I’m publishing this article in a very different context than the way I initially intended to share it with the world. As you may or may not know, I’ve been writing a Queering the Jewish Holidays series here at Autostraddle for about a year. I always planned to do a How I Celebrate Shabbat column; I love Shabbat, and it’s arguably my favorite of all the Jewish holidays. In fact, I planned to publish this post in May, when we were at A-Camp, because we hosted our very first Shabbat dinner at camp this past year and I thought it would be special to talk about Shabbat on the website while we were having such a meaningful experience at camp. Unfortunately, life got in the way and I didn’t manage to publish this post in May.
It’s been tabled since then. It’s been on my to-do list but not in a particularly pressing way. Shabbat happens every week, you know? What was the rush?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having a hard time coping. Now more than ever, I want to be in community with my fellow Jews. And because I am me – I really want to be in community my fellow queer Jews. Perhaps you do too. This post is for all of us.
Last week’s Shabbat was a tragedy. Let us make this week’s Shabbat a space for mourning, for healing, for connecting, for resisting, and for peace. Amen.
Every Friday night at sundown, Jews all over the world gather to celebrate Shabbat. Different people celebrate Shabbat in different ways, depending on what feels good for them. For some Jews, there are strict rules around what you can and cannot do on Shabbat, what you should eat, and how many hours you’ll be spending in synagogue. For other Jews, Shabbat doesn’t even register – Friday night is just another night, and Saturday is for sleeping in and brunch. I’m not here to judge how you do or don’t celebrate Shabbat. My own ritual with the weekly day of rest has changed many times over the course of my life, but no matter how I’m observing, Shabbat has always felt incredibly sacred to me. I’m simply here, per always, to offer some insight into what I do (and what I’ve done), share what some other folks do, and start a conversation in the comments about what you do or what you’d like to do.
Here are some things you could do to celebrate Shabbat as a queer Jewish person.
Unplug and Disconnect
Shabbat is all about rest. It’s a day to focus on being, not doing. As I said in the intro, Shabbat practices will look different for everybody, so of course “a day of rest” is subject to interpretation. For folks who are shomer Shabbos, observing the commandments around Shabbat is of utmost importance, while for those who are less observant your day may look the exact same as any other day of the week. I personally do not keep strict Shabbos commandments at all (I cook, I clean, I turn the lights in my bathroom on and off, etc.) but there is one modern commandment that I like to adopt as often as possible on Shabbat: turning off my phone and disconnecting from social media. I’ll admit, I am not particularly good at this task, and I will also admit that it does not have particularly religious connotations for me – while folks who keep shomer Shabbos usually have religious beliefs tied into their Shabbat behavior, my desire to unplug and disconnect on Shabbat is purely about self-care, not about religion or G-d.
And yet, even though I don’t feel particularly religious, Shabbat is still a special day for me as a Jew. It is a day that happens every single week that encourages me to focus on being, not doing. Turning my phone off for significant periods of time heals my head and my heart, and Shabbat gives me a brilliant excuse to lean into that. If you’re interested in being slower or more intentional about your actions on Shabbat but don’t necessarily want to curtail your phone use, read up on other Shabbat commandments and see if any other ones might suit your needs. Or brainstorm some commandments for yourself to follow that are meaningful to you, and commit to make them happen on Shabbat. You could also step away from the commandment aspect of this idea if that’s too observant or too prescriptive for you, and just think about something meaningful to you that you’d like to implement into your Shabbat routine – then do it.
One of my favorite parts of Judaism is the focus on learning. Growing up as a Jew I was always taught to question things, look for multiple explanations to my queries, and to have long deep discussions with fellow Jews. Shabbat is the perfect time to engage in some learning and discussion. You can focus your studying on the Torah portion being read that week, on a burning question you’ve always had about Judaism that you’re dying to discuss, or on something fun and silly. If you’re lucky, you’ll feel safe and comfortable in your study group and you’ll be able to do some deep dives about tricky subjects, which in my opinion is one of the best parts of being a Jew. You could also spend this time educating one another on important current event issues, voter guides, direct actions, and other tools to both stay safe from and fight against our current government. A good place to find study groups like this is at your local synagogue, your local Hillel (if you’re a college student), or online via Facebook, Instagram, or the Autostraddle comments section!
Cook (Your) Traditional Food
If you celebrated Shabbat growing up, you probably have some very specific food related memories of the holiday. For example, if I want to invoke Shabbat at my mother’s house in 2002, I need to pop a roast in the oven, buy a challah from Cheryl Anns’ Bakery in Brookline, MA, sip some disgusting Manischewitz, and make three desserts even if there are only 4 guests coming for dinner. That’s just what the Shabbat of my childhood tastes like to me. Whatever it tastes like to you? Cook that. Eat your food alone or invite a friend or a date over. You know the way to a Jewish person’s heart is through their belly. If you’re having a larger Shabbat meal you can make it a potluck and everyone can bring a dish that is traditional for them. If you have never celebrated Shabbat before or if you have folks coming who don’t have specific food traditions in place, make your own! We’re queer, we get to rewrite narratives, it’s the best.
