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Why a Florida school district banned a book about Shabbat

A Florida school district knows the truth about Shabbat. It is subversive.

“A thought has blown the marketplace away. There is a song on the wind and joy in the trees. Shabbat arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night. Eternity utters a day.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel, as quoted in Mishkan T’filah, the Reform prayer book

(RNS) — If you have the blessing of visiting Duval County, Florida (Jacksonville), and if you have the additional blessing of visiting the local school libraries, you will notice gaps in the shelves. Those gaps represent 176 books that are no longer on the shelves. Those books have been sitting in storage units for 10 months. When are those books returning to classrooms? No one knows. They have been kept in storage for nearly a year with little indication of when they might return to classrooms.

What happened? Authorities have removed them from circulation. It is what it seems to be. It is, in the words of PEN America, a “book ban.”

The removed titles were part of the Essential Voices Classroom Libraries Collection, which the district purchased in 2021. This collection “features characters representing a variety of ethnicities, religious affiliations, and gender identities.”

The list of banned books includes stories of people who are Hispanic, LGBTQ, Asian, Muslim, Black and Native American, among others.

Oh, yes. There is one more group.

Jews who observe Shabbat.

The censored book: Chik Chak Shabbat, by Mara Rockliff and Kyrsten Brooker. Its intended audience: kids who are 7 years old and younger.

It is the tale of a woman named Goldie Simcha. Normally, she would make her famous cholent stew for Shabbat, but she isn’t feeling well. Her neighbors in her diverse apartment building find a way to help. The book is categorized by online booksellers as being appropriate for preschool through second grade.

I cannot wait to read this book to our young children at Temple Israel.

What could possibly be wrong with this book?

What could possibly be wrong with a book about making cholent? Cholent is a stew that observant Jews eat on Shabbat. It is a mixture of meat, beans and potatoes. You light the fire on the stove before Shabbat, so as not to violate the prohibition of starting a fire on Shabbat, and you start cooking it before Shabbat. It continues cooking, slowly, throughout Shabbat. It is a traditional Jewish delicacy.

Cholent is not fast food. You cannot do it chik chak, which is Israeli slang for “quickly.” You actually have to make it, and it has to sit there on the fire, cooking slowly on a holy day.

There is more about cholent. It is a traditional food, made from recipes that great-grandparents handed down to grandparents, and down through the generations.

How did those recipes survive? They survived from generation to generation.

Who carried those recipes? Wait for it … immigrants.

Even more about cholent? The book features people eating a meal that they prepared — at home. No, they didn’t order in. No, DoorDash did not deliver it. No, they didn’t go out to a restaurant. No, they didn’t have to make reservations.

And even worse — a community helped someone cook. It took a village to make cholent.

So, this book portrayed people in a community, helping someone who was sick, have a Shabbat dinner.

What is wrong with this book?

Could it be that the book evaluators had a problem with Jews? Or with identifiable Jews doing Jewish stuff, and eating traditional Jewish food being part of that whole heretical diversity thing?

That leaves only one more possibility — that Shabbat itself is subversive.

Shabbat — subversive?

If you believe in unfettered capitalism that must operate 24/7; if you believe we should invariably judge people by their social rank, professional position and income; if you believe rugged individualism is always the code to society and we are all in this for ourselves; if you believe life should be lived in private and not in community — then you subscribe to the default philosophy of American society.

So, if you believe that — and there is nothing wrong with believing that — then, yes, Shabbat is subversive.

Why? Because Judaism provides us with a weekly reminder that we are more than our work and our income. Shabbat is a 25-hour protest against materialism, careerism and competition.

Imagine: No gainful work for a whole day. This is the oldest criticism of Shabbat, and it forms one of the oldest criticisms of Judaism itself. The unmitigated chutzpah of rest, of non-productivity! The Roman philosopher, Seneca, complained that “to spend every seventh day without doing anything means to lose a seventh part of one’s life.”

