TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We had planned to broadcast an interview today with David Simon and Eric Overmyer, the creators of the new HBO series "Treme," which premieres next month. But this morning, we learned that one of the show's writers and producers, David Mills, passed away suddenly last night in New Orleans, where "Treme" is set and where the show is filmed.
David Mills and David Simon worked together on a number of shows, including "The Wire," "Homicide: Life on the Street," and "The Corner," which won an Emmy for best writing. Mills also wrote for "NYPD Blue" and "ER." It just seemed inappropriate to play our interview with David Simon and Eric Overmyer today, so we'll schedule it - we'll reschedule it, for sometime next week. Our sympathies go out to David Mills' family and his colleagues.
We're going to hear today from Judith Shulevitz, author of the new book "The Sabbath World." It's in part a history of the ancient day of rest and in part a memoir about why she started observing the Jewish Sabbath, how she observes it, and why she's so ambivalent about it. Shulevitz is a literary critic and a former columnist for the New York Times and Slate.
Judith Shulevitz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, my impression is that you wrote this book about the Sabbath because you're so ambivalent about observing it and about how to observe it. So why are you ambivalent about observing it?
Ms. JUDITH SHULEVITZ (Author): Well, I'm an American in the 21st century, and I don't like being told what to do, and I don't like being told how to spend my time. I would say that's reason number one.
Reason number two - and I should add that the Sabbath is full of rules, the Jewish Sabbath in particular, but the Christian Sabbath as well. I would say the second reason, which I explore in great depth in my book, is that it was actually a rather painful time in my childhood. It was the time when my parents fought, silently, but they fought over how I was to be raised.
Was I to be raised Jewish, Sabbath-keeping, or was I to be raised in a secular fashion, where Saturday was just another day to work, go about your business and so on? And every Saturday there were these incredible tensions in my household, and it's a painful memory for me.
So a lot of people were quite surprised when I chose to write this book, because why would I go back to that material? But that's precisely what I was drawn to.
GROSS: And you observe the Sabbath, so given your ambivalence, given your distaste for rules, why are you observing the Sabbath?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Because at a certain point in my life I just felt that everything had become the same and that nothing was ever different, and there was no way to escape from the sameness of it all.
And the thing that was most the same was the endless striving to get somewhere in life. I was a journalist, so I was working - I was an editor, to be precise. So I edited all weekend long, and when I wasn't editing, I was brunching with people I met in the journalism world and, you know, working by other means, by networking, bandying ideas around and things like that.
And there was never anything else in my life, and it seemed that something very deep and very important was missing, and I was trying to figure out what that was. I suspected it had something to do with religion, but the thing I was most drawn to was the Sabbath, because it was embodied in everyday life. It was something you could do.
You didn't have to go to synagogue. You didn't have to make it religious. All you had to do to make the Sabbath work is take its most basic precept and stop.
So that was an appealing sort of first step toward figuring out how I could get to this other thing that was missing in my life. It wasn't too scarily religious. It wasn't too other. It was just, you know, something I could do, something I'd been brought up doing, ambivalently but doing.
GROSS: Okay, so the Sabbath is a day in which you're actually prohibited from working, which you describe, obviously, as a good thing because it's a day away from all of the striving. But you also point out that the old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably into our lives.
You say it scowls at our dewy dreams of total relaxation and freedom from obligation. The goal of the Sabbath may be rest, but it isn't personal liberty or unfettered leisure.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: That's true. I mean, I should clarify something. I do not keep the Sabbath as an Orthodox Jew. You know, whenever you enter a religious community, really any community, there are always going to be people to the right of you and the left of you. I'm acutely conscious of all the things I don't do. To people who aren't in the Sabbath-keeping world at all, I seem like an ardent, passionate, zealous Sabbath-keeper, and to people in the Orthodox world, who keep it much more strictly than I do, I seem very lax.
So I should say that I don't follow quite a number of the rules of the Jewish Sabbath, but that said, I was - another thing I was fascinated by were rules. I sensed that one of the things about my life that I didn't like is that I was kind of a knee-jerk libertarian. Nobody could tell me what to do. But that's not how life works in a society. Societies have rules, and we keep them. You know, we don't object to the ones we all keep because we all keep them together.
