Havdalah on the Porch


During the week, my husband and I are in Zoom meetings much of the day, while our kids are in online school and we scramble to help them. I am grateful we have jobs and can continue to work. I am grateful that we can afford day school so our kids are learning from dedicated teachers who are doing their best to make it work.

But for all of us there is something exhausting about communicating online. It looks like the real thing, but it feels emptier. We yearn for real contact with real people.

When the quarantine began, I heard of people in Italy playing music on their balconies. The trend caught on, with impromptu concerts and singing heard from balconies all over the world. I wanted to do something that would capture some of that spirit

Organizing something for our whole downtown Toronto street seemed daunting. I thought of Havdalah. None of us felt drawn to the numerous online Havdalah services, no matter how tuneful. But we have a few Jewish neighbours and I invited them to join us (with proper social distancing) as we did Havdalah on our porch.

The kids chalked a sign on the sidewalk in case we missed anyone.

I got a folding table and an aluminum tray. We brought out our candle, siddur and grape juice in a non-breakable cup. We were able to find a use for the tiny besamim (spice) bags my cousin Susan made for her daughter Hadar’s bat mitzvah party last November, which we had been ignoring in favour of our larger but more fragile spice boxes. Hadar learned to play singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman’s version of Havdalah for her bat mitzvah, so she brought out the sheet music and her guitar.

Mendelsohn Havdalah on the porch
Aurora Mendelsohn and her family (top left) enjoy Havdalah on the porch with neighbours.

Our neighbours down the road, whom we know well, came with their two girls and their own havdalah kit. Our next-door neighbours came out too. Even our non-Jewish neighbours across the way, who spends their days making meals for healthcare workers, stepped out on their porch and tried to hum along.

By the second week, it was clear this would be a tradition we’d all be keeping until the end of the quarantine. I told everyone, that when it is over, we’ll have everyone over for Havdalah — inside our house.

Unlike Zoom, Havdalah engages all five senses. We feel and see the heat of the flame. We taste the wine. We hear the prayers and smell the fragrant spices.

Havdalah is supposed to mark the transition from the holiness of Shabbat to the ordinariness of the rest of the week. Last week, looking out over our porch at everyone singing, I think we were able to hold on to the holiness for just a little bit longer.

Aurora Mendelsohn is an administrator at the University of Toronto and lives downtown with her husband and three children. She writes about Judaism, feminism and parenting at the blog Rainbow Tallit Baby.