Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shabbat in Vermont.

I spent seven Shabbats in Middlebury, Vermont. Seven long and mostly lonely Shabbats. Let me elaborate on a Shabbat, any Shabbat, since most were similar.

The campus Hillel, which I attended only once, decided to hold services at 5:30 p.m. every Friday. This, actually, was the reason I stopped attending, because with Shabbat coming in at 8:30 or so, I couldn't bring myself to bring it in so early. I'd go to class every day until 3 p.m., run some quick errands, and then return to my sweltering dorm for a quick pre-dinner/pre-Shabbos shower. I'd hop over to the cafeteria for our 6:30-7:30 alloted time for dinner, grab the challah and a bottle of juice if we needed it, and then schlep off with fellow celebrators to the portable trailer (sort of an impermanent house) where our professor, who was shomer Shabbos, lived.

Everyone would gather, slowly. We'd sing a few songs, light tealights, and then make kiddush over the university-made challah and some university-purchased Kedem grape juice. We'd then gather, the 15 or so of us, in the living room to sing songs for about an hour. Most of the songs I didn't know, and the ones that I did know, the tunes were unfamiliar. But seeing everyone together was a little spark of light for the day for me. After an hour or hour and a half, we'd bensch and everyone would go their separate ways -- to parties, to hang, to whatever. Typically I'd return to my room and read, or hang out in the salon with a few people to talk.

I'd get to bed pretty late, after reading the parshah or something else, then wake up on Saturday around 10 or 10:30 for the 11 a.m. "story time" in the Salon. Yes, we had story time on Shabbat. I'll admit that it was awkward, but absolutely delightful because it was interesting to hear classic Hebrew children's stories. After stories we'd all go to lunch, and after that? The day sort of drifted into nothingness.

Sometimes I walked. One day I walked out to a local garden and sat in a make-shift hut for about an hour, just listening to the wind and enjoying the shade and quiet. Other days I'd return to my room, read a bit, and then try to sleep. Most days my efforts to nap were met with sweat from the heat of my room, and sleeping was quickly scratched from the options list. Some days I'd merely sit around. Sit in the salon and watch the world go by around me. A few times I went to the cafeteria when it opened at 5, grabbed a glass of water, and sat outside just watching everything and everybody.

Dinner was from 6:30 to 7:30, and afterward we'd head back the salon and sit. I, waiting for Shabbos to end, others waiting for Shabbos to end so we could start our post-Shabbos required activities -- classes, movies, events. Before havdalah, I'd trek to the trailer to sit, chat, sing, and eventually make havdalah. There were usually just a few of us there, everyone else already heading to the required events planned the moment Shabbat ended. Havdalah went quickly, Shavua Tovs were issued, and we'd all run for whatever building our event was in.

It never really felt like anything started or stopped. There was no Shabbos meal, nobody sitting around discussing the community or Judaism or world events. Most people studied on Shabbat while I didn't -- I studied, worked, six days a week. Shabbat was my chance to not work. There were no long conversations at long Shabbos tables until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Everything was done by 1 p.m. It was tiring, missing REAL Shabbat. The shomer professor did what she could, and she gave us what she could. It was something, but it wasn't what I needed. I think I felt like so much was missing because Shabbat was missing. The passion and prayer and community was missing.

But now, I'm back. I'm here, with meals and conversation and prayer and passion. I know that so much of what we do in Judaism we often have to make happen for ourselves. But sometimes, you need more than that. A man living in Siberia can be as spiritual as possible, but without a community, he's just a man.