Earlier this week, Christopher Noxon shared the beginnings of his journey from “doing Jew” to being Jewish and the profound importance he found in ritualized rites of passage for young adults. He has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
I started observing Shabbat fifteen years before I formally converted to Judaism. It began, as these things so often do, with bossy grandparents: my wife’s parents hosted dinner Friday nights and would start bugging us on Tuesday to bring the kids over. Jenji’s mom cooked like a school lunch lady and the rush-hour drive across LA wasn’t exactly nourishing to the soul, but I began feeling a real loss when we didn’t make it. Shabbat was a marker, a reset button.
Even though I wasn’t Jewish and had no plans at the time to convert, I liked the “island in time” that Shabbat represented and was curious about creating boundaries that would allow for rest and recharge. I read Abraham Joshua Heschel and began to appreciate the value in dedicating one day a week to slowing down, connecting and checking in with oneself and loved ones. No way was I ready for traditional prohibitions on driving, spending money, or using the phone — but I loved the spirit behind being shomer Shabbat and wanted to create some version for my family and self.
If the idea behind Shabbat was to wake us up, to remove whatever interferes with our appreciation of what’s truly important, I didn’t have to look far to identify the biggest source of distraction.
Our family spends an inordinate — but hardly unusual — amount of time looking at screens. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, TVs, video games — our lives are largely lived in digital space. We work, shop, socialize, study, relax, play — all connected to some sort of device. Our kids have grown up like this — but Jenji and I remember when life was lived offline in three dimensions, or as the kids say, IRL (“in real life”).
This would be our family’s version of Shabbat: one full day IRL.
For us that meant no TV, no email, no social media from sunset Friday to sundown Saturday. Using the phone is okay, we decided, as are movies in a movie theater — but for us, the goal was to stay away from any screens that isolate us from one other and the world around us.
The kids weren’t thrilled about it, and both Jenji and I would sometimes cheat (no one can see you on your iPad when you’re on the toilet!), but I think we all came to appreciate screen-free Saturdays. We had a few amazing “reading parties” splayed out on blankets on the front lawn with dogs, games, and bowls of grapes. We planned outings with friends to places in the city we wouldn’t have visited otherwise — Watts Towers, the Self-Realization Fellowship gardens, waterfalls in the San Gabriel Mountains…
Next we started marking Saturday sundown havdalah around our backyard firepit with a song, a big cup of wine, and a satchel of scented cloves. The traditional elements were nice, but havdalah only came alive after we took a suggestion from my friend Rachel to start a family practice called “take forward, leave behind.” Each member of the family names things from the past week we want to continue (laying off carbs, say, or getting to bed before midnight) and discontinue (texting in the car, fighting with siblings).
Excited by our progress, I joined up with some friends and started an online newsletter called The Undo List, offering tips and inspiration for others observing a weekly “Tech-Free Sabbath.”
Here, with some reinterpretation and experimentation, was something truly useful, an ancient practice given a modern spin that made our lives better.
Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Details and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.
Christopher Noxon is a journalist and illustrator who has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic. Salon and the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the novel Plus One about an interfaith family in Hollywood, and the nonfiction Rejuvenile: Kickball Cartoons Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown Up.