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I Took the Road Less Traveled—and Stayed There

I Took the Road Less Traveled—and Stayed There

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“You’re going to sit home ALONE instead of driving to shul to be with other Jews at Shabbat services?!” my parents demanded.

I was twenty years old, and had come home from a year in Israel as a different person—one who was now shomer Shabbat,” Sabbath observant. That meant not turning on or off lights, not shopping, and not even driving with my parents to services on Shabbat.

Over"You’re going to sit home ALONE?!" the previous year, while I was studying at Hebrew University, I had decided to re-claim the observance of past generations. I had committed to not desecrate the Sabbath. This included not doing any of the thirty-nine prohibited melachot,categories of creative activities derived from those used to build the Tabernacle.

In fact, it was the restrictions observed on Shabbat which drew me to observance.

I was a study-aholic. Before I went to Israel, I attended UC Berkeley. I used to head for the university library at 10:00 a.m. Saturday mornings, right after breakfast. I would sit and study until 5:00 p.m. My mother would say, “Jolie, if you’re going to spend a long time studying, take out ten minutes every hour. It will make your studying more effective.” I responded, “But if I did that, I’d lose more than an hour of study time!”

So the idea of having a day off when I could put down my pen and leave the library behind was liberating for me beyond belief.

Before I went to Israel, I’d heard that all Orthodox girls were clique-y and snobby. I thought it would be best to keep away from them, if I did meet any. But then on a school trip in the Sinai desert, I heard someone say, with a strong New York accent, “I need a milkshake! Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?!” The girl behind the voice, I was to learn, was an Orthodox girl from Manhattan, who was not only very funny, but also friendly, kind, and accepting. She didn’t meet that stereotype at all—and neither did the other Orthodox girls I met.

The non-observant kids spent Friday nights at the disco on campus, or studying in their rooms. Not the religious kids. They got together for potluck meals for Friday night dinner and Saturday afternoon lunch. One brought the grape juice for Kiddush, another brought the challahs. Some made a salad, another two brought grilled chickens from the market on campus. Usually there was fruit salad and cake for dessert, and different side dishes—a feast!

They sang Shabbat songs, and exchanged stories and jokes. Best of all, they accepted me into their group, even though I was not Sabbath observant.

After a few months of sharing in the Shabbat fun, I thought I would just trykeeping Shabbat in the traditional way. I didn’t really want go all out—I needed to listen to my music, of course. I needed to be able to write letters home. And, of course, I needed to write papers for school. Indeed, I had a term paper due on Sunday—a regular school day in Israel.

So that week I stayed up late Thursday night working on my paper, and I spent hours on Friday finishing it. When the sun set Friday afternoon, I put down my pen and lit Shabbat candles.

My non-observant friends were busy working on their papers. I relaxed and enjoyed Shabbat. It was a freedom I had never experienced. I was free from schoolwork, and I didn’t have to feel guilty! I was free from the telephone, free from worrying about weekday concerns. I never picked up a pen on Shabbat after that.

But the trouble started when I got back home. My parents, who kept a kosher-style home and went religiously to shul on Friday nights, felt I had rejected their values.

How could I not drive with them to shul?! How could I? Actually, one time I did walk to shul and back, as they drove slowly beside me. It was tricky for me, trying to bend but not break.

Then,It was tricky trying to bend but not break after the summer, I returned to Berkeley. I had a non-Jewish roommate, who I’d made up to share an apartment with before I became observant. I didn’t think that she would mind my religious observance so much, since I wasn’t rejecting her values. But I only told her after we’d moved into the apartment that I wouldn’t be turning on or off lights on Shabbat, and would need the bathroom light left on. And by the way, I kept strictly kosher now, and that would mean some adjustments in our kitchen. Nelly had wrangled herself a job at the local donut shop, and she’d be working all day Saturday, so the Shabbat thing didn’t seem to faze her too much.

But I wondered how I would hold fast to the commitments I made to keep Shabbat. It would be so hard away from that community of fun and welcoming kids I’d met in Israel. Indeed, a few of my friends had become Sabbath observers during that year in Israel, and over time they slid back to their secular lifestyle.

But thankfully, I found my way to the Berkeley Chabad House, not far from my apartment, right in the middle of “fraternity row.” There, I could again be swept up in the Shabbat spirit, with services, lively singing and delicious food. But at Chabad House it wasn’t potluck. Every week the cook prepared delicious homemade meals—for free! And everyone was invited.

I didn’t just hang on to my religious observance. My anchor of Chabad, and the friends I made there (several of whom I’m still friends with today, decades later), buoyed me. I grew in my Jewish observance and knowledge, and I felt, again, part of a special, accepting community.

Someone asked me recently how I managed to “stay frum”—to keep up religious observance—after I’d come back from living in the bubble of a Jewish university in Israel where it wasn’t hard to keep Shabbat. My answer: staying connected to a Jewish community. It was those connections which helped me stick to my commitments and deepen my understanding and love of Jewish life and observance.

It’s been a long time since I was at the Berkeley Chabad House. But if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can conjure up the smell of a delicious cholent simmering on the stove, and the memories of camaraderie and deep discussions which helped keep me on the path I chose, and continue to choose every day.

Jolie Greiff is a journalist and a mother. She lives with her husband and two children in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.
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Anonymous September 3, 2016

:) Reply

Chani uk January 15, 2015

How uplifting :) kol hakavod! I wouldn't be without the Rebbe. Reply

Lyone ohio January 13, 2015

Chabad is the best!! Wherever I go, they are always warm and open. Chabad has changed my life for sure, too. Reply

Anonymous Berkeley, CA January 11, 2015

Hi Jolie,
Beautiful articles! Remind me....when were you at Chabad at UC Berkeley? i'd love to reconnect!
Warm regards,
Miriam Ferris Reply

JDV December 25, 2014

Taking the road... If only it was this easy..It is so true to have an anchor, no matter what. Chabad.org is my anchor. Reply

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