Shabbat and Aging Parents

A majesty all its own.

Shabbat is a medium for telling the story of our lives. As we age, so do our Shabbat experiences mature. We move from charm and wonder to duty and discipline. Who does not remember the youthful joy of donning that new pair of patent leather Mary Janes and little white anklets, and the feel of a crisp new dress still smelling of the department store and then skipping to shul hand in hand with Mother or Father? These simple delights move naturally to youth group fun and then on to college-aged Shabbat expeditions and explorations.

After that, the “playing house” phase often naturally develops into the seasoned well-grooved, grown-up Shabbat experience of the auto-pilot cooking, planning, and inviting cycle–family times of tables regaled with divrei Torahzemirot, and the latest Susie Fishbein wonder–blessed perhaps with indulged children and grandchildren spilling and wreaking havoc to their hearts’ content.

These stages of Shabbat we could anticipate and expect, but who would have foreseen this next stage, complete with all its raw nuances? This is the stage of kibud, honor. I have joined those who sit sadly, faintly wiping away tears and biting lips to keep from crying, as we help a parent eat a Shabbat meal, forkful by forkful.

Shabbat Memories

Somehow, during the week, this very same table in the very same nursing home dining room does not evoke nearly the same emotion that it does on Friday night. No weekday fruit and cottage cheese platter or Shepherd’s pie can come close to summoning the angst of a beloved father navigating a tiny plastic medicine container holding grape juice for kiddush. In the public dining room of the nursing home, vanished is the grandeur and majesty–the noble stateliness of Shabbatot past. The memories hover accusingly, floating above us in billowy clouds with a Chagall-like twinkle, whispering overhead.

Could we but only draw them down: Hashivenu elekha venashuvah, hadesh yameinu kekedem–Return us to You and we will return: renew our days as of old. I wonder, are we really the same people? Am I that little girl entranced and enchanted by the magic of Friday night–hypnotized by the melodies pouring forth with drama and devotion from Father? Transported by the light of the candles and the sip of wine? Excited beyond words to share the Torah portion of the week? Sitting in a dining room chair far too big for me?

Recapturing Splendor

In a Hasidic tale, the king of yesterday is lost and unknown, wandering in an unfamiliar kingdom–his former glory unheard of by local inhabitants. How did we land in this foreign place? Where is the white cloth, the silver, the family heirlooms, the warmth of home? We have no choice; we must recapture a remnant of that splendor here in our shared exile of Lucite and plastic trays.

Though it is surely an impossible task, a glint of hope is reflected in my father’s saintly deep-set green eyes as he gazes intently on the Shabbat candles. Could there be a suggestion of memory as the zemirot are sung, perhaps a faint trigger of Proust-like Madeleine-esque recognition with a taste of chicken soup?

We are only passing through, so we are told. And this is where we are passing today. We have no choice, Hashivenu elekha venashuvah, hadesh yameinu kekedem. The table begins to soar, its golden legs lifting itself upward as in yet another Hassidic tale. This is the very holy of holies: the place of truth and purity. Here we eat and here we daven in this, an unfamiliar land, occupied with sincerity and goodness–with those who dance before the ark of broken tablets.

New Roles On Shabbat

Once upon a time there was an imposing looming bima, an animated rousing sermon, a booming amen, yehei shemei rabbah–riveting the very walls of the sanctuary built brick by brick by a young, vibrant rabbi. Once there was a father who stood as a conductor, baton in hand, boldly directing the music of our prayers and the choreography of our stances: “Please rise, please be seated.” Conductor then, my father is but a violinist now, and I am a page turner. Is that the name for the person who stands by the side of the violinist, patiently turning the pages of the composition? “Page turner” sounds awfully mundane for so lofty a task. I stand with one foot in the men’s section coaching and guiding the hallowed words of prayers, turning pages, pointing to the place, sliding my finger beneath line, and line, and line.

The exquisiteness and purity of my father’s tefillot are l’ma’aleh min ha-teva; they transcend the bounds of this world. The litvish-accented words are enunciated with an austere, precise devotion transporting listeners back in time and place to an alter heim, a town named Velizhe. It was there that these words and their cadences were patiently learned Ofen Pripichik style. There is nowhere on earth, no synagogue known, where a Lekha Dodi greets our beloved as my father’s now does: “Hitna’ari me’afar kumi, lift me up from the ashes, come and shine.”

Gathering Our Prayers

The Midrash tells of the angels of prayer who gather our prayers together. Here, in this nursing home, they have to wait a bit and pause in the lobby by the door, as my father slowly recites each word. They linger patiently as this particularly sweet precious lilt is painstakingly completed. They carefully and gently catch each line and secure it in their hands. They weave the words of prayer gently into a crown that will adorn the Holy One on High.

This is not quite the Shabbat of yesterday, but it is surely the Shabbat of me’ein olam haba, a hint of the world to come, with a majesty all its own. Privileged, honored am I to add this to all those Shabbatot past.

Reprinted with permission from JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Sign up for My Jewish Learning’s RECHARGE, a weekly email with a collection of Shabbat readings and more to enhance your day of rest experience.

Discover More

High Holiday Zoom Services: How to Get the Most out of Them

Try these seven tips to make the holiday sacred and special, even if you're not going to synagogue in person.

Candle-Lighting Blessings for Yom Kippur

Blessings for beginning Yom Kippur in Hebrew, English, and transliteration.

Why Tisha B’Av is Not Really About Mourning

The practices associated with this holiday are closer to the experience of being a refugee than to being a mourner.