When I was a kid, Friday was my favorite day of school. Not just because we were super close to the weekend (although obviously that was a factor) but because Friday indicated Shabbat, and that meant tzedakah! While the word tzedakah is often translated to simply mean “charity,” I was always taught that it was bigger than that. Tzedakah speaks to social justice – we do not donate money simply because we want to do the “nice thing” or feel good about ourselves. We do it because it is right and just. At the beginning of the year in my elementary school classroom, we picked several causes that were important to us and decorated tzedakah boxes for each one. Every Friday, we’d each get to bring in some money for our tzedakah boxes and then choose which cause we wanted to give money to that particular week. It was the best feeling.
If you’re able to financially donate to a cause now, you should go for it on Shabbat! (Do it before or after the actual holiday if your Judaism practice forbids you from handling money on Shabbat.) Use this opportunity to research organizations or individuals that really matter to you, and then proceed to get just as excited as I did in elementary school about giving tzedakah to a cause that is close to your heart. You can even make some tzedakah boxes to collect your money in each week (and then donate the larger collected sum all at once after a few weeks / months). This week, I’ll be donating directly to the community at Tree of Life synagogue and to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Host a Shabbat Dinner
Last, but certainly not least – in fact, most meaningful and important (in my opinion): you can host your very own Shabbat Dinner!! I know this may seem overwhelming, but listen, I believe in you. You. Can. Do. It.
Autostraddle reader and Professional Queer Jew Al Rosenberg wrote an excellent article for Alma about how to create a monthly queer Shabbat, and I strongly suggest that you check it out if this is of interest to you. When I asked her to elaborate for me about why Shabbat is so special to her, here’s what she said: “Shabbat dinner for me is necessarily very queer. I usually celebrate on Friday night in the community of LGBTQ+ folk. When I do Shabbat dinner, I queer it. I look at it in a way that troubles and questions its traditions. I find the customs that make sense for me and my communities, and we create our own where we find them missing. That too is very Jewish – to be a Jew is to question, to seek meaning in this world.” Now feels like a particularly potent time to be seeking meaning in this world, wouldn’t you say?
While thinking about and researching this article back in May, I learned about another incredible Shabbat Dinner community in New York City: the Sephardic-Mizrahi LGBTQ+ Shabbat Dinner Series, put on by the Sephardic-Mizrahi Q Network, a grassroots movement that seeks to build a vibrant community for LGBTQ Jews from Sephardic and Mizrahi backgrounds. I spoke to two members of the group, one co-founder and one founding member, who preferred not to share their names because of the spirit of being part of a collective, and they both articulated that Sephardic and Mizrahi queer Jews often wonder: Is there a space where we belong where we can bring all of our identities? The Sephardic-Mizrahi Q Network aims to create that space, using their Shabbat Dinner Series as a key way to build community. For any Sephardic and/or Mizrahi Autostraddle readers in the NYC area who are interested in learning more about these dinners, you can reach out to the group: theSMQnetwork [at] gmail [dot] com.
For other folks reading, I think this story illustrates a really valuable lesson: if you’re looking to build community around a specific piece of your identity, you will often have to be the one to take the first step in creating it. I know this is scary. I do know, I promise. But it is also so possible, and once created, the reward is so deep. There are also tangible resources available to help. Full disclosure, Al who is referenced above is the director of marketing and communications for OneTable, which is an organization that literally exists to help folks in their 20s and 30s host Shabbat meals and build community around them – they are an amazing resource, both for logistical and financial help. If you’re looking for an additional resource to help plan the best Shabbat meal you can create, the folks who spoke with me about the Sephardic and Mizrahi dinner series had wonderful things to say about Moishe House Without Walls.
As is hopefully clear from this section in particular, enough Jews care about Shabbat and gathering in community that there are many avenues to help you host a Shabbat meal if you have even the tiniest flicker of desire. Why not go for it?
I leave you with a photo of the homemade challah my mom and I made for Shabbat a few weeks ago, because it’s beautiful and I’m still proud of it and we deserve some joy in this world, and this challah brought me joy. And also, lez be honest, I’m a Jewish Mother In Training – life is hard, so I wish I could feed y’all. If I can’t feed you, I’ll show you a photo of what I would feed you, theoretically, if we were all together getting ready for Shabbat dinner right now – which, ugh, honestly, the ultimate dream.
But sincerely – we love you. We’re here for you. Shabbat Shalom.