Beth Ricanati and Tiffany Shlain, authors of Braided: A Journey of A Thousand Challahs and 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week respectively, talk about mindfulness, self-care, and setting up personal boundaries all through the lens of Judaism. They discuss the ritual and spirituality of taking one day a week to reconnect with yourself and your family.
Beth Ricanati: Sitting and waiting for my turn to present Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs for consideration to become a Network Author with JBC, I was surrounded by fifty or so other authors. What a treat to listen to everyone briefly present their books. When it was your turn, Tiffany, I found myself on the edge of my seat: here was my doppleganger in books! Here was someone writing about something near and dear to my heart, so similar to Braided and yet so different. While I looked at Shabbat and finding presence and slowing down through making challah, you looked at the same themes through the lens of technology in your upcoming book, 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. I couldn’t wait to meet you afterwards; I knew we’d have so much to talk about! I knew that I wanted to write about what I had learned making challah after several years of doing this every Friday – there were just so many lessons that I had come to appreciate and felt were likely universal. When did you realize that you had a book in the making, too?
Tiffany Shlain: I felt the same way when I heard you speak, my literary challah-making soul sister! We both found presence in the rituals of Shabbat, making challah each Friday morning, and then, for me and my family, a full day with no screens for what we call our Technology Shabbat. I also found it interesting that we had both written our books after doing these practices for a decade, a solid stretch of time — long enough to change one’s life. I loved reading your book and getting elbow-deep into thinking about the therapeutic and soulful nature of making challah. It does force you to breathe, to slow down, to push and pull the dough, to smell, to wait as it rises. It becomes the best way to set the stage for a full day of presence, family, and enjoying the best parts of life.
BR: I loved reading early on in 24/6 that your tech shabbat is a ‘twenty-first-century interpretation of the ancient Jewish ritual of a weekly day of rest.’ I feel, too, that my interpretation of making challah each week and saying the blessing over the dough is also a 21st century interpretation. After all, some weeks I have the requisite 5 pounds of flour that makes this blessing halakhic, and most weeks I don’t. But I still do the blessing; I feel it still matters. I felt so connected to your work when I realized that we shared this similar belief of making an ancient ritual work for anyone in today’s modern world.
TS: Yes! I used to feel that taking a full day of Shabbat wasn’t available to me because I wasn’t Orthodox. The more I learn about these longstanding rituals and practices, the more I understand the power and beauty in them. They have lasted so long for a reason. They’re gifts from our ancestors waiting for us to engage with them. I feel that way about many Jewish ideas and wrestling with how to think about them in our modern age is what our people do best. It’s part of our nature and character.
BR: Judaism goes to great lengths to codify character strengths; we study, discuss, debate them. I didn’t realize at first when I wanted to share the lessons that I had learned making challah every week that, in fact, what I was really articulating were in fact some of these strengths. That you too write about this from a different lens just reinforced the universality of them for me. And I love that both of us look forward to returning week after week to these behaviors of ours in part because of the opportunity to be reminded and to relearn these strengths. In addition to experiencing this though on Shabbat, do you find yourself thinking about these strengths during the week, maybe implementing what you appreciate about them during Shabbat on a different day?
TS: Yes. I am so glad you brought that up. The full day of Shabbat is a beautiful time to focus on developing our best character strengths — strengths like patience, perspective, appreciation of beauty, humor, curiosity, empathy, I could go on and on! You also end up thinking about them more the other 6 days. I become more conscious of when I need to dial up or down these strengths, and for me that usually involves putting the smartphone away so I can be more present. Smartphones seem to draw all of our attention. When we turn them off for Tech Shabbat, it feels like I’m just more present. The other days of the week, when I realize I am feeling too distracted and far away from the character strengths I value, I know that turning off my phone can help.
BR: I didn’t set out to write a book with such a focus on Jewish ritual, but much like a challah itself, I found that I was braiding together not only my story, but the history of challah and also some self-help and how to knowledge. As a reform Jewish girl, and no I know that I identify more as a conservative Jewish woman, I realized as I was writing Braided that I did not know the history of challah. I especially gravitated towards the opportunity for blessing while making challah: first, to make the dough in the merit of someone, then to bless a piece of the dough— “separation of the challah” —once the dough has risen and just before braiding and baking, and then to say the blessing over the challah at dinner just before eating it. As I think about it now, making challah weekly has strengthened my connection to my faith — both from the actual practice of making bread weekly and also from learning more about the history behind the behavior.
TS: I love that you jumped into the whole challah-magillah! I learned so much about challah reading your book. You can really feel how the very act of making challah each week for you was like the yeast of your faith rising and growing. So beautiful. I personally don’t frame it as faith, but completely appreciate everyone who does and I also feel that practicing Shabbat has grown my appreciation for all Jewish rituals, and the ideas around Shabbat. Most of my love for Judaism comes from the practices, ideas, and ethics. And I have great appreciation for everyone however they define their Jewishness. And of course I have major appreciation for the power of making challah. That’s the one recipe I have in my book: our long-experimented with “Everything Challah” Recipe. I think you and I need to do a Challahpaloozah North American tour inviting all the challah makers or want-to-be challah makers to come and gather around this incredible life-affirming ritual. Because, as we both have learned… all you knead is love.
BR: It’s fabulous, right, that we’ve got a weekly built-in self-care practice in Judaism that has been around for so long. Self-care is such a commonplace buzzword now. It is so important to have practices of self-care, whatever they may be. We know this intuitively and certainly the research backs it up. I see so many people struggle with this concept though, unable to sometimes figure out how to incorporate this. I like how I feel after I make challah, and I imagine you have some of those same feelings after turning off your phone weekly: unplugging, with my hands in a bowl of dough, just lets me plug in more fully the rest of the week!
