Reimagining Shabbat Dinner

It’s the late ‘90s in Baltimore, and kid me is mortified at the Shabbat dinner table. My mom works for a Jewish community organization, and we’re at the home of one of her Orthodox colleagues. They have enough kids to fill the seats around their grand dining room table; I’m an only child.

I went to Jewish preschool, and then to Sunday school at my family’s hippie-ish Reconstructionist congregation, so I thought I’d be prepared for this Shabbat dinner. I know that the person lighting the tall candles waves her arms three times, as if gathering the light to her face. I love fluffy challah, and that my mom lets me a have a sip from her glass after blessing the wine.

But tonight is different. I don’t mind that I can’t follow along with the praying that happens after dinner, the whole family bowing their heads in unison. I drink my syrupy grape juice and listen to their melodic prayers. I hold my dad’s hand under the table. But when they start a family discussion of the weekly Torah and haftarah portions, I am lost. And by discussion, I mean the father lobs questions at his kids and they competitively scramble to answer them first, and best. I am a competitive kid too, but I have not the slightest clue what they are talking about.

“You don’t know even that?” the daughter closest to my age whispers to me after an apparently easy question from her dad. She gives me a little shove under the table. The father is looking at me, too. I’m sure I read disgust on his bearded face. His daughter rolls her eyes with venom that only a mean tween can muster. Suddenly I feel woozy with shame.

Back in the car, I cry. My parents try to explain that I am learning other things in school besides the haftarah, that I have plenty of secular knowledge these kids don’t. Still, I feel like an outsider. Like I have somehow failed as a Jew.

* * *

It’s senior year of college. I live in a “Literary Society,” a decrepit, gorgeous brownstone on 114th Street with 16 other Columbia students. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen with its gigantic, crusty, 12-burner stove we call The Vulcan and a family of cockroaches. It’s not the best but it’s what we have. I bake layer cakes with piles of raspberries for my housemates, braise short ribs until the whole place smells of garlic and meat, simmer gumbo with my friend from New Orleans who tells me I’m doing everything wrong until I let her take the lead.

We’re going to graduate in a few months when my friend Clea makes a brilliant discovery. Taglit-Birthright Israel, the program behind Birthright, has an initiative called NEXT, where they PAY US to host friends for Shabbat dinner. It sounds too good to be true. We’re already cooking our hearts out and we’re poor college students, so some cash to subsidize our efforts is a no-brainer and a huge deal. We just have to take some pictures and send to the folks at NEXT. We light candles for good measure. (Sad note: Taglit-Birthright phased out this program in 2014. Happy note: OneTable is an awesome organization that empowers people to host their own Shabbat dinners and even shells out some funds to help, too.)

Senior year is stressful, exciting, and sad. I’m ready to get the hell out of college, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. When I finally get a job, it’s in Pasadena, where I don’t know a soul. These Shabbat dinners are a wonderful distraction, a balm for my anxiety. I lure my friends with free food: roast chicken, stuffed peppers, braised brisket with onions so tender they melt into the bottom of the pan. I channel my life worries into obsession about the perfect crispy-skinned roast fingerling potatoes. I’m 21 now, so I spend the rest of the cash on red wine and cheap bubbly. We light the candles. We light more candles for good measure. My housemates stop by and join us. We play Lily Allen. (There was a lot of Lily Allen in 2009.) Everyone stays until the wine is gone and the candles are only a pile of dripped wax on the big table. By the time the last pots are scrubbed and left to dry, my heart is full.

* * *

It’s nearly 10 years later and I start to host Shabbat dinner again. I’m not inspired by any sort of freebie. There is no liturgy involved. I turned 30 this year. I am engaged to an amazing non-Jewish named Anthony who proved even more amazing after surviving my quirky (to put it mildly) family Passover seder only a few months into our relationship.

We’ll be starting the next chapter of our grownup lives in September when we get married (eeek!). I’ve done a lot of thinking about tradition. I am both a skeptic and hopelessly sentimental. The good part of being an adult is getting to pick the traditions that feel meaningful and right for us… and nix the rest.

For me, gathering with friends and taking a pause from our go-go-go lives to share a meal and light some candles is a pretty great ritual. Usually Anthony picks the (non Lily Allen) music. We’re not kosher, so last time we had friends over for Shabbat we started with fat diver scallops. We set the fire alarm off while searing lamb chops, but they were so rich and fragrant that nobody minded. We tore apart pieces of warm challah and poured our favorite juicy Spanish red wine. For dessert, we all stuck our spoons into a pint of Talenti Black Cherry Gelato, which is the best flavor, promise.

On the seventh day, God rested. I’m still not sure about God, but I am sure about the magic of cooking with friends, the challah that gets used to sop up the last of the balsamic reduction we’ve simmered for the lamb chops, and the twinkly laughter that fills our apartment. These are the highlights of my week, even of my life. Shabbat shalom.

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