Saturday, July 10, 2010

Shabbat Shalom! (Why I Might Steal from Jewish People)

Last night Alaska and I were invited by a friend of mine to a Shabbat BBQ in the Victorian Flatbush section of Brooklyn. It being our first Shabbat anything-at-all, on our drive over Alaska asked, "So...what exactly is a Shabbat dinner?" The best I could guess was, "Well, I think maybe it's just like any other dinner on a Friday night, except that the people hosting it happen to be Jewish?"

Well, maybe not just like any other dinner. For starters, there were at least 20 people there—family, friends, students, friends of friends. People were bustling through the house, dropping off their contributions to the meal, catching up on their travels, hugging each other, and meeting for the first time as if it's perfectly normal to have multiple strangers show up at your house for dinner.

Then came the meal. The host gathered us all to the table, made sure every cup was filled with wine, and said "If you know it, say it. If you don't know it, fake it!," and launched into a Hebrew blessing (Kiddush). Then came Motzi, the blessing over the big fat delicious challah bread, as our host ripped off a piece and passed it around the table. Then there was clapping and singing (more Hebrew) and a prayer over the meal, interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell and the arrival of more guests [laughter... someone shouts "It's Elijah!"... more laughter]. OK, so far not really like the BBQs that Alaska and I throw on our deck.

It turns out the hosts are Messianic Jews, and I gather that the guests for these weekly suppers range from secular and/or observant Jews to Protestant Christians to Israelis to neighbors to basically anybody who shows up. Yep, just your average Friday night dinner. We fill our plates and eat, while everyone goes around the table to say the best thing that happened to them this week. In my case, it's a tie between serving a hand-picked homemade blueberry pie to my in-laws at Lake Chautauqua and the flood of kindness from friends, family, and colleagues following a painful day at work on Wednesday. After we'd eaten (and more people showed up), the host presented the weekly Torah reading and subsequent lesson. The lesson? Oaths. Keeping your word, with wise words from the host: "Anymore, I don't say 'yes' often. And I don't say 'no' often. I just listen."

Following sweet words, the sweets: two kinds of ice cream, cake, watermelon, blueberries, cookies. This gluten-free girl will holla this weekend for partaking of all that amazing challah. (What was I going to do? Turn it away? There were hot melting choc-o-late chips in it.)

And, by the way, the Christian "supper" rituals, compared to the Shabbat dinner, are like artifacts air-lifted out of an ancient culture, removed from context, buffed, and sanitized of their original meaning. Growing up in church, when they "...took bread, and blessed it, and brake it..." and "...took the cup, and gave thanks...," that bread was not bread for eating and that grape juice was not for drinking. It had nothing to do with sharing a meal, rather it was a formal and eerily silent event for private introspection. In that sense, it's like if people in Asia started incorporating American dinner rituals into their religious services:

"And he didst take the remote control, turn off the TV, and say unto his wife: 'This is the take-out menu, given to you.'" [Officiant in suit or robes points token remote control at token TV and waves token take-out menu toward stony congregants.]

But experiencing that ritual in the context that it was intended, as part of a lively meal shared with friends and family, is a whole other thing. Conclusion: Shabbat dinners are awesome and I want them for my very own. In my new family (of two), I've tried instituting a tradition of shared meals—usually Monday night soup nights for friends in the Winter aided hugely by my Mom's gift of a fabulous crock pot (Thanks, Mom!)—but these meals lack the depth of a shared cultural meaning. Still, I'm onto this whole food thing. I'm going to figure it out and it's going to be important.

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