We object to the new ones that don't seem familiar to us, and I wanted to get familiar with these rules because it seemed to me that rules are how society passes on from one generation to the next moral behavior and moral activity and its idea of how life should be shaped and life should be led. And I wanted to get to know what these rules had to say to me.
GROSS: Well, you know, you're talking about the rules. I took the easy way out here. Instead of going to the Talmud, I went to Wikipedia.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Good. Hey, listen, Wikipedia is really good, I'll tell you. It must be said.
GROSS: So they list, under the 39 categories of work that you're not allowed to do - and I'll preface this by saying that you're not in danger of breaking a lot of these rules because you don't live in a rural world, you live in a city, and also, you live in modern times and not ancient times.
So the rules include, according to Wikipedia, so correct me if these are wrong: no planting, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking - okay, you could be baking and kneading the same thing - shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dying, spinning, weaving, sewing at least two threads, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, curing hide, writing two or more letters - that would be a hard one for you - building, tearing down something, extinguishing a fire, igniting a fire - I assume that means, like, for cooking or warmth, as opposed to if your house is burning down.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Right.
GROSS: And transferring between domains. So some of these rules are so irrelevant to your life, and some of them will prevent you from doing things that are quite relevant to your life, like extinguishing a fire or igniting a fire. I mean, that's basically cooking.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Right. Rules that are followed by people who keep the Sabbath in some strict way are derived from these rules. They are not these rules. I should say there's, you know, several thousand years of commentary, addenda, revision that have moved these rules into a realm in which they would be relevant, so - today, in some cases.
So, for example, there's rules about not mixing, and they govern, you know, how you can clear your plate, or the rules about lighting a fire. A better example would be that the rules about lighting a fire or turning of a fire have been transformed into rules about how to manage electricity. The basic principle...
GROSS: In other words, like, you can't turn things on or off during the Sabbath.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Correct, although they can be turned on and off for you, as long as you're not doing the work. The basic principle uniting all these rules is that you as a human being should not be exerting mastery over the world. For one day a week, let the world be as it is, and you be in it, and you're not trying to dominate it.
That's the basic principle. Now, the form that the rules took when they were first thought up was agricultural, because they were conceived of in an agricultural society, and there's something to me very beautiful about this because not only were the conceived of in an agricultural society, they were conceived of in a mainly subsistence farming society.
So people were being asked not to bring in the crops. You know, they were being asked to do basic labors which would have helped them survive, and they had to transfer that work of surviving to six days a week, and it had to have been very, very hard because we know how hard it is to survive when you're living off the land.
And that to me gives me a sense of the seriousness with which it was taken and the beauty of the idea. Imagine telling people who are struggling to barely survive that one day a week they must give themselves over to something more than mere survival. There's something very lovely - and that they have the right to, even if circumstances dictate otherwise. Those two things are very beautiful to me.
What you missed by going to Wikipedia rather than the Talmud, not that the Talmud would have made any sense whatsoever, because I believe it takes years to even begin to understand the way the Talmud talks - it's a very foreign way of talking, it's a very foreign body of law. It does not lay out the laws and then proceed to comment on them. It tends to focus on examples before it derives principles, and it's just, it's discursive rather than expository.
It's really weird stuff, and I talk about that in the book. But anyway, what you missed by going to Wikipedia instead of right to the heart of the matter, rather than sort of winding your way through the paths of history, is all the discussion in which what these laws mean, how they can be analogized to things that might be relevant to somebody who lives in an urban society.
Remember, Jews have been living in urban societies for thousands of years now. So these laws were rather quickly transferred over into another domain.
GROSS: So how do you understand the Sabbath prohibitions now?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: The thing that was most intriguing to me when I was working on the book and remains most intriguing to me is as a fundamental political idea. And it's an idea that we've really lost in America today, though I think we've had it in history, and indeed I try to make the case that we were really one of the most Sabbaterian nations when we were founded by the Puritans, Sabbaterian meaning keeping the Sabbath.
But this is an idea that we have really moved radically away from, and the idea is this, that as a society we have the right to collectively regulate our time and that everyone has the right not to work at least one day a week, which you have to imagine the world in which this idea was conceived of and codified. This had never been said before.
Certainly there were classes that never worked, and then there were classes of people who always worked. There were slaves and there were laborers and there were the, you know, ancient world equivalent of serfs, and no one had ever said everyone.
