Six Breaths

By Emil Sher

 We forgot to bring the challah cover Sophie made as a child, the Hebrew letters fringed like a picture book sun. Our daughters make do on this November night in their mid-town Toronto apartment.  Molly pours the wine, a tattooed vine climbing up her forearm.  Two candlestick holders that usually hang out on a windowsill have been relocated to the centre of a small, round table.  Beside each plate is a printed and stapled copy of From Generation to Generation: A OneTable Guide.

Sophie and Molly speak the language of Shabbat.  None of us are fluent, but we know the basics.  Much of the eight-page guide strums a soothing, comforting chord. The blessings over the candles, wine and bread are second nature, but this service is different.  Tonight, we purposefully honor those who came before us and imagine those who are not yet here as we hold the threads that connect us to them all. Tonight, our daughters play hosts.

“May this intergenerational experience be an opportunity to welcome the wisdom of our elders,” Molly begins, “inspire the energy of our youth, and learn from one another with joy and openness as we celebrate Shabbat.”

Elders? I look at my wife, Protestant-born and gently rocked in the cradle of the United Church.  When she committed to raise our daughters as Jews, her expansive heart grew wider still, stretched like a canopy over new customs and traditions, and pinned to family erased in the Shoah. Today, Kathy is the administrator of a grassroots Jewish community hatched in a living room over twenty-five years ago.  Sophie was a toddler, Molly was a newborn. Was I only thirty-seven? To my ears, ‘elder’ sounds more like a costume than a permanent addition to my wardrobe.

We are barely one page into the guide before we begin to unwrap single, luminous words.

What memories of the past or hopes for the future do the words respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and resilience bring up for you?

Someone in a grey sweater sipping soup from a large pot on the stove
Two white Shabbat candles that are lit on a table with a challah cover, a kiddush cup, and wine on the table

‘Reciprocity’ evokes a vivid memory in Molly’s mind.

“I thought about how you both called Grammy and Bubby on a nightly basis, how they cared for you growing up, and how you returned that in their old age.”

We wade through the landscape of loneliness where so many elderly roam, and quickly arrive at an urgent truth: those daily phone calls to two mothers/grandmothers were a bridge that spanned the isolation and neglect that leave too many marooned.

I was not expecting an evening of surprises, and then one lands in my lap: There is no verse in the Torah instructing us to light two candles at dusk. Sages being sages, they “linked the practice to the concepts of shammor Shabbat and zachor Shabbat, the commandments to keep and remember Shabbat.”

I think to myself: To keep is to remember.  I wonder aloud: will Sophie and Molly carry forth these traditions?

“Definitely,” Sophie says.  And in the next breath, her words are echoed by Molly. “I just don’t know what that’s going to look like.” I know I cannot write the future, but at times I am fearful that time will erode the past, like water on stone.

In our hands, the OneTable guide includes the byways we take when we gather at our home on Friday evenings. As the candles flicker in our daughters’ apartment we close our eyes and take six breaths, one for each of the days we are leaving behind.  With each breath we take in the light, the possibility, a fresh beginning. We exhale the schmutz we’ve carried throughout the week, letting go of all our fears, our worries, our concerns.

Throughout the guide are invitations to Reflect.

“The beauty of Jewish tradition,” Kathy reads from a passage, “is not its certitude but its ambiguity.”

Sophie jumps right in. “I love that.”

Molly is close behind. “It’s so Jewish.”

Indeed. On this night we affirm and rejoice that so much of Jewish learning is leavened with questions.

A Shabbat dinner table set up, someone pouring wine into a glass with a tattoo on their arm

Questions beget questions, and blessings can carry a profound weight.

Page four. Be who you are – and may you be blessed in all that you are.

Marcia Falk’s rewording of the traditional blessing of the children is reframed “in an intergenerational spirit that welcomes all kinds of family dynamics.”

