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On the Seventh Day

Judith Shulevitz considers the Sabbath at the Austin Jewish
Book Fair

By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 12, 2010

On the Seventh Day

In 1929, the Soviet Union set in motion the nepreryvka, or the continuous work week, and struck Saturday and Sunday from the record. At first, that historical relic, relayed in Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, sounds preposterous – those kooky Communists, with their fitter-happier-more-productive Five-Year Plans – but think longer on it, and the parallels are discomfiting. Families on staggered time frames? The line between work and home blurred? No institutionalized, communitywide day of rest? Sounds an awful lot like America, circa now.

Shulevitz's book – a fascinating, invigorating jumble of history, philosophy, and memoir – traces the beginnings of the Fourth Commandment-decreed day of rest from Hebrew texts to its many Christian incarnations and the more secular version embraced by Americans in the mid-20th century, back when Sunday closing laws (or "blue laws") were still in effect. She also makes a strong, if controversial, case for the re-emergence of a nationally recognized Sabbath. (Surprise: She thinks it should be Sunday.)

The Chronicle recently spoke with Shulevitz shortly before her own Sabbath preparations. (She paused our conversation briefly to speak with her son. "Friday afternoon is sacred TV time," she told me. "He crams it in before sundown.") Shulevitz will speak on Sunday, Nov. 21, at the Austin Jewish Book Fair.

Austin Chronicle: You describe in the book your own complicated relationship with the Sabbath as a child. Did you always envision threading memoir into the larger story of the Sabbath? Or did you first set out to write a more objective book?

Judith Shulevitz: I did, and then I realized that that would be deadly. One of the things that I found when I was researching the book was that there was a huge amount of literature written on the Sabbath question ... and that this was just a really live question up until about World War I. With the advent of modernity, it sort of as a question went away, as did the old-fashioned American Sunday. I read a lot of this literature, and it was very, very dry stuff. Very technical, theological stuff. I could barely stay awake through some of it. And I realized that I had to find some way to animate the ideas of the book. ... I wanted to use myself as an example of some of these ideas that I was organizing the book around – group dynamics, the Sabbath as a day for learning and reading, the people of the book. I thought, you know, I can find examples of all of this in my life, and I can go as deep as I want to go, and I can make the examples very counterintuitive. They won't be pious, happy examples. Often they'll be examples of ways in which I ran away from this particular thing.

AC: You're a very harsh critic of yourself in the book.

JS: I do hate memoirs in which people take themselves overly seriously. I do think there was a lot of running away that went on in my life – running away from things that matter, running away from things that are big. So I guess I took a somewhat mocking tone toward myself. I just felt it was better than taking myself too seriously.

AC: Your mother, who went to rabbinical school, is at the center of a lot of your struggling. I was curious if she was one of your first readers?

JS: No, she was the last. I showed it to her last – at which point, it was too late to change it.

Judith Shulevitz
Judith Shulevitz
Photo courtesy of Elena Seibert

AC: But you dedicated it to her.

JS: I did.

AC: It seemed like a very beautiful way to honor your mother.

JS: I wanted to. I didn't know if she would still speak to me after I showed her the book. Luckily she still does. I think that at first she was very taken aback at being made a character and at some of my frankness about our family problems. But after a little while she got over that and she realized that the book is very much in the spirit of what she tried to inculcate in us. It celebrated her. And part of the self-mockery, I think, is an effort to just show how blinkered we can be toward our parents and how difficult it can be to take what they have to give us.

AC: I was looking back through the book this morning, and I noticed I had made a note on, like, page 5: "Is the strict observance of the Sabbath incompatible with our times?" By the end of the book, it seems your answer is yes.

JS: It's incompatible in the sense that if you want to be really of our time and have all the mobility and the flexibility and the fungibility of time that a modern person enjoys, you are not going to be able to keep the Sabbath as it is kept in a very strict – and I'm talking very strict – sense. But you know it's certainly possible to arrange your life so that you are both of the world and of this other world.

If you are shomer Shabbat and you really keep all the laws – shomer Shabbat meaning in Hebrew "keeper of the Sabbath, Sabbath observer" – you don't want to live, you know, somewhere you have to drive to shul, so you have to live within walking distance of your synagogue. You have to quit work at midday on Friday, at least if you're female you do, and in the winter if you're male, shortly after midday in order to have time to get home. There are many features of modern American life you can't participate in. You can't do local town/village soccer, and if there's a conference over a weekend and your boss wants to send you, you can't go. There's just a lot of stuff you have to bow out of and a lot of stuff you have to do that other people don't have to do. And I think that they're not incompatible – I meant that in a sort of structural sense. I think in terms of lifestyle there are a lot of extremely Orthodox Jews who work in every profession who live in the world and partake of the world, but you're not going to be fully in one world or fully in another if you try to be in both.

AC: I was very taken with the secular Sabbitarianism that you talk about, especially the idea of a reinvigorated public culture in which people are taking the day to go to the museum, the theatre, concerts, and lectures. It sounds wonderful. It also sounds very European.

JS: Yeah, I say in that passage where I talk about the Israelis who are trying to come up with this – they're Europeans. They're coming at it from a sort of European high cultural perspective. But I do say, 50 years ago in this country, you know, stores were closed, Sunday was a quiet day. ... Not everybody went to a museum, they may or may not have gone to church, but they went for a Sunday drive, they had Sunday dinner. They did something other than what they do every other day, which is work or shop.

I'm not saying we don't have that now. Certainly we have recreation; we have things people do on the weekends and that they don't do during the week. But stores are open, banks, you can get money, you can buy anything you want. It's just, there's not an atmosphere of what Felix Frankfurter called "communal repose." The only days you really have that in America are on Christmas and New Year's, and New Year's sort of in the morning, 'cause everyone's sleeping. What I'm talking about is, you go out on the street and it's quiet. Cars are not driving; the stores are not open. There's just this feeling of there's no point in trying to get anywhere and do anything because nothing's open and you know you're off. And everyone else is off too. There's never that feeling.

Whereas, you know, people your grandparents' age grew up with that feeling once a week. So whether it's applied to a sort of high cultural purpose or not, I do think it's worth remembering that we had this quietness once a week and at least recognizing it as a virtue or a value to be aspired toward, even if I think modern life makes it almost unattainable.


The Austin Jewish Book Fair runs Nov. 11-21, with closing night speaker Judith Shulevitz appearing Sunday, Nov. 21, at 7:30pm. Other featured speakers include Austinite Steven Weinberg (Lake Views: This World and the Universe), Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah), and Joan Nathan (Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France). All events are held in the Community Hall on the Jewish Community Campus (7300 Hart). For complete schedule and ticket info, visit www.shalomaustin.org.

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