And the Fourth Commandment says, you know, you, your wife, your son, your daughter, your servant, your male servant, your female servant, this stranger who happens to be within your gates, and moreover, in a bit of radical animal rights philosophy here that, you know, I haven't seen taken up, though it should be, the beast in your field should not work one day a week. That is a radical proposition.
GROSS: Well, you know, what I'm thinking is for people who work outside the home, the weekend is the days of catch-up at home. It's a day of rest from the office, maybe, or from whatever your workplace is, but it's the days when you shop, you do your laundry, you clean. If you have children, you're driving them from one place to another, most likely.
It's a day when you do all the things that you didn't have time to do during the week because you were working on the job, and it's, I think for most people, kind of impossible to really refrain from home work on the weekend if you expect to keep all the balls in the air.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Yeah, it's impossible. It's really hard. I mean, one of the things about the Sabbath that I realized: A) it's impossible, and I talk about that in the book, because I never manage to keep it the way I, you know, deep in my heart believe it should be kept; and B) it's, you know, impossibly necessary. We can't do without it. So it's a paradox.
But I would say yes, it's really hard, although it, you know, it can be done. People do do it. But I agree that it's really hard. I mean, we're lucky that we live in a world where we have two days instead of one so that we can, in fact, divide the work we do to maintain ourselves from the things that are important to us as, you know, were we to become Sabbaterians.
I don't believe anybody reading this book is going to go out and say: I'm going to be an Orthodox Jew right now. I do...
GROSS: You're not an Orthodox Jew.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: I'm not an Orthodox Jew. I'm never going to be one. It's something that I sort of realized with regret by the end of the book. I think it's very beautiful. I think these laws are this extraordinary repository of knowledge, and I'm never going to really put most of them into practice. It's just the truth about me.
But what I want people to take from these ideas is the idea that even on your days off, even though you do need to do the work of home maintenance, self maintenance, family maintenance, you know, you have to take care. Taking care is a wonderful and important part of life. You also need time for just being together and time for not exerting mastery of the world, not using time in a utilitarian way but just pleasure.
But the central idea of the Sabbath is, I think, it's not just resting. It's this idea - this is where the collective part comes in - it's this idea of resting together. We have to arrange things so that we can not work together. We can be together.
And one of the problems with the modern American weekend, as I've experienced it, and I have two small children, and I know what this is like, and they play soccer and, you know, they want to have play dates, and they want to be driven here and there, and you know, my husband has weekend work, and I have weekend work, and we have the same. We live a modern life.
What I have discovered is it's extremely possible to be as cut off from one another on the weekend as it is during the week. If you dont sort of pay attention to actually setting aside time to be together, you very possibly won't.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judith Shulevitz. Her new book is called "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Judith Shulevitz, and she's written a new book called "The Sabbath World." It's in part a history of the Sabbath, and it's in part a memoir about how she came to observe the Jewish Sabbath, why she's ambivalent about observing it and why she observes it anyways. And she's the former culture editor of Slate, the online magazine, and former columnist for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
GROSS: So we've been talking a lot about the Sabbath, but we haven't yet heard how you observe it. So tell us about your observance of the Sabbath, what you do, what you abstain from doing.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Well, it's evolved over time, although it hasn't changed as much as I once dreamed of it changing. I think I initially imagined it would take me to some sort of magical land of, you know, religious togetherness or wholeness, and it hasn't. It's partial.
But what we do basically is we have Friday night dinner, which is a sort of prescribed ritual. It looks like a traditional Friday night dinner. There are candles. There is challah. There is wine, a lot of emphasis on the wine.
My husband and I both love to cook. So we spend, you know, at least two days beforehand scouring farmer's markets and thinking about what we're going to cook. We always have friends over.
In the morning, we sometimes go to synagogue, sometimes go for a hike, and in the afternoon we sometimes go for a hike, sometimes stay home and read, sometimes go for long, leisurely, often quite drunken Sabbath afternoon luncheons with friends, which in the community in which we live is a tradition.
I'd say most of the people at the synagogue to which we go are more observant than we are, and they are very accustomed to the rhythm of a real, what's called in the Jewish world (speaking foreign language) or Sabbath, and they really don't work, and they really don't walk long distances, and they don't drive, and they just have people over and have these long, leisurely meals.
