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At Work in the Fields of the Lord

At Work in the Fields of the Lord

On celebrating the spiritual and the material

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This article is reprinted from Etude, a nonfiction publication of the University of Oregon.

As the sun slides down the sky and the air fills with a golden haze, a small crowd gathers in front of a gray house j ust south of the University of Oregon campus. The youngest are teenagers; the oldest are graying. Some have made an effort to dress up, but many are clad in jeans, even shorts. A few of the men are wearing yarmulkes and some of the women have tied scarves over their hair. It’s Friday night, and they are here to celebrate Shabbas, the Jewish Sabbath.

Outdoors, cigarettes glow in the fading light; indoors, people fill the front hall. Two young children, a boy and a girl, run giggling through the rooms. Old friends introduce strangers, saying “Good Shabbas!” to each other.  The sky deepens into lavender, and the windows blaze with electric light. All the guests move inside and slowly separate: the women into the front room, the men into the hall.

Twenty minutes before sunset, the women are responsible for lighting the Shabbas candles. Rebbetzen Aviva Spiegel, the evening’s hostess, asks for a show of hands: How many know the blessing? Several hands go up, some more tentatively than others. Candles cover a corner table, and Aviva invites the women to take turns lighting them; the tea lights and silver candelabra begin to flicker. The women watch Aviva, a petite woman who always looks taller on Shabbas, clad tonight in black and a trailing red scarf. They follow her lead, waving their hands slowly towards their faces, wafting the smoke of the flames towards them, welcoming the arrival of Shabbas.

Together they place their palms over their faces, fingertips up, and chant the brakha, or blessing: “Barukh atai Adonai, Elohaynu, melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’had’lik neir shel shabbat. Amen.” 'Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us with his commandments, and commands us to light the candles of Shabbas.' Some women remove their hands and watch the candles for a minute before moving away; others hold their hands over their faces for a while, swaying slightly. The men all stand in the hallway, a little awkward, watching and waiting. Some murmur “Amen” along with the women, sotto voce, as if their deeper voices would break the spell. Shabbas has begun.

Aviva and her husband, Rabbi Asi Spiegel, moved to Eugene with their two small children (now three) in the fall of 2002. They are members of Chabad Lubavitch, a branch of the mystical Orthodox Jewish movement known as Hasidism. Every aspect of their lives is Jewish, from the clothing they wear (modest) to the food they eat (kosher) to the work they do: sharing their approach to Judaism with other Jews they meet. There are no Jews quite like the Spiegels in Eugene. But that’s why they’re here.

With the candles lit, the men head across the hall into the library and shut the French doors, while the women pull chairs into a circle in the long front room. Aviva passes out blue Siddurs, or prayer books, written in Hebrew with English translations. Every Friday night, the Spiegels open their home to all comers; usually they welcome about 15 guests. But tonight, in addition, there are at least seven first-timers, members of Eugene’s Havurah group. There are Havurahs all across the U.S., and they usually function as religious-study and social-action clubs for Jewish adults. Weeks before, the Eugene Havurah had invited itself over to check out the Chabad experience, and Aviva is slightly nervous about making sure she does everything right.

She opens by asking the women to introduce themselves by giving their names and then their mother’s name, going back as far as they know, using the Hebrew word bat to signify “daughter of.” The women struggle with this for a minute, then get into the rhythm: I’m so-and-so, bat so-and-so, bat so-and-so. One woman knows only her own mother’s name; everything beyond that, she says, is lost in the Holocaust. Everyone also shares what they like about Shabbas, whether it’s seeing friends or having to walk everywhere for a day. A few women are puzzled by this last response until it’s explained that observant Jews do not drive cars, carry objects outside, turn on light switches or do other activities that could be considered “work” on Shabbas.  They shrug, accepting. Some of the women know blessings and songs in Hebrew; some are also familiar with the many subtleties of being an observant Jew.  Others know little beyond the fact that they are Jewish. But they’re curious, and Aviva doesn’t want them to leave unsatisfied.

She begins talking about the role of Shabbas in Judaism, and says that the opening prayer describes welcoming Shabbas like a bride. Traditionally, the Jewish nation is female and God is male; God is the giver and the Jews are the receiver. “But on Shabbas, Jews are like the groom and Shabbas is the bride,” she explains. She mentions an old idea in Judaism: that not only have Jews kept Shabbas, but Shabbas has kept the Jews. “This is certainly true for me,” she says, smiling ruefully. “I look forward all week to Shabbas. Basically, without Shabbas I couldn’t exist.”

