Life & Culture

I couldn't cope without Shabbat

Rachel Creeger: combining Shabbat and showbiz


As a freelance writer, director and comedy performer, who used to be a social worker, I have always been a bit of a workaholic. I've often had multiple jobs or roles which involve a large amount of prep. Now working in theatre and especially comedy, I'm often busy both day and night, including weekends. I'm writing, rehearsing, marketing, watching gigs, running gigs, watching plays, directing plays, meeting people about projects, panicking about having no projects... As you'd imagine, some days it's hard to find a moment to clear my head, let alone quality time with my husband and kids.

I'm hugely grateful to my cultural heritage for one particular thing, and that is Shabbat. Whether I am on tour, at the Edinburgh Fringe, at home or with family and friends, Shabbat is a priority. Every week, I go analogue for 25 hours.

As soon as I unplug myself from the world my brain is free to explore other thoughts. I get brilliant ideas that rarely stick in my head until I can get them on paper, which can be excruciating. I've been known to teach my husband lyrics or get everyone at the table to commit to remembering a punchline until Shabbat ends. (The last one was "guinea pig of grief" but I have no recollection of the set-up - the comedy world must be weeping with disappointment.)

My family do the same, switching off entirely. So during Shabbat we have no distractions and we just hang out. Sometimes with friends and relatives, sometimes just the four of us. No internet or video games. No social media, phones or tablets. The TV is off. With an almost-teen and a recent graduate in his first job, this is an utter delight. They talk to us about their week and their lives. We laugh. A lot. We play board games and eat together.

From the second my spoonful of chicken soup hits my mouth I know that I am in that special zone and I can feel myself unwind. Without it, I could never cope with my working life.

Once a week, we actually get the best of each other

Traditionally Shabbat is compared to a bride or a queen, and we get ready for our weekly royal visit by showering, putting on smart or special clothes, cleaning the house and preparing delicious meals. So once a week, we actually get the best of each other. Our full attention, our spruced-up selves, quality time. I guess it's like a family date night where we remember that we're each other's favourite people.

I grew up in Essex, in a traditional family who became progressively more observant. Like many of us, my feelings towards the strictures of religion have fluctuated over the years. In my teens, I found a big peer group within local B'nei Akiva, and my Shabbat experiences became very social, often the highlight of my week. I'm not sure that I appreciated the religious aspect of it at the time, but perhaps this positive experience connected to relaxing with my friends is part of what integrated it into my heart and soul.

I imagine it would be quite different as a teen now, where so much socialising takes place on WhatsApp and Facebook. I think my secondary school-aged child finds that part more challenging, knowing that on the massive instant messaging groups he's part of, other kids

will have posted hundreds of (nonsensical) messages while he's been at shul.

Being religious is deeply unfashionable in my industry but I think I've made it my 'thing' by incorporating matchy headscarves into my look, sharing those Yiddish and Hebrew words that fit a situation like no others, and being that one who not only brings her own food but cooks for everyone else at any opportunity. My peers often ask me questions about Judaism and Israel, it can feel like a huge responsibility to perhaps be the only practising Jewish person available to answer them and I have to be clear that I can only represent myself, my own experiences and choices.

I won't lie - there have been times when it's been extremely disappointing having to turn down fantastic opportunities simply because Shabbat observance doesn't fit in with the project.

If a show has an opening night on a Friday or Saturday night, I simply can't do justice to the job of directing it. A cast is a team and needs everyone present for those first performances.

Industry colleagues are often stunned when I explain this, actors in particular seem to be trained to believe that the work comes before everything, they all have stories about what they have sacrificed for a role - weddings, funerals, you name it. They often admit that they didn't believe that I wouldn't be there on Friday night until they saw that I really wasn't there.

The first time that I felt really conflicted about missing out due to Shabbat was when my first full-length show, Staffroom, opened at the Tristan Bates Theatre in the West End, for a week's run ending on a Saturday night. By that time, having toured and previewed with the same lovely cast and crew, they understood my life quite well. Just before I lit my candles they sent me a message to say that everything was set and everyone was fine, and that they would let me know how it went. After havdalah I discovered an almost minute by minute report had been emailed by the technician so that I could still feel as if I'd been part of the show.

This summer I had an interesting Shabbat during the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I was in a flatshare with seven other performers and teams from different shows, and I was the only Jewish person keeping Shabbat and kashrut amongst a really motley crew.

I had my own little cupboard in the kitchen and shelf in the fridge, and brought utensils with me as

I always do. No one was home when I lit my candles, made kiddush and hamotzi, and ate my Shabbat dinner. It was a real oasis in the chaos

of the fringe. Later on, my flatmates returned from their respective shows and I shared some challah around. Then award winning mentalist Doug Segal read my mind a couple of times and we discussed how belief affects people.

There have actually been some opportunities that have presented themselves because of my Shabbat observance. I have been invited to speak to diverse groups all over the country about Jewish faith and culture, which is a real privilege. I recently spent Shabbat in Birmingham where they were honouring the women of their community with a special weekend. For Shabbat UK I am heading back to the land of my origins and speaking at Woodford Forest Synagogue, where they have a fantastic programme planned which I am excited to be part of.

People often comment that I post more Facebook statuses (stati?) than most people they know. They're probably just as grateful to have a 25-hour break from my constant play/gig plugs as I am for the day of rest. Saturday cold-callers have to find someone else who has recently had an accident or won a trip to the Caribbean. If the National Theatre or the Comedy Store suddenly find themselves with a me-shaped gap, it's tough luck. I am keeping Shabbat.

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