When I was single, I used to go to, and I was first trying this out, I used to go to something called the Seudah Shlishit, which is the third meal at the end of the day. Often there will be some Torah study there, and we'd, you know, study.
GROSS: So do you go to synagogue on Saturday?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: So we do, yeah, we do. I don't pray. I don't know how to pray. What I like about synagogue, frankly, is learning Torah, because I'm a literary critic, and I think the, you know, the - every week in a synagogue, some portion of the five books of Moses is read and then commented upon, and I love that. I simply love that.
I love hearing it read. I love hearing it chanted. The language is beautiful, and I love hearing - in our synagogue we don't have a rabbi. We have actually several rabbis in the congregation, and I love hearing what different people have to say about the piece of Torah, of story that we just read.
GROSS: What do you mean when you say you don't know how to pray?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: I have a notional idea of what prayer should be, but I think I don't really have a very clear idea of who I would be addressing it to. So it becomes very abstract. Prayer is a way of speaking a very old piece of text, usually, that brings me a message from the past, and that's the best I can do with it. And then it for me is a way of orienting myself to the past.
If I believed in God, I guess that would be a way of orienting myself to God, but I don't really, so I don't. As a result, the whole exercise is kind of formal rather than sort of deeply felt. What is deeply felt for me is the love of hearing stories told.
GROSS: So just to get this straight, you don't believe in God, but you do observe the Sabbath and go to synagogue on Saturdays.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: That is correct.
GROSS: That will make no sense to a lot of people.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: I know, I know. Let's see. I like the tunes. I like the - I love the music. I love the text. I love thinking about the question of whether God exists. I just like entertaining the questions raised in prayers. I like being together with this community that is not my work community. I like - and is a wonderful, warm community. And I like the tradition.
And in the book I talk about how, you know, the best I can do with the idea of God is God is tradition, God is in ritual. God is this idea that we can be connected to the past and to our ancestors through these extraordinary gifts that get passed on, which are rituals, which are ways of shaping, you know, time and space and that have stories embedded in them that in the doing we come to understand.
GROSS: My guest, Judith Shulevitz, will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "The Sabbath World." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Here's a version of the traditional Passover song "Ma Nishtanah," performed and arranged by Steven Bernstein - or maybe it's Bernstein. I can't really remember which.
(Soundbite of song, "Ma Nishtanah")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Judith Shulevitz, author of the new book "The Sabbath World."
She started taking a passionate interest in the Sabbath about a decade ago. Her book is, in part, a history of the ancient day of rest and, in part, a memoir about why she started observing the Jewish Sabbath, how she observes it, and why she's so ambivalent about it. Shulevitz is a literary critic, a former columnist for the New York Times, and was the founding culture editor of the online magazine Slate.
The Sabbath is filled with so many restrictive laws, the things that you're not supposed to do during the Sabbath, and there's a lot of ways of getting around it. You know, there's Shabbos goy.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: The Shabbos goy, the Shabbos elevator.
GROSS: Yeah, and so the Shabbos goy is the person who isn't Jewish and who will, yeah, who will turn the light switch on and off for you or do other things that you're not allowed to do. He'll do it for you. There's all these devices now.
There's, like, Sabbath ovens that turn themselves on and off so you don't have to. There's Sabbath timers to help you turn - to help your electronic devices turn on and off without you having to do it, and that seems so much like cheating, you know, so much like, well, acting like you're being observant but just kind of sneakily breaking all the rules. And I wonder what your position is on that.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Well, I - first of all, the whole Shabbos goy question is very complicated, and actually, you're not really supposed to use a Shabbos goy, or if you must, there are very strict laws about how you can and cannot, so that the spirit of the thing is maintained.
But when it comes to devices, the attitude is anything goes, and the reason is this: The Sabbath is not just a choreography of the world, of the physical world. It's also about a change in attitude in you. You are not to set off a chain of events which will cause you to use the world instrumentally and dominate the world.
So it's this deep philosophical idea about not just resting yourself but sort of letting the world rest too. However, if you can sort of pre-rig the chain of events such that you don't have to yourself set it off, then it is okay.
It's all about not performing the act yourself. If the act is going to be performed anyway, then - and you are not responsible for it, then it is okay.