Aviva and Asi are in their early 30s, and the lives they lead would tire older or lazier people. They both teach Jewish-education classes and organize Jewish events and activities, such as Passover Seders, public lectures and summer camps. They share the responsibility of raising and educating their children: Yehuda, 4, Nava, 3, and Levy, 11 months. Aviva spends most of Thursday and Friday doing the shopping, cooking and cleaning necessary for Shabbas. Asi spends most of his week doing outreach work: staffing an informational table on the UO campus twice a week, meeting with people interested in learning more about Chabad, cultivating donors who might help Chabad financially.

“It’s not easy, but that’s how it is,” shrugs Asi. Aviva admits to hiring babysitters and a housecleaner. “I can’t do it all,” she sighs. “But Chabad women have to multitask. They often run schools, and have 10 children, and are cooking Shabbas dinners for, like, 50 people. I’ve learned to delegate.”

The Spiegels are shlichim, or emissaries, of Chabad Lubavitch, and their commitment to Eugene is permanent. More than 20 years ago, the first Oregon Chabad house opened up in Portland; a year after the Spiegels arrived in Eugene, another young family started a house in Ashland. As Chabad houses become more established, their offerings grow; they build schools, temples and mikvahs, or ritual baths. But in a state where less than one percent of the population identifies as Jewish, Chabad has its work cut out for it. Being on shlichus means being, in every sense, a professional Jew. The Spiegels are role models 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Right now Aviva is gently reminding her two older children — who are wandering back and forth between the men’s room and the women’s room, bored — that they are role models, too, and have to behave during Shabbas. Yehuda sighs and heads back to the library, the fringes on his tallith, or ritual shirt shawl, bouncing below his natty vest and button-down shirt. Nava climbs onto a lap in the front room and starts turning the pages of a picture book, swinging her patent-leather Mary Janes back and forth. Aviva returns to the Shabbas discussion, and asks the women to imagine Jewish women all around the world lighting candles together, creating overlapping ripples of light. It’s not just a ceremony for creating light in the evening, she says; it’s a reminder that the Jews themselves are to be a light in the darkness. The women nod, absorbed.

From the library, the muffled sound of the men can be heard, praying aloud and singing. In the front room, the women raise their voices as well, tapping their feet, welcoming Shabbas and announcing the all-powerful nature of God. The chanting grows as the men come out into the hall, holding their prayer books, reading, bowing slowly in a swaying motion. The women reach the last prayer and stand up as well, bowing in all four directions, calling to the Shabbas bride to enter. Their voices fade away. Shabbas is here.

In the kitchen, the women talk excitedly while they assemble salads, collect loaves of Aviva’s homemade challah bread, and unwrap foil from dishes already cooked and kept warm on a hot plate. One woman touches Aviva on the arm. “Everything you were saying in there — they were all things I needed to hear,” she says, breathlessly. A wide, gratified smile appears on Aviva’s face. “Well, you know, I only say the things people need to hear,” she says.

In German, spiegel means mirror, and in a sense, the Spiegels are just trying to live up to their name. Most Hasidim are insular, living in Hasidic neighborhoods, shopping at Hasidic stores, going to Hasidic schools. But for more than 50 years, Chabad Lubavitchers have been traveling from their home base in Brooklyn to look for other Jews. They hope to light a spark in each Jew they find, a sense of recognition, a feeling that being a Jew should mean living like a Jew. Chabad Lubavitchers, like all Hasidim, are visibly Jewish, the men in particular with their thick beards and dark fedoras and dangling fringes, or tzitzit. But only the Lubavitchers actively hold up their visibility to other, less observant Jews as an image of Jewishness. The more Jews there are doing Jewish things, they believe, the sooner the world’s troubles will end, and the sooner the Messiah will arrive. In a sense, they are Jewish missionaries looking to spread the gospel of Judaism among the scattered flock of Jews.

But the Chabad Lubavitch outreach movement stops short of the hard sell. Yes, young Chabadniks regularly hit the streets of cities around the world, approaching total strangers and asking, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” If the answer is yes, they will be invited to pray, or offered a set of Shabbas candles. But those who express interest in what Chabad has to offer are encouraged to learn at their own pace. On a table in the Spiegels’ house is a basket with spare yarmulkes; male visitors are welcome to don one if they wish, but they are not required to do so. One of the Spiegel regulars is Geordie Van Der Bosch, an architecture student at the University of Oregon. He wears a tallith with tzitzit under his shirt, but prefers to wear a bandanna or a visor to hold his short, spiky dreadlocks out of his face. “I’d be wearing an undershirt anyway, and they look cool,” he says of his tzitzit. “But I don’t like things on my head.”

