The Conspiracy

The Nights We Remember

My mom lights the Shabbat candles as she covers her eyes with the palms of her hands. The room is dark except for the light in the kitchen, a lamp in the dining room, and the yellow glow from the flames. “Baruch atah Hashem,” she recites the prayer alone, my sisters and I sitting in silent contempt. “Elokeinu melech haolam.” The words roll in like a sad song on my mother’s tongue. “Asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.” My mom uncovers her eyes, and my little sister Naomi drops her knife onto her plate. The clatter of metal against china drowns out my father as he declares, “Amen.”

“My mom lights the Shabbat candles as she covers her eyes with the palms of her hands.” | By slgckgc [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

My parents sing songs of rising Shabbos queens and dancing, winged angels while my sisters and I stare at our dishes. Our eyes remain downcast, as if we are searching the rose-painted porcelain for lyrics we know by heart. Our lips purse and remain unmoving.

My dad stands up to bless his daughters. He adjusts his kippa and puts his hands on our heads. We flinch. No reason to flinch except for teenage angst and an instinctual aversion to family. I can’t accept that his insistence on reciting archaic blessings of “shalom” and “kadosh” is making me miss my friends’ ritual of Pizza Night and Drinking.

My mom continues the ancient ritual, uncovering the golden, homemade challah that she makes every week. She folds the challah cover that I made in Torah School and goads Naomi to say the prayer over the bread. My little sister reluctantly obliges. “Hamotzi lechem min haaretz.”

“Amen,” and my older sister Lila and mom disappear into the kitchen. Lila brings out a bowl full of brussel sprouts, ushering the smell of garlic and butter to our table. She puts the dish next to the challah and slouches back into her chair.

My mom’s eyes crease as she smiles, carrying the centerpiece of the meal, a ceramic platter of roasted chicken from a recipe she taught herself when my older sister was first born. It’s skin crackles with rosemary and lemon.

“Drum stick,” I say, wishing I was asking my friend for pizza and a beer instead.  My mom reserves the honor of carving the chicken for herself. She takes her long knife and slices the bird so the skin drops away and the bones sever with a gentle fierceness. She places the meat onto my plate. She does the same for everyone else: taking the orders, carving the chicken, placing the meat. We start eating before she’s sat down.

“Delicious,” my dad exclaims with half of his plate devoured. My mom picks up her fork and breaths out, “Save room for dessert.” She drinks a sip of wine.

“My mom continues the ancient ritual, uncovering the golden, homemade challah that she makes every week.” | By slgckgc [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

My dad reaches for the dishes covered in crumbs of bread and nearly finished pieces of chocolate chess pie. He rolls up his sleeves and scrapes the remains of Shabbat dinner into the trash can. He plunges the dishes into the sink’s soapy water and lets the faucet run as he hums and drags his sponge across the plates.

“You shouldn’t leave the water running,” my older sister yanks the faucet shut when his back is turned. He sighs and turns the water back on as soon as she’s marched into the other room.

My mom sprawls out on the sofa in the living room, her feet kicked up and her fingers interlaced, resting solemnly on her chest. A finished crossword puzzle – in pen – is crumpled beneath her. The mournful song of Torah trope rises from the kitchen as my dad practices for his aliyah the next morning. Shrinking shadows and a hiss of smoke from the burning Shabbat candles fill the room.

I sit across from my mom in a rocking chair staring at my phone, rapt, waiting for the machine to do something, anything, to excite me. Finally it trembles in my hand, and an envelope flies onto the screen. “Come overrr,” my friend drunk, or high or just bored.

“No ride but I’ll try.”

As she sleeps, my mom’s chest rises and falls. When I’m sad, I curl up in bed next to her as she naps. I try to match my breathing to hers. (In, pause, pause, out, pause, pause, pause.) I know her breaths well. They are raspy but deep, emanating from the bottom of her lungs and leaving loudly through her nose.

“My parents sing songs of rising Shabbos queens and dancing, winged angels while my sisters and I stare at our dishes.” | By Brett Weinstein [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

“Mama,” I put my hand on her shoulder, and the peace breaks from her face. Her underlined eyes open. “Hmmm? What’s wrong?” Her fingers begin to unlock from one another. I can hear the water stopping in the kitchen. I ask her for a ride to Emma’s house.

“Hannah. Your friends will be around tomorrow.”

I breath out and pull at my hair. I see my friends sitting in Emma’s round leather chairs, her dog lapping at everyone’s knees. They’re listening to music. They’re talking and laughing. They’re gossiping about our teachers and the kids that we hate. They’re eating pizza. “But they’re together now.”

She sits up and brushes out the creases on her pants. “Please, I don’t want to leave the house.”

I roll my eyes and shake my head. “This isn’t fair.” No good retort against a mother’s firm foot.

“I can’t go,” I text back

“Come onn you can never hang out.”

My little sister walks into the room and asks me if I want to draw with her.

“Get away.” Punching bags often take the form of younger siblings.

“Hannah, if you’re so bored, go spend time with your sisters,” my mom brushes her greying hair behind her ear and lies back onto the sofa. She closes one of her eyes, keeping the other one open to watch how far I take my petition.

“No,” I begin to escalate.

But my dad comes in from the kitchen before I push any farther.

“Why do I have to stay home while everyone else gets to go out and –”

“Fine, I’ll take you,” my dad gives in and rolls down his sleeves.

I realize the coercion I just pulled and self-conscious embarrassment creeps up my neck and splashes red across my cheeks.

“No, it’s fine, it’s fine,” I offer as I buckle my seatbelt in the passenger seat next to my dad. He turns on the engine and yawns. He hums the Shabbos songs. He drives me to my friend’s house where I’ll eat pizza and finally be able to prove that I’m a normal, American teenager.

Hannah Weintraub is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in History and Fiction Writing with a minor in Jewish Studies.

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