Sharing Shabbat in Western MA

Not Your Grandparents' Shtel: Exploring Jewish Culture in Western Mass by Amy Meltzer

Shabbat: Friday Night Dinner

Painting of Shabbat symbols by my daughter, Ella.

I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore. At 17, I left for college in New England. I eagerly traded sprawl for small town centers, malls for main street, and never once looked back. Other than family, what could I possibly miss?

The answer caught me by surprise. I was raised in a Jewish family, and almost everyone I knew in Pikesville, Maryland celebrated the same holidays, observed some version of the same dietary laws, and casually tossed around the same Yiddish expressions. At the time, I despised the lack of diversity. Now, as my husband and I raise our daughters in the Jewish tradition, I sometimes miss how easy it was to be part of the majority.

In Western Massachusetts, we’re a minority, and it’s not always so easy. But this challenge is also a gift. We take nothing for granted, and every ritual that my husband (who is not Jewish) and I choose to observe with our daughters involves a conscious choice, an explanation, and a concerted effort. If Pikesville was a few steps away from the traditional shtetl of my Eastern European ancestors, then Western Massachusetts is a good, long shlep. Which means that finding other families to celebrate with isn’t as simple as looking next door or down the block. We’ve had to work a little harder to create community, and, our definition of community has expanded.

This new column, Not Your Grandparents’ Shtetl, is my attempt to share a little bit of how our interfaith family has made Judaism a part of our lives, and to look more closely at what Western Massachusetts has to offer other families who are interested in doing the same.

Friday Night Family Dinners

The girls help prepare homemade challah bread for Shabbat. (Photo credit: Amy)

One of my favorite rituals is the traditional Shabbat, or Friday night, dinner. The Hebrew word Shabbat means rest, and harkens back to the biblical story of creation, when God rested on the seventh day after forming the world.  While our family makes a concerted effort to have a family meal almost every night of the week, it tends to be rushed, without much fuss on the part of the cook (me) or much lingering on the part of the diners. There’s a race to get homework done, the dog walked, lessons planned, and bodies cleaned (or sort of clean) before a 7:30 bedtime.

Shabbat is different. The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday. The meal traditionally starts with blessings of thanks – we light candles, sing a prayer over wine or grape juice, and recite a blessing over braided challah bread. The food is usually a little fancier than weekday fare – in our house, the challah is homemade, the entrée is usually chicken, and there’s always a special dessert. Bedtimes are stretched, or ignored altogether. Many weeks, we invite another family to join us. Other times, another family invites us. Sometimes, we gather at our synagogue for a communal meal.

The traditional observance of Shabbat involves abstaining from all work until nightfall on Saturday. In our non-traditional family, Saturday isn’t always quite so restful. The girls might have swim lessons, my husband might referee a soccer game, and I might catch up on housework. But a relaxing Friday night dinner is non-negotiable.

Western MA Events: August 2011

This month, an array of Jewish institutions are co-sponsoring a series of Friday night intergenerational picnics called “Shabbat Under the Sky.” Open to all, these evenings are a chance to experience some of the traditional aspects of a Jewish Shabbat dinner along with music, conversation, kid-friendly activities, and a picnic in a beautiful outdoor setting. Challah, juice and dessert will be provided. The events are from 5:30-7:30pm and are free of charge. More information is available here, or by calling Dyan Wiley at 413-439-1941.

August 5 –Amherst
Location: Groff Park off Route 116.
Entertainment: Puppet Show and music by Felicia Sloin.
Dinner: Bring your own vegetarian picnic.

August 19—East Longmeadow
Location: Heritage Park.
Entertainment: Puppet show by Anna Sobel.
Dinner: Bring your own vegetarian dinner or purchase sandwich wraps (click here to pre-order by August 10).

August 26 –Greenfield
Green River Swimming & Recreation Area, Nash’s Mill Road.
Entertainment: Puppet show by Anna Sobel.
Dinner: Bring your own vegetarian dinner OR potluck item to share.

August 26—Northampton
Location: Look Park, Westwood Shelter.
Entertainment: Jam by local musicians, TBA.
Dinner: Bring your own vegetarian dinner.

Next Month

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, falls in the month of September. Next month we’ll look at ways to celebrate the new year with apples, honey and a delicious challah recipe, and find out about family friendly events for the holiday.


Amy Meltzer

Amy is a Kindergarten teacher at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, MA, and the author of two children’s books, A Mezuzah on the Door, and The Shabbat Princess. She writes the blog Homeshuling for Beliefnet, and a monthly column for the Jewish parenting site Amy lives in Northampton, MA with her husband and two daughters.

6 Comments on “Sharing Shabbat in Western MA

  1. Can’t wait for more! Do you have any books or other published work for us to look out for?

  2. It was nice to see what’s going on out there. Reading from far off south Florida but once upon a time lived in Pittsfield. And coincidentally, my husband is from Baltimore. Enjoy your laid back life in Northampton, I do miss the New England ambiance. There are more Jews here, but we had a very active community for a rural area.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Marissa. Our family is going to the Look Park picnic – it was a lot of fun last year.

  4. Thank you for writing this piece, I’m excited to see your regular contributions! I would love to involve our children in some Jewish ritual and celebration. We are a multicultural family as well, trying to keep some Judiaism alive for our kids.

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