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I had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my âLove and Religionâ class. Weâve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides âkosher style.â Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.
Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, âChicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lentâweâll bring fish.â Oh right. Itâs Lent! And Shabbat! And heâs Catholic. This IS an interfaith couplesâ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?
Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joyâŚand eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and thatâs antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriendâs tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.
I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lentâsomething about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)
I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: âCatholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!â I typed in a search in Pinterest: âChallah and fish recipes.â
I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. âDo you know anything about Lent customs?â I asked. âYes, you donât eat meat on Fridays,â she said. âBut sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.â
Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didnât know what to do.Â And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. âWant me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?â
Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?
She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: Itâs one of those things thatâs not necessary but itâs tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
She responds, âI know of a few places, but thereâs not really âCatholic fish.â Catholics eat pretty much anything.â
Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.
I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
Itâs been a few weeks since the dinner and Iâm happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling âHow to braid a challah shaped like a fish,â I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and Iâm bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.