I mean, I think it's one of those inside-outside distinctions. It makes perfect sense if you're inside the system and you understand the basic premise of the thing, which is making sure you don't do any work and that you are transformed through this not-doing of work, and it makes sense to you. And if you're outside, you think - what the heck is that? Now, why would that work? And the reason is, it's really about an internal transformation as much as anything else.
GROSS: Let me quote something from your book, a couple of things, actually. You quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as describing the Sabbath as a cathedral in time. And then you write: Sabbath takes you out of mundane time and forces you into what might be called sacred time. That's really nice.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Yeah.
GROSS: So I want you to elaborate on that.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Well, I struggle with this idea. And actually, the best I can do with it is to think about the psychoanalytic hour. This is because - and as I say in the book, I'm in psychoanalysis myself. And as I am with Sabbath rules, I adhere to them, and I'm sometimes quite grumpy about them. But in this - in the psychoanalytic hour, you must show up on time. You leave on time. And in that time, there's a kind of openness and inchoateness and a boundarylessness where you can explore. And then time is up, and you go back to being your normal person, your normal self and, you know, you sort of go about your business.
That time, that openness is, to me, the best I can do with the idea of sacred time. It's other time. It's time where you are not what you are. You are something else, and you are open to something else.
GROSS: Now, your husband isn't observant, and you have two children who are how old?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Six and seven.
GROSS: Okay. So, when you were young, your parents disagreed about whether you should be raised in the Jewish tradition or not and, you know, how observant you should be, whether you should go to Hebrew school and synagogue, observe the Sabbath, all that. So are you ever worried that your difference with your husband - he being more secular, you being more observant - will somehow be problematic for your children, that it will get expressed as tension or conflict to your children?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Yes. I do worry about that. I'm afraid of that. But what I've come to understand is that's pretty much inevitable. I mean, somehow I managed to marry a man who was religiously in the same place as my father - though I should say, to my husband's credit, this book was his idea. And second of all, he loves Judaism and is moving ever more toward it, and he loves the Sabbath. He absolutely loves the Sabbath.
It took him longer than it took me to do things like turn off the computer, not talk on the phone, and he's still struggling with that, but he loves it. So they don't get - luckily, they don't get the hostility that sort of percolated between my parents. Although I should say, in my parents' defense, they didn't fight openly. They simply resented each other and fought silently in ways that children see, you know, but maybe outsiders wouldn't hear.
But I don't have that in my family, though we do have very inconsistent practice. You know, Dad does one thing, Mom does another. You know what? The children are just going to have to recognize that life is not perfect and that rules are not followed perfectly and these sorts of things. Religion is something everybody is kind of working out for themselves.
GROSS: How do your children feel about the Sabbath? Not doing anything is incredibly boring to children, and it's not like children have, like, jobs. I mean, they have to go to school, but they don't have to - they're already liberated from that on the weekend. The weekend is the time for fun.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Right.
GROSS: And a lot of the fun things are also things that are prohibited on the Sabbath, like I don't think they can turn on their computers and play their video games and all that. So how do your children feel about observing the Sabbath, and what's your position on whether you should make them observe it or not?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Well, they love going to synagogue because all their friends go. They go to a Jewish school, so a lot of kids from that school go to the synagogue. So, for them, being in synagogue is a chance to run around. And I should say that in real serious, old-school Orthodox synagogues, there is somebody who walks around called the candy man, handing out candy to children.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SHULEVITZ: There's a - yeah. It's great. You know, and I actually sometimes am the candy man, and I sometimes have to bribe my children if I want to go - I go to a complicated synagogue with many different little groups, and sometimes I want to go hear someone in another group, and my children don't want to go. And I bribe them with candy. You stay here and play with your friends. I'm going over there. And then people joke that I've become the candy man.
But we don't keep the Sabbath such that we don't turn on lights. We do turn on lights. We do drive. We do go out. We do have adventures. We do do things together. But they are going to be days when you don't do those things and you're just hanging around the house, and what are you going to do? What they don't do is they don't turn on anything electronic. We keep an electronic Sabbath.
Certainly, there are times when they complain about this and there are differences between them. My son complains more, and my daughter - who is, I think, going to be very religious - gets why it's a good idea. And she says, well, we just have to come up with something else to do - you know, and being a little bit of a goody-two-shoes, trying to annoy her brother who says, oh, but it's boring.
