“So, who’s your latest victim?”
That was the sarcastic question a colleague at work—a Sabra who has picked up the snarky US sense of humor—would ask me every Thursday or Friday when he spotted me rolling a suitcase into our office.
It meant I was going away for Shabbat.
Single, I am blessed to have friends, typically married with children, who welcome me into their homes in the Greater New York area, or a bus-ride or train-ride’s distance. Sometimes from Friday afternoon to Saturday night, and in the case of out-of-towners, an Amtrak ride away, from Thursday to Sunday morning. In each home, I’d watch the kids, help with errands and often share a devar Torah.
For many years, that was Shabbat for me.
That ended, as did many routines for many people in this country, when Covid-19 struck.
The pandemic’s social-distancing constraints meant no time with friends. Since March, when health precautions and prudence became the norm, I spent every Shabbat (including the two Pesach sedarim) in my apartment. I made Solo Shabbat.
Not particularly social by nature, I have no problem spending extended periods of time by myself. I consider myself excellent company—for myself, at least. But a Shabbat alone, week after week, as winter morphed into spring and then summer, meant an adjustment.
I would not have to buy my customary bouquets of flowers for every girl of every age in the families I was visiting; dress up for shul or a Shabbat tisch; wait for late-arriving guests to appear at the hosts’ home or for the kids to settle down or be put to bed. I would not find the “welcome” sign on the front door or a box of chocolate mints—a nod to the mints provided at fancy hotels—on the pillow of my bed. I would not have the chance to peruse the selection of sefarim found on my hosts’ bookshelves or that week’s Jewish newspapers and magazines scattered on their couches, or engage in spirited discussions about religion, politics and myriad other subjects. On the other hand, I would not have to adjust the time of my pre-Shabbat shower to the needs of the family members or answer the predictable small-talk questions—“Where are you from?” “What do you do?” et cetera—from guests who don’t know me.
On balance, I lost more than I gained, and I learned what Shabbat is supposed to be. It is all of the above and more that creates lasting memories and friendships.
I did my best to make a proper Shabbat.
How does one maintain kavanah while davening alone? Fortunately, I have a small library of books about tefillah; Covid-19 afforded me the time to read them. And I was forced to create new, atypical Shabbat memories (the old friendships will endure).
Since all my neighborhood synagogues were closed for several months, davening with a minyan was not an option. Some folks participated in minyanim in backyards or on the porches of adjacent apartment buildings, but my neighborhood offered neither. I davened by myself, trying to maintain a proper level of kavanah in my apartment—which was often easier than in many shuls, because of the absence of distracting talkers around me.
How do you stay Shabbos’dik when the usual signs of Shabbat are missing? You read or print out the many commentaries on the parashah available online in preparation for Shabbat. You prepare your own divrei Torah, sharing them by e-mail instead of in person. You e-mail “Shabbat shalom” greetings to your friends—including those with whom you have shared a Shabbat seudah. You play some Israeli music before Shabbat enters to get you in the appropriate mood. You make a proper Shabbat meal—grape juice, challah, some chicken and a side dish—for yourself, food ordered from a kosher supermarket because you’re avoiding shopping in stores. You read the Judaica books that have sat unread on your shelves and the many Jewish periodicals that are available at your local newsstand. You go for a Shabbat walk—wearing an appropriate mask, of course.
When I was unable to pray in shul during the pandemic, the mizrach wall of my apartment uplifted me spiritually. I’ve hung about a dozen photos and drawings—framed or laminated—of the Kotel there. They show the Western Wall from different perspectives, in different seasons. When I pray at home, I’m facing the Kotel.
My favorite photograph is the one I took during the 1991 Gulf War, when most visitors had left Israel and few people ventured outside their homes. The enlarged photo shows a chassid, dwarfed by the deserted, towering wall. He would understand my matzav. He’s davening alone.
Steve Lipman is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.