In the front room, the women are busy setting three long folding tables, placing plates and cutlery on the heavy white tablecloths. Aviva’s bread is arranged in the center of one table.  When someone asks where Aviva keeps her special challah cover, she simply unfolds a purple napkin and drapes it over the bread. There is a difference, in the Spiegels’ lives, between being observant and being rigid. They may have hundreds of books about Judaism, but they also have books on gardening and marketing. Their walls are covered in reverent Judaica — images of Hebrew letters, of Israel, of the last Rebbe to lead Chabad — but they also have a refrigerator magnet that reads, “Oy Ve! The Pressure!”

But tonight, Asi begins the evening looking suitably severe, in a fedora and a long black overcoat tied below his waist with a black sash. He is a tall man, with clear blue eyes behind rimless glasses and a forbiddingly dense brown beard. As all the guests gather around the tables, they instinctively hesitate to sit down before this intimidating-looking rabbi. “Sit, sit,” he finally admonishes with a smile, lowering his arms in encouragement. They sit. He remains standing, with Aviva standing at his right hand, and welcomes everyone to their home. “On Shabbas,” he says, in a strong Israeli accent, “we don’t say, ‘Good morning,’ or ‘Good evening.’ We only say, ‘Good Shabbas.’ This is because Shabbas is beyond time.” He lifts up his left arm, and points to his bare wrist. “We don’t wear watches on Shabbas, either.” Everyone nods, smiling; some are familiar with this concept, while others are intrigued. But everyone is reminded of time by their growing hunger — it’s after 10 p.m. — and Asi acknowledges this with a joke about Shabbas dinners always starting late.

In front of him on the table is a small silver cup sitting on a silver tray. He pours white wine into the cup until the wine runs over the lip and fills the tray. More bottles of white and red wine are passed around so everyone can pour a small amount. (The wine, like everything else the Spiegels serve, is kosher.) Asi lifts the cup and recites the kiddush, a blessing said over wine and bread on Shabbas. Everyone holds up glasses and sips together.

Aviva beckons to the women, who all stand and head for the kitchen again. Before eating, everyone must wash hands; Aviva stands at the sink with another silver pitcher and sloshes water in three quick motions over each woman’s hands while saying a short blessing. Once the hands have been ritually cleansed, nobody is allowed to speak. But the women are in such a good mood, and so impatient for the men to finish washing, that they start humming. The tune is catchy, and suddenly one woman grabs another and starts twirling her around the room. They laugh, delighted, faces red. As they spin to a stop, the second woman can’t contain herself; she starts talking about how much fun she’s having. Her dance partner gives her a friendly shush, and she claps her hand over her mouth, embarrassed.

Finally, everyone is seated again, and Asi removes the napkin from the challah and says the kiddush over the bread. He tears pieces from the loaves and passes them hand-to-hand along the tables. Everyone takes a bite, and dinner begins. Bowls of roasted garlic and baba ganouj and hummus are passed around, and more wine is poured. And everyone, friends and strangers, free to talk again, is talking at once.

Enthusiastic singing and dancing are two of the hallmarks of Hasidism, and they were, in part, what drew Asi to Chabad as a teenager. He grew up in a sober Israeli household, and when he happened to see a movie about Chabad, he was astonished. “It was very different from everything I’d ever seen,” he says. “I’d never seen so many thousands of people celebrating together, and I’d never seen such a happy rabbi. Everything was done with a lot of singing. It was extremely lively.” Aviva, on the other hand, grew up in a California home where being Jewish meant having Jewish friends and going to Jewish summer camps. The first time she ever had dinner with an observant family, during a study-abroad program in Israel, she thought she had stumbled across an entirely different religion.

Irene Diamond, a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches classes in Judaism, thinks women like Aviva are changing what it means to be feminist. “The longstanding liberal feminist take on Orthodoxy says that it’s oppressive and outdated,” Diamond says. “But it clearly has appeal. Aviva is someone who went to college, who had all the options. And she chose this, and she chose it freely.” Diamond, who keeps a kosher home herself, comes regularly to the Spiegels’ on Shabbas. She likes to see how Shabbas transforms Aviva, who’s usually so exhausted by late Friday afternoon that she has to take a pre-Shabbas rest.  But within hours, Aviva becomes both elegant and energized. “There’s something exciting, to many people, about a movement that contrasts so sharply with the flatness of the dominant world,” says Diamond. And tonight, adds Diamond, Aviva is in a particularly good mood. She lifts everybody up.

Some of the women are discussing teenage girlhood in America today. The embarrassed dancer, a doctor named Pamela Wible, says she hated the sexual politics of high school so much she went to Wellesley just to escape it. Aviva nods. “I’ve never seen teenage girls who are more confident and mature than the girls I’ve met in Chabad,” she says. “It’s the opposite of girls who feel forced to look sexy, to compete for boys’ attention.”