Kathy and I can practically feel the unconditional love that pulses beneath Falk’s words. And we think of ankles. Molly was a teen (barely) and Sophie was in her twenties (barely) when they announced their plans to get tattoos. We guessed it would be a phrase from a beloved picture book that was part of our family vocabulary. Our daughters slowly peeled the strips of gauze off their ankles and revealed Falk’s version of the blessing, divided between the two of them and tattooed in Hebrew.  The melody of childhood Shabbats, written on their skin.

Now that they have long moved out and moved on, I text them a weekly picture of the Shabbat candles. Occasionally, I’ll peg the photograph to a quote from Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. (“The soul needs silence as the body needs sleep. Sleep to refresh; silence to cleanse. Sleep to dream; silence to awaken the deeply real.”) Other times I pluck a phrase from the likes of James Baldwin. (“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”)

three hands touching a challah cover

The snapshot of lit candles back home is more than just one drop in a social media storm. “A micro-connection to Shabbat,” in Sophie’s words.

As we prepare to raise our glasses, we read that wine is an essential ingredient in many Jewish ceremonies. (Perhaps the droplet I was given during my briss explains my aversion for alcohol.)

But ritual doesn’t exist for the sake of itself, it exists to accomplish something, almost like an ancient form of technology. We pipe in with our responses, a stew of opinions.

“The practice of the ritual is the accomplishment.”

“I don’t think it’s about the outcome.”

“Ritual has to be hinged to meaning.”

We latch onto the guide’s synonym for God.

Blessed is the Oneness that creates the fruit of the vine. Blessed is the Oneness that sanctifies Shabbat.

“I love that word,” Sophie says.  “I immediately feel included.” More opinions are dished out as we discuss a poem by Alberto Rios, When Giving Is All We Have.

After we break bread — more of a primal grab-and-tear — we are encouraged to look back along the path that has led each of us to this moment.  Generational geography unfolds like a creased map. Kathy and I have journeyed farther to reach this point.  Sophie and Molly have farther to go.

Share the name and story of someone whose trail you have followed, someone who helped you become who you are.

Molly is transported back to Israel, to her 20-year-old self and the tour guide who shepherded her and some twenty campers.

“The first person that came to mind was Barach. He just saw the world in a way that I hadn’t been exposed to yet. The way he talked about Judaism, the way he talked about meditation.”

Sophie offers an unexpected name.  Brené Brown.

“She’s one reason why I wanted to go into social work and what I believe in.  Connection is everything. Human connection is what we’re here for.”

A screenshot of the last page of the OneTable Generation to Generation Guide
Emil's Family photo

I speak of Mrs. Cuevas, the librarian at my elementary school over fifty years ago. I can’t point to a particular moment or memory, and simply embrace the unshakable belief that she was a guiding hand on my path toward becoming a writer.

“I have many, many teachers,” Kathy says, as she looks across the table at two of them.  

A single phrase on the last page hovers.

Let’s linger over gratitude.

The night is young, and so are Sophie and Molly.  I want to linger. The service has drawn to a close and the candles dance their slow dance as we talk and laugh, as we feast on cannelloni stew and the divine pleasure of each other’s company.

One passage from Generation to Generation continues to shimmer.

That’s the magic of kiddush, from the Hebrew word for holy — our ability to demarcate time, to say that this Friday night, this Shabbat dinner, this exact moment, which has never occurred before and never will again, is special.

Each breath, like our six breaths, comes and goes.  It is just a matter of time before the wick, the wax, the flames of the candles disappear.

We will gather again. We will inhale the light.

Emil Sher Headshot

About the Author

Emil Sher [www.emilsher.com] is a Toronto-based author and playwright who writes for readers and audiences of all ages.  He follows the crumbs of a story to wherever they lead him: stage plays, children’s fiction, screenplays, essays.  His works have been translated into several languages, including Hebrew, Turkish and Japanese. A founding member of the Danforth Jewish Circle, Emil has come to accept that he will never be interviewed by Terry Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air.

OneTable empowers people who don’t yet have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. The OneTable community is funded to support people (21-39ish), not in undergraduate studies, and without an existing weekly Shabbat practice, looking to find and share this powerful experience.

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