I was prepared for how this journey would change the way I saw the Los Angeles I knew from my old mental map. To experience the Venice Beach boardwalk from inside an Orthodox synagogue that sits at the end of a long line of shops hawking pizza slices, t-shirts, and “medical” marijuana is to never see the boardwalk in quite the same way again.
What I did not expect was how it would change my perception of time. Not the epic generational time of the Torah, but regular, everyday time: the ordinary hours and days that make up our weeks, months, and years. The most obvious difference is the start of the new day at sunset instead of the usual sunrise. It cuts in half what I previously perceived as a single block of time, a small shift with surprising consequences. Suddenly, I have twice the opportunity to acknowledge a new day, two access points where before there was only one. It’s the difference between a watermelon whole and a watermelon sliced open.
But the more meaningful difference is how every week builds toward the Sabbath. I had not realized the significance of the Sabbath, how it beats at the heart of Judaism. I had thought it was equivalent to the Christian Sunday, the one day out of the week when worship services are held at synagogues. Then, I saw it only as a list of things you aren’t supposed to do from sundown on Friday to after sundown on Saturday. Observant Jews can’t drive, turn on or off a computer or television or light, write with pen or pencil, buy anything, do laundry, cook, clean, garden, lift or move objects—nothing that is “work.” It seemed like a collection of rules so extensive and complicated that it would be more effort adhering to them than whatever toil from which they were trying to save you.
But it wasn’t until I met Barbara—mother of four and a lifetime Orthodox Jew (not counting her brief mid-20s Buddhist phase)—that I began to get it. We were talking about how she and her family prepare for the Sabbath; she was explaining the chores and errands that must be completed to ensure this chunk of time can be free from these responsibilities. Her family members have the normal weekday obligations—jobs and school—but in addition, Monday through Thursday is also the time when they grocery shop and clean the house and make food to serve through Saturday night. Friday before sundown, the finishing touches are addressed: the slow cooker is filled with whatever she might want to serve warm, the lights she wants left on are turned on, and the table is set for the primary meal her family will share on Saturday afternoon when they return from the synagogue.
As Barbara was explaining her Sabbath-prep techniques to me, I began to see that for her getting ready for the sun to set on Friday evening was like arranging to stay at a remote cabin in the woods. Everything you need must be purchased and organized in advance because once you arrive there will be no electricity, no cell phone reception, and no leaving to purchase something you forgot.
Only here the idea is to create the retreat right where you are.