TS: Yes. I completely agree. Self-care is the term today but perhaps Shabbat was really the mothership on that concept. One of my goals with my book 24/6, is to make the word “Shabbat” and “Tech Shabbat” something that everyone feels they can engage with and to really own that term as the bigger philosophy of taking a day each week to be different from all other days — whether that’s making challah or also taking a day off of screens or doing all the different forms of observing Shabbat. We are living in a 24/7 society where everyone is available and accessible to everything and everyone all the time. I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone. I think we need to reestablish a boundary of our presence — what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so beautifully describes as a “Palace in Time.” So much of Judaism is about creating structures for living a meaningful and purposeful life. I think that one day to reflect and be present with yourself and those you love — to learn away from the distractions — is an important part of that. In my book 24/6, I go into the history of the day of rest, time on and time off, and the science and philosophy on how good it is to have one day off each week for you mind, body, and soul.
BR: So I have to tell you, Tiffany, that last weekend, I did it — and unplugged for one day! For one full day, I turned my phone off just prior to Shabbat and kept it off again until after dinner on Saturday night. Ok, in the spirit of full disclosure, I peeked twice on Saturday to make sure that our kids hadn’t been trying to reach me — they weren’t! — but I didn’t do more than press the button to see if a call had come through. It was a revelatory experience: I felt light; I slept more soundly; I went deep with others quickly when we spoke. While I feel most days to be trading in superficialities, this day felt different. And, I must admit, it was easy because I was in a community that day that was wholly unplugged. I marvel, Tiffany, how you have managed to do this for so long ‘in the real world.’ Has it been difficult to find support among those around you who are not unplugged?
TS: I am so happy you tried it! It is so life changing. Doing it for a decade with my family has been transformative. Our 16- and 10-year-old daughters love it too. I now rush towards Friday night longing to be in that unplugged space. And then on Saturday night, we are all ready to go back online. It has a dual effect of both loving the unplugged world and appreciating all that we can do online, each week. But back to your question, how have we managed to do this so long. The answer is: it is literally our favorite day of the week. It’s not what we don’t get, but all we get back. We’re not completely cut off. We have a landline so if people need to reach us they can call us on that, but really it is about not being available to everyone and everything. I love that part. For one day, we regroup and recreate some boundaries for ourselves and our family. There is a process of how to communicate that and how to get everyone around you on board — partners, kids, bosses, etc. I go into all of that in the book. Now all of our close family and friends know, and many of them are around our Shabbat table on Friday night — without their phones. Do you think you can your whole family on board to try it with you?
BR: That, Tiffany, is the million-dollar question! I would love to get our whole family on board, and realistically, we are slowly moving there. When the kids were younger, we were much better about not having any technology on Friday nights and that has slowly ebbed. We are great about no phones anywhere near Shabbat dinner, but we have restarted the conversation regarding no technology at least for Friday nights. Our kids definitely appreciate the benefit of no phones, and all talk fondly of sleep-away camp when they went for a month with no technology. I think it will be possible, as the pendulum swings both ways and they are once again appreciating the boundaries.
TS: For the publication of the book on September 24th, we’re inviting people and families to try turning off screens for a Tech Shabbat for four Shabbats in a row. We are going to make it fun and provide a lot of resources — what to do, how to convince partners, kids, bosses etc. This will be the big focus for a global event my film studio hosts called Character Day: on the neuroscience and social science of how to develop one’s character. Last year we had over 200,000 groups join us. This year the big focus will be on screen use and your character asking this question: when does being on screens enhance your character and when does it diminish it? How does turning off screens, turn on the best parts of you? (People can find out more at 24SixLife.com or CharacterDay.org.) Beth, I would love for you and your family to join us and all readers here to try it en masse with us. Everything is more fun when you do it with others.
Now Beth, the tagline to your book is A Journey of a Thousand Challahs. Now that you have been out with your book Braided for over a year, during that journey—what has been the most interesting thing you have learned or heard from people as you have shared ideas from the book?
BR: Not only are readers sending me pictures of their beautiful challah creations, so much so that I’ve put them up on a gallery on my website, but in addition, I have been so moved by readers’ stories that they share either in person, at presentations, and events, or directly through emails and messages. They speak of certain lessons in the book as they pertain to what is going on in their lives at the moment. For example, a reader with cancer connected to the message of needing to slow down and be present. She made challah with others once she was able to after her treatment. Life can be stressful, and having ways to manage that is essential: whether it’s making challah or turning off technology, we need to be reminded of this and readers continue to share with me how Braided has helped them remember this.
I’m excited to see the response you receive when 24/6 comes out this Fall. I anticipate some fascinating stories from your readers!
TS: To braiding challah and unplugging weekly for a more meaningful life!
Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, founder of the Webby Awards, and author of the national bestselling book 24/6: Giving up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection, winner of the Marshall McLuhan Outstanding Book Award. She lectures and performs worldwide on the relationship between technology and humanity. The Museum of Modern Art in New York premiered her one woman “Spoken Cinema” performance Dear Human at the start of 2020. Her films include the “The Tribe: The Unorthodox, unauthorized history of the Barbie doll & the Jewish people…in 18 minutes” and “The Making of a Mensch.” Shlain has received over 80 awards and distinctions for her films and work, including selection for the Albert Einstein Foundation’s initiative Genius:100 Visions for the Future, and inclusion on NPR’s list of Best Commencement Speeches. For information on her work, visit tiffanyshlain.com and follow Tiffany on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Dr. Beth Ricanati is a physician, speaker and the author of Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.