Shabbat in the car is no substitute for a nice family dinner

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I fear my daughter will always think of challah as car bread. On Fridays, while she’s at an after-school class, I buy a fresh loaf of Emeryville’s Semifreddi’s or Oakland’s Grand Bakery challah (the two choices available at the Oakland store where I shop), and since it’s late and dark and she’s hungry we usually break into the bread on the ride home.

I know, it’s supposed to be draped with a beautiful cloth and eaten at the dining room table, after we light candles and recite the blessing, but lately that’s not the snapshot of our Friday nights. Regretfully, we’ve fallen out of practice, victims to schedules that don’t make it easy to honor the Sabbath when Daylight Saving Time ends.

So, it’s sort of become Shabbat in the car. I’m pretty sure that in the series of words car, challah and Shabbat, “car” is the item that does not belong in the set.

But, I rationalize, isn’t Shabbat in the car better than no Shabbat at all?

During my daughter’s early childhood we didn’t have any Friday night ritual. Shabbat was such a foreign concept, in fact, that when she began Hebrew school in kindergarten her lack of knowledge of all things Jewish was evident.

“What’s your favorite part of Shabbat?” the teacher inquired one afternoon.

“What’s that?” my daughter obliviously asked.

“Well, do you light the candles?” her teacher prompted.

“Yes! When there’s a blackout,” my daughter explained.

In our house, candles burning on any night other than Chanukah meant the electricity was out. What kind of Jewish mother was I?

I decided we must try to become the kind of family that stops to pause and reflect at the end of the week. We were going to do it right, in the tradition of my ancestors, even if I had to go back several generations to actually find any Shabbat-observing predecessors.

To get Shabbat-savvy and prepare for sundown Friday night, I tried to memorize the blessings by downloading phonetic versions from the Internet and practicing them while stuck in traffic. I got my non-Jewish husband on board as a willing participant when I explained that drinking wine was an integral part of the process, prompting him to line up some nice reds to be opened on Friday nights.

For several years we lit tall candles and stumbled over the Hebrew blessings (with help from the one who was actually going to Hebrew school). We liked Shabbat. It got Daddy off the computer, Mommy off the phone. Our togetherness was central and everything with the world was put on hold for this time, while we just focused on being with each other.

The typical rush of the other weeknights — the scurrying through the checklist of homework, dinner, piano practice and a set bedtime left little time for spontaneity. This didn’t happen on Shabbat. When Friday night fell, we didn’t always have a grand plan. And that’s the way we liked it.

Until the Friday after-school class wedged into our routine. Combined with the end of Daylight Saving Time, it made Shabbat challenging. When class ends, it’s already dark and our stomachs can’t wait the drive home, so we often break open the bread bag. Days later, I find the detritus of stale challah crumbs in our backseat, and I take a handful and scatter it on the driveway for our neighborhood birds.

One day, we’ll do Shabbat right again. More than right, in fact. No store-bought challah; we’ll make the dough together, braid it and bake it as our house fills with the aroma of fresh bread, and we’ll eat it at the table, not in the car.

Years from now I can imagine my daughter passing by a bakery on her way home from medical school. She’ll tell her nice Jewish boyfriend, a Shabbat-celebrating medical student, about baking challah with her wonderful mother and she’ll miss me so much just from thinking about it that she’ll call right then and there from her wristwatch video phone to tell me she loves me.

And she’ll have long forgotten about Shabbat in the car.

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected].