This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2009
Finally, the rush and tumble of preparations ceased and all was still. Even I was still. I gazed up at her, enchanted. Her dark velvet robe was the cloak of a queen, her hair hidden away in a turban of gold thread. Surely the tensions of the week must have weighed on her, but I didn’t see it. Across the room the graceful silhouette of her shadow danced on the wall. I turned as she breathed deeply and straightened, rising to her full height.
Even with her eyes closed, she was not afraid to reach out to the fire. Small flames that she had coaxed into being with her own hands wavered before her. In the tiny lights I saw my own image, entranced. I watched silently and wondered. Her beautiful face was hidden from me, enigmatic and unknowable. With her eyes closed, she whispered fervently. What words she spoke behind her hands, I didn’t know, although I strained to hear. Maybe she spoke a blessing, a hope, an entreaty. Perhaps she just gave thanks for the soft silence and for the peace that prevailed.
I stood at her elbow, cloaked in my own small robe, half hidden in her shadow. I had no power over fire, no majesty, no grace. I was only a child. But I knew even then that one day this would be my province, too. I watched and I learned. She was mistress over white cloth and silver vases, fine china and flowery blooms. Undaunted, her hands swam before the flickering flames, close but never touching, always in control. Sure, capable hands, they banished evil forces from our home and gathered in the goodness. I thought the power and the holiness of the day flowed through her fingertips.
The fire wavered wildly before my eyes but I was emboldened by her nearness, mesmerized by the spell she cast. I wondered: Where did she learn this graceful dance of fingers and fire, hand and heat? Once, twice, three times she commanded the invisible forces. Her mother and her grandmother and her great grandmother, righteous women all, had done this before her. And then it was finished. Her hands fell gently, like a veil, from her face, the pure light of the fire in her eyes. She leaned down to me. “Good Shabbos, Yael,” my mother whispered, and I felt her soft kiss on my forehead, like a benediction.
Today, I stand before the flames. The work of an entire week has unraveled me. Now, finally, the rush and tumble of preparations cease and all is still. Even I am still. There is no shrieking phone, no pounding footsteps, the house itself is hushed in deference to this moment of transcendence. I stand motionless, clearing the turmoil of the week from my mind. I think of my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother before me. I reach inside myself for their grace and strength. Slowly, I exhale, releasing the week in a sigh. Then I straighten, and cover my face with my hands. My words give welcome to a queen.
I speak the prayers now. For my own and for others. For health and happiness and peace. And for secret things, private thoughts spoken only before this fire. Silently, I implore that the week brings me the grace and majesty of my mother.
Outside, darkness is falling like a velvet cloak. I call to the tiny lights. The flames that I have made waver in front of my closed eyes but my hands are unafraid. I beckon to the light and it comes. I wave and it leans back. In this moment, I have dominion over fire. My hands move smoothly, spreading the gentle peace. In the prism of the fire the image of my own face is reflected, transformed by the heat and purity of the flame. I am the mistress of this moment. My face is hidden and my hair is hidden. Only my hopes and dreams are revealed.
It is done. My hands fall softly like a veil from my face. In my rich velvet robe and turban of gold thread, I emerge majestic and serene. “Good Shabbos, Atara,” I whisper and I lean to kiss my small daughter’s forehead. Like a benediction.
Yael Zoldan is a freelance writer and author of the popular children’s book, We Can Do Mitzvos from Aleph to Tav (Feldheim, 2009) and When I Daven (Feldheim, 2011), which helps small children understand and enjoy their daily prayers.