This is the classic criticism of Shabbat: It is inefficient. That is why many modern Jews don’t sit shiva for a full seven days after a death. Shiva is, to our way of thinking, blank time. Nothing “happens.” That which is “useless” and “non-productive” frightens us.

Jump with me across the centuries from the ancient pagan criticisms of Shabbat to our great-grandparents, in Eastern Europe and Central Europe and in the Middle East.

They were poor and stressed. Their economic existences were tenuous. They were tailors and shoemakers and barkeepers and middle-men — and they longed for the blessed rest of Shabbat.

They were impoverished, and they came to America. But what did they leave back in the Old Country?

They brought the idea of Shabbat to America, but they left the reality of Shabbat back home. Why? Because here, you had to make a living.

Consider how Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox Jewish feminist, re-states the biblical commandment to rest on the seventh day:

“Six days you shall be a workaholic; on the seventh day, you shall join the serene company of human beings.

“Six days you shall take orders from your boss; on the seventh day, you shall be master/mistress of your own life.

“Six days you shall create, drive, invent, push; on the seventh day, you shall reflect.

“Six days you shall be the perfect success; on the seventh day, you shall remember that not everything is in your power.

“Six days shall you be a miserable failure; on the seventh day, shall you be on top of the world.”

Shabbat is a once-every-seventh-day retreat from the capitalist system. Imagine, if one can afford it, not working at one’s business or trade. Imagine avodah (work) becoming avodah (worship). Imagine not handling money and not shopping, because Shabbat means that one day a week I choose not to enter the consumer world.

Imagine a day when you can unplug yourself from social media. (I, personally, would relish this.) Imagine a day with no professional identities. Imagine a day in which social hierarchies are irrelevant.

I shall never forget the Shabbat in Jerusalem, when I went to a popular egalitarian Orthodox synagogue. In one pew: several of the greatest academics and Jewish thinkers in the world. Sitting next to them: a man whom I recognized as a taxi driver. It did not matter. We were all Jews praying together.

What is so ironic, and so painful, about this fear of a book about cholent on Shabbat is this: That aspect of Shabbat — that sense of sacred rest and the relaxation of our usual social hierarchies — is precisely what Christians envy about not only Shabbat but also about Judaism.

Just weeks ago, The New York Times reported that there has been a sudden, noticeable upswing of young people hosting Shabbat dinners — and that such dinners have been popular even among people who are not at all Jewish.

Consider these words from the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, a noted Episcopal priest who might just be the greatest preacher in America today:

By interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying on picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart. When two sets of grandparents are at the lake with their grandchildren feeding ducks, it is hard to tell the rich ones from the poor ones.

So, now you know why Duval County had to question the appropriateness of that book.

It is disruptive.

Just as books about people of different ethnic backgrounds disrupt the idea of what American identity should be; just as books about transgender people disrupt the idea of what male and female should be — so, too, the idea of people getting together to make cholent on a sacred day of rest disrupts just about every idea we have about modern life.

The pernicious cycle of working/wanting/having as ends in themselves is spiritually damaging. Shabbat can be the elixir.

Once upon a time, in a town in Eastern Europe, a rabbi found himself unable to sleep. He took a walk to a neighboring town, and there he wandered, in the middle of the night. He met a man who was out walking as well.

“Who do you work for?” the rabbi asked.

“I work for the city. I am the night watchman. I make sure that everyone is safe. But, you, my friend — who do you work for?”

The rabbi replied: “I am not sure. But, I will tell you this: come work for me, and I will double your salary.”

“Really?” the watchman replied. “What would I have to do?”

“All I ask is that you walk with me, and from time to time, ask me: Who do you work for?”

Shabbat reminds us of the One for Whom we work.

Like I said, I cannot wait to teach that book to our young people at my synagogue.

There you go again, Salkin — corrupting young minds with a social vision of joy, holiness and equality.

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