The Jewish Nomad: On keeping Shabbat, after a decade of distance

Ilana Zackon’s view of Trinity Bellwoods Park in downtown Toronto.

In a world riddled with technological addictions, downtime is a rarity, and a gift.

Growing up in a slightly less electronic world—think CD-ROMs and when we relied on specific television schedules to watch cartoons—I was fortunate to have Shabbat in my weekly routine.

It was a time to be with family, play games, go for long walks and read tons of books. (I used to withdraw the maximum allowed by our local library in Montreal, every single week. True story.)

Most importantly, in formative years, it became my sacred time for deep reflection—with healthy amounts of both solitude and community.

And then, about 10 years ago, I stopped keeping Shabbat… and completely lost my balance.

Things got complicated in my final year of theatre school. Rehearsals would often fall on Saturdays. The shows didn’t stop on Friday nights. And I was left with a difficult dilemma.

My father sat me down and gently suggested that I may want to consider foregoing this aspect of my religious observance.

I was upset, but I reluctantly went along with the idea, recognizing it could become a conflict down the line if this was going to be my career

But a domino effect starts when you stop doing one thing. First it was letting a friend drive me to an audition, and then I was driving myself. I started working on weekends and, before I knew it, Shabbat disappeared.

In the years that followed—what I refer to as a “10-year existential crisis,” even though it’s basically my entire adult life so far—I really struggled with overworking, anxiety and burnout.

I took up a daily yoga practice, which eventually led to my move to Vancouver to pursue teacher training. 

After all, yoga provided the closest comparable feeling to Shabbat. The practice slowed down my thoughts, connected me to my body and brought me a sense of peace.

But, it wasn’t quite the same. It felt like a lot more effort just to attain that quiet calm state, rather than just be in it and the feeling only lasted so long.

Sure, I was essentially a kid when I stopped keeping Shabbat—with little experience in the stressors of adult life.

And yet, I never fully felt comfortable treating Saturday just like every other day.

“Ain’t gonna work on Saturday/Double, double, triple pay!/Ain’t gonna work on Saturday.”

That song I learned in Hebrew day school would play in my head.

I felt guilty. And not necessarily for religious reasons, but because I felt like I was doing a disservice for myself.

I would try to do things that made me happy on Saturdays: watch movies, play my ukulele, sing, read plays, journal, but it often felt lonely and unsatisfying.

I would try to find compromises: refrain from writing, turn off my phone for the day or take a social media break.

And inevitably, after a few hours of “me time,” I’d begin to feel that sense of isolation and turn on a movie or text a friend. 

That Shabbat feeling, almost like time stood still, felt like it was gone forever.

Last winter, I moved into a Vancouver location of Moishe House, which is an organization which provides opportunities for young Jews to run events for other young Jews out of their home. It’d been five years since I lived with people who shared this part of my background—namely, my parents.

With this opportunity to reconnect, I suggested starting a weekly Shabbat dinner, for starters.

Soon enough, I began spending five or so hours cooking on Fridays (Balabusta at your service!) before cleaning the house, lighting candles and singing “Shalom Aleichem,” all before we sat down for a delicious two- or three-course meal.

It felt good. 

The more I reconnected with my Judaism, the more I longed for my favourite (and missing) piece of the puzzle: Shabbat.

My housemates were often busy or out of the house on Saturdays, and I realized how difficult it is (even with a quasi-observance) to feel the spirit of the day without community around.

When I moved to Toronto in September, I stayed with relatives who were more religious. 

I finally had the opportunity to try Shabbat back on for size.

And, I’m happy to report: I haven’t stopped since.

In this very short period, I’ve connected with many wonderful, diverse and progressive communities of young Jews in downtown Toronto, which blends my current values with the way we connect to ancestral traditions.

It’s going to take more time to figure out the level that works for me in the long run. But I finally feel like I’m coming home.

The art worth watching this week

My pals at Scapegoat Carnivale are putting on a remount of their META-award winning one-act play, Yev. 

Created by Montreal-based Jewish theatre artists Alison Darcy and Joseph Shragge, the show is billed as being “about the unusual relationships between a Siberian hermit, a McGill biology student and a retired Russian geologist.”

The play stars two of my fellow John Abbott College Professional Theatre alumni, Davide Chiazzese and Trevor Barette, as well as Ukrainian-born actor Sasha Samar.

Very exciting to see theatre slowly coming back to life! 

Yev runs from Oct. 20-22 for only three performances at les Maisons de la culture (LaSalle/NDG/Le Plateau). Tickets are free. Performed in English and Russian.

What we’re saying on Bonjour Chai

Spreading awareness on mental health issues— and removing the stigma from them—is a large part of my personal artistic mandate.

In that vein, I was thrilled to have Dr. Esther Altmann on the podcast to talk to us about rabbi burnout.

Before my co-host Avi Finegold—who’s actually a rabbi himself—suggested it as a topic, that particular issue had never crossed my mind. 

In our conversation with Dr. Altmann, I realized more than ever: while Shabbat and Yom Tov are restful days for most observant Jews, those are invariably the biggest work days for a rabbi, no matter how observant they are.

Check out our discussion, in which we hypothesize ways to help our spiritual leaders find more down time between sermons. 

We also talk about how therapy could be considered Jewish in origin. (Nice one, Dr. A!)

I strongly believe that it’s crucial that we take care of our minds, in the same way we do our bodies. 

There are many ways to do it. And what’s helping me with getting there right now is Shabbat.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai

READ last week’s edition of The Jewish Nomad