Jun 2010

The Shabbat Ima

Shira Hammerman is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholar Program.  She is a doctoral student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU.   She can be reached at shirahammerman@hotmail.com 

“The angels are peeking, peeking through the window, as Ima lights the candles and Abba goes to shul…”  My little Shabbat Ima was having the time of her life as she sat next to her Shabbat Abba at the head of the pint-sized table, surrounded by friends, and singing at the top of her lungs.  I smiled from my vantage point at the back of her classroom, snapping photos as the slightly awkward “Ima hat” slid down over my daughter’s eyes.

Though I was enjoying my first adult experience at a preschool Shabbat party, I couldn’t ignore that feeling that something wasn’t quite right.  The feeling grew as the class continued, as it became abundantly clear that my daughter’s role in the program was secondary.  She excitedly lit the candles, glancing my way just before she dramatically covered her eyes.  Then, just as the song describes, the Abba went to shul.  Then the Abba made Kiddush.  Then the Abba said Hamotzi.  And my daughter sat –  surprisingly patiently  – until she was given permission to drink her juice and enjoy her snack.

It was not that I had never known that Shabbat ritual as practiced in some institutions assigns a larger role to the Abba of the class.  I had grown up in a household where ritual was practiced in that way.  I had studied the development of these rituals and knew full well that there is disagreement – even within Orthodox circles – over the notion that many of these rituals are reserved for men.  I had certainly grappled with the disparity at some point but was content with the role that I played in my family’s Shabbat observance.

As I relived the experience in my mind, I realized that my discomfort was not a newfound personal need to take the lead at Friday night dinner.  Rather, it was the sudden awareness that my daughter may experience those dinners differently than I do.  What if she needed to play a larger role in Jewish ritual?  Would her Orthodox day school encourage her?  Would my complacency with the imbalance discourage her?  How could I model a level of observance that adheres to Orthodox standards without making her feel secondary? 

And beginning that Friday night, my husband and I reassigned some of the roles at our Shabbat table.  Because in motherhood – as in leadership – it’s not primarily about me.  It’s about her.