The Joys of Shabbos

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Henny Kupferstein as a bride, fasting and praying before the ceremony, Feb 18, 1997

Imagine if this book was an inspirational book, full of sacred references. The commentaries would guide you to a holy place. You would credit their wisdom for the feelings you experience each weekend. What if this book is a cynical anthology of anecdotes. How I was possessed by the shabbos demons. How I was released and liberated to be the queen herself. Perhaps a collection of miles which I have trekked in my journey to come face to face with shabbos herself. I had some things to tell her. You didn’t know this would be a parody on The Joy of Sex classic, or the Kosher Sex handbook by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Yeah, nobody told me either.

When I finally confronted the shabbos queen, she was anguished. She expressed rage as though a betrayal of a fellow sister was the worst kind. Maybe like cheating with the neighbor’s spouse in the garage. Worse than calling God by His name. I tossed and shook, like a rabid dog frothing at the final frontier of razor sharp teeth. I was armed and loaded, ready to shoot her down. 

I shot in the dark, and saw the explosion of light around my shot. The halo made me remember the days when I first lit the shabbos candles as a newly minted married woman. I had just turned 19, and I told myself these were magical flames. I would light them so earnestly, each Friday night at sundown. I convinced myself that the kindling of the candle releases my prayer to god. The blessings were personal, written just for the married woman who lights the shabbos candles. It felt so intimate, so private that I bashedly covered my eyes in emotional prayer. 

Henny Kornbluh, a chassidic bride fasting and praying before the ceremony

Henny Kornbluh, a chassidic bride fasting and praying before the ceremony.

Nobody ever told me that the tradition was from medieval times, when couples fought over saving their candles for one meal a week. When candle fat was so scarce, that weeknight meals were pure misery. After a week of hard work in the market, at the silversmith, the cobbler and the butcher, everybody wants some comforting time with the loved ones. Without a candle or a hearty meal, it was merely an extension to the week. 

Friday night was the special time. It was a time for ambience, predetermined meals to express lavishness, and a time for hot food without the hassle of preparing it fresh. They never told me that enjoyment was derived from everyone eating together, instead of a spouse slaving in the kitchen. They never warned me that he would be expected to be served as a king, while he sat on his shabbos throne beating his fist on the mahogany table covered in a $1,200 Wall of China white cotton tablecloth.

To avoid infringing on the labor prohibitions, extra precautionary provisions were added. Everyone was encouraged to bathe specifically in time for candle lighting. The nicest clothes were donned for the evening. Cooked food was kept on a low fire to keep it heated until after the evening prayers were completed. If you had any pure white articles of clothing, you were encouraged to visibly don it. Women began to wear a frilly white apron reserved for the weekend. Those who wore kerchiefs reserved the white silky ones for shabbos. 

Nobody told me that he was waiting for the shabbos ambience to get into the mood. And by mood, I mean me. They didn’t warn me that his extretions would smell like a bleach spill on Friday night, but a sardine factory by Saturday afternoon. They didn’t tell me I’d be dribbling his stewing eggs in uncontrolled flows, making me feel as though a jellyfish crawled out of me every time I stood up or shifted my weight on the couch. I didn’t realize that most hygiene rituals would be prohibited, leaving me with an unrelenting compulsion to alter my body smell and disposition. I fantasized about the day when I would use a baby wipe, and clean up. I was delighted with the wicked thought that one day, I would accidentally open the hot water faucet in the bathroom sink. Anyone hearing from outside the door wouldn’t be able to ever know my secret. The anonymity of this dreadful sin had me tickled. I planned these elaborate ideas which empowered me, and helped me see my present through the future’s liberation. 

I also smelled of his body odor. It was a mixture of Marlboro, minty breath freshener, germy teeth plaque mixed with old cheese, and aqua net hairspray on his beard. I was dumb, dumb, dumb, when I surprised him with cologne for his 30th birthday. He doused himself so extensively that weekend, that I smelled of him, his deposits, and his cologne. The horror of this sensory violation can only be described as the dollar store lavender bathroom spray mixed with the smell of a giant poo. I thought of myself as a walking port-a-potty. I felt like the blue water, a vessel accepting everything and turning all of it into a mysterious disappearing reality. I was always shit sprayed on the walls, with pee splatter for extra embellishment. 

Six years into the marriage, I finally used my words to make him hurt as much as he hurt me. After about 14 minutes of humping a wall of dry ice, he walked himself back to his bed. I shouted after him, “don’t forget to flush!”. The purple circles on his cheeks spread to his ears, and he was steaming from his nostrils. Rather than his ear sirens going off with a shriek, he screamed through clenched teeth, “How can you even say such a thing?!!!”