Amid the conversations, the food keeps rolling out: slices of a gefilte-fish loaf, an enormous salad, homemade vegetable soup, baked tofu, vegetarian lasagna, baked beef and baked carrots. The more dishes get passed around, the more people slump in their seats. Asi sheds his long coat and rolls up his shirt sleeves; his hat disappears and a yarmulke takes its place. Periodically a few diners burst out into song; every time, Yehuda enthusiastically drums along on the table, rapping out complicated double and triple-time beats. All the ruckus wakes the baby, asleep upstairs. Asi hears him first and leans over to tell Aviva. She sighs, and gets up to fetch him. But Levy — or Baby Spiegel, as Aviva often calls him — is an easygoing baby, happy to sit in his father’s lap while two dozen well-fed grownups talk, laugh, sing, and thump the table.

Occasionally Asi calls for silence and addresses to the room at large. He thanks Aviva profusely for all her hard work and cooking, and talks about why Jews feast on Shabbas instead of simply being devout. You need to feast, he says, because it lets you celebrate the spiritual and the material together. He’s not pedantic, so he doesn’t add that this way of thinking is central to Hasidism: you can be both mystical and earthbound, and each, in fact, enhances the other. He just lets his stories sink in.

By the time tubs of soy ice cream are served for dessert, along with chocolate-chip brownies, everybody has slid into the midnight mood. Aviva takes off her boots, and Wible offers to massage her feet; grinning, Aviva agrees, propping her feet up in Wible’s lap under the tablecloth. Levy gets passed around until he winds up in the arms of Wible’s husband, a musician named Ken Silverman, who starts bouncing the placid baby on his lap and scat-humming under his breath. Levy twists his head around to watch with an agreeably puzzled expression on his face; amused, Silverman starts moving Levy’s chubby arms so the baby is now a bandleader, now a drummer, now a pianist. Aviva chuckles. He scats louder, la-la-ing the big-band classic “In the Mood.” When he turns Levy into a trombonist — “Bwa-bwa! Bwa-bwa!” — Aviva starts howling with laughter. “Oh, gosh, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” she gasps, wiping away tears.

Silverman is equally charmed. He’d been apprehensive about coming, fearing an aggressive pitch for Orthodox Judaism. “But nobody told me not to do anything,” he says later. “Asi’s a smart guy, and he has a good sense of humor, and he’s not heavy-handed. I felt like I really connected with him.” Wible says her husband can’t stop talking about the Spiegels; he’s invited them to dinner, and plans to give Yehuda an old set of drums. “He says they’re the coolest Jews he’s met in a really long time,” she says.

Levy’s channeling of Glenn Miller, the high point of the night, signals that the Shabbas feast is drawing to a close. People push back their folding chairs and help carry plates and food to the kitchen. Diamond has forgotten a jacket and borrows one from the Spiegels’ closet.  The guests are tired, but they mill around the hall, reluctant to leave. Slowly, they ease out on the front walk, and then onto the sidewalk, standing around, talking. Van Der Bosch, the architecture student, rolls up his right pant leg and hops on his bike, pedaling off while waving goodbye, his tzitzit swinging. Those who drove head for their cars, but those who plan to observe Shabbas to the fullest are prepared to walk. Bundled up against the chill, they head off, not at all sleepy, walking lightly into the night.

Reprinted with permission from Etude, a publication of the Literary Nonfiction program of the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.
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Barb Brawer Monroe , N.C. USA via chabadnc.org November 23, 2014

I'm new to the Chabad experience. I grew up as a Jew in name only. The only time I went to a temple was to see my brothers bar mitzvah.
Although I've only taken a few classes with Rabbi Cohen, I've never been happier or more content with life and my relationships.
My husband and I are retiring in about a year and ahalf from now in Eugene.
I became somewhat concerned, wondering if my contentment would continue and after reading this article I am uplifted to know that I will never be alone. G-d is every where and in every one. Thankfully there are people who are willing to connect all those wandering Jews together including me. Thanks Reply

Marija Koceva December 29, 2012

Yes amazing article. Thanks Victoria for sharing your thoughts. However, Shabbat has not been done away with. This is the Word of the Lord. Reply

Victoria McKee Garden City, Idaho February 12, 2011

What an amazing article! I could really see the excitement and enjoyment. I am new to keeping the sabbath. Admittedly I am Christian but it has always bothered me that the sabbath was done away with. Thank you so much for writing this. I will hold its message in my heart. Perhaps I will visit our local Chabad. You guys know how to worship G-d in ways I am both intrigued and appreciative of. Shalom Reply