Lessons learned from ‘A Year (or More) of Shabbats’

By Rebecca Brown

January 1, 2011 marked the final Shabbat in our “Year (Or More) of Shabbats” odyssey.  While expressing my feelings through my writing has always come fairly easy I now find it hard to put to paper exactly how much this experience has changed our life. Nonetheless, in gratitude to all of you who have shared a meal with us, followed the blog, or otherwise supported and encouraged us, this is my best effort to express my thanks.

The Numbers

Our family slowed down to celebrate Shabbat every week in 2010. We hosted 45 different families for dinner in our home and served 166 people. The dinners included 45 unique menus including an entrée each week that I had never cooked before and well over 100 different recipes.  My son Ben, 6, collected 71 cans of food, which he delivered to the Food Pantry at our synagogue, Central Reform Congregation. I chronicled our experience on a website (ayearormoreofshabbats.blogspot.com) that had over 4,000 visitors and 8,000 page views from readers all over the world including Israel, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Austria, France, Iceland, Italy and Canada. I started a Facebook group called ONE, dedicated to families committed to having at least one dinner once a week for one year.  One hundred and six families — Jewish and not — from across the country joined.

I also broke three wine glasses and one gravy boat and stopped the sink up twice.

What We Learned

Ben and my daughter Sarah, 3, knew they were Jewish before we started all of this, but I think they learned more about what that really means. Not only did they learn to recite the prayers, they also learned about the meaning and purpose. They learned about Jewish traditions and created more than a few of their own. They learned to share their table and their toys. They learned that not everyone is Jewish and without knowing it they learned to share their religion and accept and embrace the differences in others. I tried to teach them that while our religion is filled with joyous traditions and celebrations, it is also filled with responsibility — for showing gratitude and forgiveness and working for peace and repair of the world. Above all, I hope they learned that life requires resilience and that when things are difficult or seemingly impossible, they must pick themselves up by their bootstraps, raise their heads, have faith and march on.

While I can’t speak for my husband Steve, I hope he learned that he is not defined by a moment and that the most important opinions are those of his family, his wife and particularly his children. I think he learned that our family works better when we take time to slow down each week and connect.  I watched him develop a renewed Jewish identity that now expands far beyond his previous observance of a handful of holidays. Each week I saw his worries subside — even if only temporarily — as we filled our home and our hearts with new and old friends.

I learned that I need my faith. It is a source of strength — second only to my children — that has helped me forgive and has led me to find goodness and gratitude in even the most difficult situations.  My faith brought 166 people into my home, each of whom put us one step closer to moving beyond the past. My faith also helped me find a place of quiet contemplation that centered me when the world spun out of control.

I learned that I have a voice.  At the start of this project, I did not intend to share what I wrote with anyone other than my family and the evening’s guests; partially because I’ve never been one to share my struggles, but mostly because I figured it just wasn’t all that interesting.  I have been awed, humbled and downright dumbstruck by the support I have received from people who have read the blog and in many cases taken the time to tell me personally or in letters that my words were meaningful. I can promise you that the writing has been far more meaningful and cathartic to me.

Opening my home for dinner guests nearly every week made it difficult if not impossible to conceal my shortcomings — not just in my cooking, but in my parenting, housekeeping and myriad other insecurities. I learned that the only one that seems to care about (or even notice) these shortcomings is me so I’ve let many of them go. I’ve learned that perfection is neither possible nor desirable and I’ve found that it’s much more satisfying to just focus on being real.

Finally, I’ve learned that I am far more resilient than I ever believed I could be. Instead of telling myself it can’t get worse (because it might) I’ve learned to make the best of the hand I am dealt no matter what it is. I’ve learned that harboring bitterness takes a lot more energy than picking up and moving on. I’ve learned what makes me happy.

And I learned I’m a damn good cook.

What’s Next?

Our weekly dinners will continue indefinitely.  They have become a part of who we are as a family.  And while I do not plan to break the record of 45 different families for 2011, I do plan to invite new and old friends to share Shabbat dinner with us on a regular basis.  I plan to continue to write about our experience and will focus on completing some unfinished entries from 2010 and additional entries for 2011. I plan to bind the entire blog into a book for my children and a treasure for myself of the 365 days that will forever be known as “The Year (Or More) of Shabbats.”

Thank You    

I’d be remiss without mentioning my thanks to all of the families – some of whom were practically strangers – who fearlessly shared a meal with us. Many were not Jewish, had no idea what Shabbat was, but nonetheless risked bringing their small children to an unfamiliar home for a sit-down dinner. Incredible. Thanks to Rabbi Susan Talve of CRC who so magically filled me with faith long before either of us knew it would be my saving grace. Without you there would have never been “A Year (Or More) of Shabbats.” Thanks to our non-Jewish family and friends and to the organizations I have committed to who understood when we had to forgo Friday events. And thanks especially to my husband who so dutifully drove to Toby’s Challah House each Friday, grilled in the snow and sweltering heat, washed and put away all of the dishes, motivated me to press on in the weeks when I swore I didn’t have the energy, and who so graciously and without question or doubt allowed me to share what has been the single most difficult period in his life.


Dor to Dor

Rebecca Brown, a lawyer and the mother of two young children, works as an adviser at Washington University’s School of Law. She and her husband, Steve Brown, live in Clayton and are members of Central Reform Congregation.

“Dor to Dor,” is an intermittent series looking at aspects of “grown-up” life and generational connections through the lens of Jewish writers living in the St. Louis area.