Nobody told me that I could say such a thing. And that it would liberate me from the pits of my hell. That I would now have permission to cry, laugh, talk to myself, or anything, but he would still get his job done without disturbing my mind. Oh how wonderful those trips were. I would fly first-class to exotic islands with turquoise seas. The mineral baths and sauna were always so exciting. I saw them opening my pores, seeping into my skin, and nourishing me with hygiene and invisible endocrine stimulants. Those dreams took me so far, that I would ride the high from my travels for a day or two. Sometimes, I even needed a vacation from my vacation. Those vacations always had me squeaky clean, and my hygiene fantasies were very fulfilling.

I hated myself so much, that I couldn’t even bother taking off my expensive shabbos house robe for naps. After the shabbos morning meal, I would pass out from exhaustion. I often slept for 2-4 hours, and it was a major boost for the week. Something in me thought that going to bed in clothes would be a signal for how exhausted I am, and that I should be left alone. I was never warned that the image of a shabbos queen in traditional clothing would fulfill his Freudian appetite and the love for a matronly figure in his own bedroom. I stopped shaving my head the day after he put his hands under my turban, feeling my peach fuzz. I knew he thought about his mother in that moment, and I was determined to discontinue that fantasy. I will not be degraded into being thought of as sex idol for a practice that was designed to downgrade me to a disgusting beast like all the abused women. 

Prisoners were shaved in Auschwitz. I knew my hair would set me free. My dreams now had me walking down the main street with my hair blowing in the breeze. I saw the smooth thick waves bouncing on my shoulder, growing long way past my face to hide my double chin. It would be as long as I wanted, and I would no longer be forced by my mother to have short bangs. I knew I owned my hair now, and I used it to regain the power I needed to survive. 

I had no idea that he would like my hair. Now he started mocking my head coverings whenever he entered the bedroom. “Take off that corny thing on your head. It makes you look so ugly.” The children would barely be asleep, and I couldn’t have any of them walk in and see me without a headcovering. It never occurred to me that they would see way more disturbing things than a mother in a ponytail. 

Women who didn’t shave their heads made it very obvious. It was a status symbol, a sign that she was more “modern” than her neighbors with a naked skull. They usually pinned the hair up in the back. We saw the giant bump in her headwear. Over time, women with ponytails finally developed a new style of headcovering so they didn’t explode inside a turban. They began to wear snoods, and it was a very hot trend. This is because the snood is merely an oversized knitted hat with a tight band for the face. Women would put up the appearance that they are casually overworked, and the frumpy style was to have the snood accidentally show some hairline. Now those ladies were the real tramps. 

When my hair first started growing back, it was thick. It was almost 15 months with horrible migraines. The short pointy ends stood straight up and hit the turban like a tight squeeze to a mophead. The competition was fierce, and the turban always won. After 7 months, the hair finally began to bend to a side, and I was able to brush a side-part. It began to stay down for the first time. It felt so exciting to have this secret growing in the privacy of my own sleep. I finally grew my hair until I could gather into a ponytail close to two years later.

I worked myself up the status to have a conspicuous ponytail bump at the back of my wig. I personally hated those mushroom heads, and vowed to never be that woman. I wasn’t. I figured out a technique for tucking my hair up and held together with giant flat barrettes. The back of my wig was snug and revealing of my true head shape. Nobody would know unless they touched my wig in the back and felt clips behind the net. He hated those clips. He always asked me to take them down and shake my head back and forth. It made me dizzy and I felt like a cow shaking off her teats after a milking. 

He was told that Shabbos was his special time with his queen. Me me me, all about his ego and his power. With every flick of a match, I silently put myself into the flaming hole of my weekend. The smell of the sulfur was a sign of my consenting acquiescence. I got sucked into the vacuum of the wick catching the flame, and I melted into the halo over the candles. I remained dazed and frozen until the thaw of the havdala candle, signaling the end of the shabbos. The havdala candle was kept in the freezer to prevent rapid dripping during the havdala ritual. How I love putting the smelling candle with a freshly burnt wick into the inviting freezer. I imagine crawling into it together with the candle, having a dark cold, silent and insulated cocoon to defrost my rage. I preferred to die from lack of oxygen, than use my oxygen to kindle him. I needed a way out. I wanted my loins back. They never asked me before they made the rules. “Oh, the shabbos queen has arrived,” he said as I lit the candles for the last time with him breathing down my neck. I was 31.

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