Austin Zoot is the Rabbi Educator at the Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio. For more content from Rabbi Zoot, visit his website: austinmzoot.com.
My earliest memories of Shabbat are in my grandmother’s suburban Chicago home. Every week, we would head to her condo to a flurry of noise and activity. My grandmother’s singing (if you can call the noise she made singing…), the smell of a masterfully cooked dinner, four generations coming together to make a meaningful end to the week. The central core of who I am as a person and a Jew can be traced back to those formative dinners, built upon tradition, love, and joy.
Two decades later, it is my job to help people craft meaningful Shabbat experiences for themselves. While I am coaching others through putting their work aside and giving chances for full rest, the irony isn’t lost on me that I am putting on a suit on Friday evening and going to my “office”. Sure, I have found unique and beneficial ways to mark Shabbat for myself, including Friday afternoon visits to the gym and chances for reflection and journaling. But part of the unique opportunity and challenge of being a rabbi is trying to find personal expression of the sabbath while also doing the work to create the space for others.
All of this took a strange detour when my daughter was born in August. This year was the first time I had gone more than three weeks in a row without going to services at synagogue in my life. In the first weeks of Sophie’s life, it was all we could do to find enough routine to even know it was Shabbat, let alone to get dressed in any kind of finery and make a nice dinner. Without the structure of Shabbat arriving in our home, I would have had no idea what day it was, how long had passed since her arrival, and how long it was before I got back to “normal” life.
During the final weekend of my family leave, my parents came to visit their grandchild. It was a magical week watching the generational shift. For the life of me, I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around the idea that “Gramma” was the name we were now using to describe my mom, while “Mom” was bestowed upon my wife. It was, at the same moment, beautiful and surreal to live that life transition as if in slow motion.
At the end of their visit, we celebrated Shabbat together with my parents and brother. As we gathered around the candles and challah, I was struck by the profundity of this moment: once again, three generations of Zoots were coming together to acknowledge the power of spiritual moments in Judaism. The rituals of the evening which we had offered every single week for as long as I can remember took on different meaning when it was I who was both blessed by my parents and got to bless my child in the same moment. Those instances when my father had brought me to his mother’s house to enjoy this centuries-old tradition rippled through the generations, providing each a sense of peace and safety in the constantly evolving realities of our world.
The simple truth is that, during those first weeks of parenthood, I had no idea what it meant to be a “good dad.” I had never been a father before, and the constant ache to care for this beautiful, innocent child was overwhelming. But you know who has encountered fatherhood before? Judaism. Judaism offered me and my family a chain of tradition and a system of rituals that could keep us grounded and supported. Even more intimately than I knew how to tie my own shoes, I knew what it was like to welcome Shabbat into the world and into our home. And I knew that if I could teach my daughter that this was how you created meaningful connections to family, tradition, and spirituality, I would be doing just fine as a dad after all.