Shabbat With Kylie Unell

Shabbat With Kylie Unell

Follow along for our new series “Shabbat with…” in which we interview OneTable community members about their Shabbat practices.

This is Kylie, OneTable host, and new national board member. Read about her research, relationship with Shabbat, and dream Shabbat dinner guest.

1. How did you get connected with OneTable? I wish I remembered. It’s one of those things that you know wasn’t always in your life, but you can’t imagine your life without it. Thanks to my email history I know I first started hosting in 2018. It didn’t take long until it became a weekly thing I did. OneTable completely changed the game for me and my hosting.

2. What’s your personal relationship with Shabbat/your Shabbat journey/what does Shabbat mean to you? What a question! My relationship to Shabbat has changed so much over the years. I grew up in a home where Friday night dinner was very much a part of our family ritual. When I was 11, my family moved to Israel and there, because American Idol aired the day after its original airing on Thursdays, we’d have Shabbat dinner and then watch American Idol. I now associate Shabbat with dinner and a movie when I’m not doing a community dinner. In college, I started observing Shabbat along more Orthodox lines. It became this haven away from my day-to-day life. But in some ways now looking back on it, Shabbat feels like it was more of a practice than an act of observance back then, if that makes sense. Like it was something I actively did every week, not something I honored as much. I felt a need to let go of Shabbat in my late 20s to develop a new relationship to it. It’s only over the last six months or so that I feel like I’ve come to a place of truly observing Shabbat. I’ve merged my family’s rituals with the energy of Shabbat that I experienced in my 20s and my needs in the present moment to create something very new and alive. Shabbat still feels like a protective shield from the goings on of the world, but now it’s also this time of being held by the Universe somehow. It’s beyond words. I now incorporate movie watching into my Friday nights when that feels right, stay off tech and read all day if that feels right, or do whatever else I feel my body wants to do. It’s my day of living in total accordance with nature and that’s not limited to a single kind of expression. I’ve learned to flow with what the moment calls for in a given week. Shabbat is my favorite time of the week now.

3. Tell me a bit about your research and how you got started. What inspires you to do the work that you do? I am currently working towards a PhD in Jewish Philosophy with a particular focus on the intersection between the Black and Jewish communities through the philosophies of two major leaders — Moses Mendelssohn on the Jewish side and Booker T. Washington on the Black side. Mendelssohn was a German philosopher and theologian in 18th-century Berlin and Washington was a former slave who became a hugely significant leader and thinker in 20th-century Black America, and really beyond. You wouldn’t think they have anything in common, but both men were bridges between an oppressed minority group and the dominant culture from which their people were largely barred. Both leaders had to think creatively about how to usher in acceptance from the dominant world that looked down on their communities. This made them revolutionary, but in a much more quiet and contained way than we’re used to thinking about revolutionaries. Both Mendelssohn and Washington focused on self-cultivation as a means of integration, which boiled down essentially means becoming the best version of yourself. Not in a woo-woo way, but not not in a woo-woo way. They both believed that a person should always focus on becoming better in every area of their lives, whether it’s a skill a person has a knack for, one’s virtues, or sharpening one’s mind. By focusing on developing the self, there would be a ripple effect into society and slowly, they both believed, both oppressed groups would win people over.

It’s funny but I came to this topic from watching a Netflix show on the first black millionaire, Madame CJ Walker while I was taking a seminar on Mendelssohn in grad school (Watch tv!). A fictional Booker T. Washington popped up in the show and I realized the ideas he was sharing were really similar to Mendelssohn’s ideas that I was learning in my seminar. I dug a bit deeper and found that German-American Jews in the 20th-century were some of Washington’s biggest supporters. He actually started what’s now known as the most important initiative to advance black education in the 20th century with a German Jew! Their partnership led to the creation of over 5,000 schools for Black youth in the South, homes for teachers and skill-building workshops for Black Southerners. My thesis is that these German Jews were drawn to Washington because of his philosophical similarity to Mendelsoshn when it comes to the topic of self-cultivation.  What inspires me to do the work that I do is the reality I’m constantly reminded of that nothing is what we think it is. We assume people don’t have a connection because they look different or their realities seem so different, but it’s not the case. I’m inspired by the multiplicity of humans and our capacity to relate to all people. And also, in many ways, my own life is a source of inspiration for me to do the work I’m doing. I’m an anomaly. I’m a Black Jewish woman who is Israeli-American from Kansas living in Upstate New York. I speak Hebrew fluently, divide my time between an academic job, the world of spiritual healing through energetics and breathwork, and right now I’m working on a local Shakespeare production. I have energy-clearing sage leaves sitting on a shelf filled with academic texts. You would assume none of this by looking at me. That fact inspires me to keep doing the work I’m doing. You’d never think an 18th-century German Jew and a 20th-century American former slave would have much in common, but their overlap shows how much more there is to people than we see on the surface.

4. What are you reading right now? I’m reading a couple of books at the moment: Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh and this gorgeous book reimagining the story of Joseph in the Bible, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness by Stephen Mitchell.

5. Who is your dream Shabbat dinner guest, and why? The artist India. Arie is the first person that comes to mind. I’ve realized a deep commitment I have to personal healing and helping others cultivate a deeper relationship with their spirit over the last year. India. Arie is a sublime creator, out-of-the box thinker and I know we’d have such rich conversation. It would be the most magical Shabbat! Just imagine this at the Shabbat table.