I force them outside. I go outside with them. We read a lot. We play a lot of board games. I think it's incredibly useful, because my children know that they can turn off the Nintendo DS. They can turn off the television, and they will survive. There are other things that they can do. And I have to say, I've met kids who don't know that, and it can be a scary sight.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judith Shulevitz. Her new book is called "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judith Shulevitz. She's the author of the new book "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time." And it's, in part, a history of the Sabbath, and it's, in part, a memoir about her ambivalence about observing the Sabbath and why she observes it anyways, and how she came to observe it.
I guess it was in the 1980s, after you graduated from college, your mother, who I think had not been a working woman before that...
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Yeah.
GROSS: ...decided that she wanted to go to Jewish Theological Seminary and get her PhD. And then in 1984, after the conservative Jewish movement agreed to ordain women, she decided to go to rabbinical school, and she was ordained as a rabbi. What was your reaction when your mother told you that she wanted to become a rabbi?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: I was in shock. Well, I should say, I was in shock and I was not surprised. My mother had always wanted to be a rabbi. She had this tremendous hunger - which I think I inherited from her - for something more in her life. But I was still in shock. The whole idea at the time of women becoming rabbis was incredibly new and weird. And I reacted to that as I react to most things. This is a book about ambivalence, and I was ambivalent.
I thought of myself as a feminist, and so I was, of course, very supportive. But at the same time, I thought: Why would you want to join a religion that doesn't want you as a leader? Like, how - like why go back to that? You know, if you want to go out in the workplace and be a free, modern woman, be one. Don't try to force yourself upon these people who don't really want you.
So I tell the story in the book of coming upon her one day, and she's doing an activity - it's called in Yiddish, or sort of in Jewish parlance, laying tefillin. That's putting on her body these strips of leather that men -Orthodox men - wrap around their arms with little boxes on them, and they also wrap around their heads, and the boxes stand out from the forehead. And I had gone to a Jewish summer camp in which I saw this done by the boys in the camp, though I did not learn to do it. And when I walked in on her, it was as though I'd walked in on my mother dressed in drag.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SHULEVITZ: I just completely freaked out. I just was like, I got out of there as fast as I can. And to this day, I don't - well, now she knows, because she's read the book. But I don't think she even saw me, and I don't think she knew, you know, that I saw her and had this reaction. But, you know, this is - women were starting to take back or take on, for the first time, aspects of the tradition that they had been excluded from until that point, and she was one of them. And now I'm, of course, enormously proud of her. And she did become a rabbi. She had to become a chaplain. She wasn't accepted as a rabbi, you know, by the sort of high-end synagogues in New York, so she had to become a chaplain. But she got ordained, and she works as a rabbi.
GROSS: So you were shocked that your mother wanted to become a rabbi because you thought, well, why would you want to join a group that didn't want you? But wouldn't you say the same about yourself, just in terms of being a feminist in traditional Judaism? I mean, in traditional Judaism, women - in real traditional Judaism, women are home, women are raising the children, lots of them. Women don't study the Torah. The men study the Torah.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: It's interesting, because in - that's true. Although, it's not as true as it is in some other traditions that women are home raising the children. It's true that there's a kind of culture now - and I think of this as a post-Holocaust culture of repopulating the Earth with Jews and having a lot of babies. But this is kind of new in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
In traditional Judaism, women worked, and they were out in the world supporting the men who studied. Now the way status was set up in these societies, it was higher status to not work and to study and to become a scholar, and the women had the lower status position. But it's ironic that, by the likes of the wider society, the women often seemed more accomplished than the men because they can get advanced degrees in everything but Jewish studies. They run businesses. They are brokers. They are lawyers, so on and so forth. So I just want to correct that misimpression.
But I do not mean to say, by any means, that women are treated, you know, as equal citizens in, you know, very traditional Judaism. They are not. They are excluded from the thing that sort of must matter to - that matters to everyone most, which is scholarship and study of the Torah and practice of Judaism, though they have their, you know, home domain and so on. And that's part of the reason it's not for me.
GROSS: Oh, you mean being more religious is not for you.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Right.
GROSS: Yeah. You've been in psychoanalysis for a long time.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Uh-huh.
