at NASA? They plan it and rent out a space.” Baddaboom! He fit right in. Our Shabbat candle-lighting had become a true pleasure, just as the Jewish elders wanted it.
Weeks later we asked my nephew Gary, Steven’s son in Brooklyn, to our little band of candle-lighters. He often logs-in bucking traffic on the LIE (Long Island Expressway) but he has not missed a Friday night.
When Thanksgiving came, we decided to have a virtual holiday so we could all be together. We Zoomed about the dinners we’d had—food again, a biggie with us. Steven had sent a group text about gratitude and each of us spoke, not only about what we were grateful for, but what gratitude meant to us. A more introspective and serious conversation than our usual lighthearted chats followed, deepening our awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings.
We decided to name our group and had a rousing time one Friday night coming up with a proper appellation that expressed who we were. Nudnik, interrupternik—we’re always talking over each other (we’re Jewish aren’t we?)—and Shabbatnik were in the running. We decided on Shabbatniks, since it was Shabbat that had brought us together.
On Chanukah we had a Latke Throwdown—Bobby Flay has nothing on us. We made latkes in all their permutations—sweet potato, zucchini, from a mix and from scratch—took a photo, sent it to all, and discussed our creations that Friday.
We love the deep bond we have found in being together for 40 minutes every Friday night. Forty minutes that makes us feel good all week. What better way to celebrate that feeling than with a song. Homework: come up with a theme song for next week that typifies us.
Mid-week I sent out an email reminding everyone that we would be having an awards night to pick the winner. Rhonda and Andrew dressed to the nines in evening gown and black tie. What a group! And their submission was a winner as well, done to the theme song of the Addams Family. All together now: “The Shabbatnicks’ family started/when writer Rita wanted/the children to be part of/the Shabbatnick Family.” Snap, snap.
We have come late to the ancient custom of candle-lighting, but that tradition has had an impact on my family that is beyond anything we could ever have imagined. Could Covid and the isolation and worry it has thrown us into have made our connection so sweet and meaningful? Probably, now that I think about it. But rediscovering my family has more to do with finding new meaning in lighting two candles on a Friday night than any virus could ever bring.
Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, and are forthcoming in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, and Avalon Literary Review. http://www.ritaplush.com