As a member of an interfaith family, I haven’t really observed Shabbat. Even when I was growing up in a Jewish household, my parents never observed Shabbat, except for the brief run-up to my bar mitzvah when we’d attend Friday night services. But in recent years, as I reconnected with my Jewish roots through Reboot, a nonprofit that seeks to reinvent Jewish culture, ritual and traditions and make them relevant today, I have learned more about the Sabbath and found ways to observe a weekly day of rest.
Whenever I characterize the religious differences between my non-Jewish wife and me, I often think of Woody Allen’s line: “I did not marry the first girl that I fell in love with, because there was a tremendous religious conflict. She was an atheist, and I was an agnostic, and we didn’t know which religion not to bring the children up in.” Our technological differences have proved more significant than religion — what I think of as the digital divide. As a journalist who has covered technology since the 1990s, I’ve been an early adopter of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, the iPhone, you name it.
My wife? She doesn’t have a personal e-mail account. She doesn’t text, much less tweet. She’s appalled at the mere notion of Facebook. She uses an old brick of a Nokia cell phone, with various buttons rendered unusable by age, and she doesn’t give the number out to anyone but close friends or family.
So when Reboot proposed a National Day of Unplugging last year, it was one Shabbat event that was easy to get my wife to buy into. The idea is simple enough. For one day a year, keep the computer off. Keep the phone off. Let the email go unanswered. And instead, do the things that the sages who came up with Shabbat originally envisioned: Go outside. Connect with loved ones. Eat bread. Nurture your health.
And try to take the mindfulness that comes from that annual exercise into a weekly ritual.
The other day, I took my 11-year-old son to his first Little League practice of the season. It was Saturday morning. We were running late, as usual. And as we drove down the street, I realized: I forgot my cell phone. This is often a recipe for disaster. My wife would not be able to reach me. I had not yet checked email that day. I wanted to let friends know I was going to stop by their house to pick something up.
When I told my son, he said, “If you need to make a call, there’s a gas station near the ballpark.” I appreciated the wisdom. I relaxed. I actually was mentally present for his practice, helping the other parents out, playing ball with the kids. I wasn’t constantly checking my pocket, listening for a ring, or the beep of a text, or the vibration of an email. We stopped at our friends’ house, and they didn’t mind that we hadn’t called first. When I got home, I saw I had missed three calls from my wife, but it was nothing that couldn’t wait.
We have deluded ourselves into thinking that we need to answer the phone every time it rings, and respond to the email whenever it comes in. But in turning things off occasionally, we see that we can actually enjoy the preciousness of life’s ordinary moments. We allow ourselves to let go a little.
I have increasingly stopped answering the phone in many situations — usually when I’m with my son. Or when I’m having lunch with a friend. Or when I’m driving. I have also started using more analog devices, like a Moleskine journal, because I like the way my brain focuses when it’s just me, a pen and paper — and not another window open in my browser, silently beckoning me to surf to one more page.
My wife, my son and I follow many of the tenets of the Sabbath Manifesto. We often use the weekend as a chance to take a big hike and to cook a big meal. We play board games; Clue has been a favorite, but Risk proved difficult, as some of us got a little too aggressive. We get together with friends, and we make time for each other.
I have found my connection to those wise ancient rabbis who gave us the concept of the Sabbath. And I have converted to my wife’s religion. I have unplugged.