GROSS: And you're also, like, partially observant, very interested in the Sabbath. You've been studying the Sabbath, studying Torah. So they both speak very deeply to you, to who you are, to your place in the world. What's the difference in the way that psychoanalysis speaks to you and the way that Judaism speaks to you?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Wow. Judaism speaks to me out of the past. That's what I love about it. It's as if - and the reason I love ritual is it's embodied. It's in bodies. Bodies do it, and it speaks to me out of those bodies. And it's almost as if when I do something, when I perform a ritual - which I know was performed possibly somewhat differently, but basically in the same way thousands of years ago - I feel as though somehow it's almost as if I'm touching the chain of tradition. I'm touching the ancestors and the chain of tradition, and they're coming into my body. I'm almost psychically possessed. That is the power of it. And the language is the same way.
Now psychoanalysis, you know, when you put it that way, no one's ever asked the question that way. I mean, I think that there's something rather similar, because it's about opening yourself up to language in the presence of this person who creates a safe space for you to do so, whose meaning you don't know, but you want to come to learn. And then you're opening yourself up also to feelings. And, you know, the more I talk, the more I think they're really the same thing.
It's just about putting myself in a ritual situation - which is after all, what the psychoanalytical situation is - in which I can come to hear words and actions in a new way. So I would end by saying they're the same thing for me.
GROSS: Let me suggest a difference. In religion you are one of many. You're a part of this tradition. You are practicing what has been passed on through generation to generation. And I think in psychoanalysis, maybe you're alone. It's - I mean, it's about you. It's about the very inside of you that is maybe different, or at least slightly different from the very inside of everybody else.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: I would disagree. I would actually say the more you open up to what's inside you, the less it is your own. And the more you see that you are a product of all these people and these words that have been put into you and you begin to parse them and to realize that you is actually a crowd - so, I mean, that's been my experience in psychoanalysis, is I am much less alone and much less just solitarily me than I thought I was.
GROSS: At the beginning of the interview you said that one of the main reasons why you started to observe the Sabbath is that you wanted something more from life.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And you thought that, you know, finding rituals like the Sabbath would help you find that more in life. Has it done that? Has it succeeded?
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Yes, it has, sort of beyond my wildest dreams. It's because it brought me in touch with this community of people that are wonderful and have become my whole life, really. It put me in touch with a series of texts and a series of ideas that I felt could be found nowhere else. And, of course, it led to this book, so it has really become my whole life.
GROSS: Judith Shulevitz, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.
Ms. SHULEVITZ: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Judith Shulevitz is the author of "The Sabbath World." You can read a chapter from the book on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD box set collecting rare, short music films from the '30s and '40s featuring famous and obscure jazz and pop musicians, tap dancers and Vaudevillians.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Writer Judith Shulevitz started observing Shabbat because of her own ambivalence about the traditional weekly day of rest. Her own experiences with the ritual — as well as its larger historical context — are examined in her new book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.
Every Friday night, writer Judith Shulevitz and her family have a traditional Shabbat dinner. Shabbat, which means "to cease" in Hebrew, is traditionally observed in Judaism from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday evening. The Shulevitzes eat challah — a twist bread meant to symbolize the manna that fed the Jews in the wilderness — and light candles, reciting blessings over wine. On Saturdays, the family goes to synagogue, where a portion of the Torah is read and studied.
In her new book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, Shulevitz details how she came to see Shabbat as an important part of her week. She tells Terry Gross that she decided to write the book because of her initial ambivalence about observing a weekly day of rest.
"I don't like being told what to do — and don't like being told how to spend my time," Shulevitz says. "[Also] I should add that the Sabbath is full of rules — the Jewish Sabbath in particular, but the Christian Sabbath as well."
Shulevitz notes that the Talmud lists 39 categories of work that observant Jews are not allowed to perform on the Sabbath, including baking, plowing and shearing wool. She says the rules have been updated for modern times; rules that initially governed the lighting of fires have been transformed to limit how observant Jews should handle electricity on the Sabbath. But the basic principle uniting all of these rules, she says, is about acknowledging that humans do not exert mastery over the world.
"For one day a week, you let the world be as it is," she says. "And you be in it, and try not to dominate it."
Though her family doesn't observe all of those rules, Shulevitz says that she enjoys observing Shabbat in her own way because it gives her family time to be together in a world filled with distractions.
"One problem with the modern weekend as I experience it — and I have two young children — is that they want to play soccer, and they want to have play dates, and they want to do things," she says. "If you don't pay attention to setting aside time to be together, you possibly won't."