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I had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my “Love and Religion” class. We’ve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides “kosher style.” 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, “Chicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lent—we’ll bring fish.” Oh right. It’s Lent! And Shabbat! And he’s Catholic. This IS an interfaith couples’ 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 joy…and eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and that’s antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriend’s 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 Lent—something 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: “Catholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!” I typed in a search in Pinterest: “Challah and fish recipes.”
I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. “Do you know anything about Lent customs?” I asked. “Yes, you don’t eat meat on Fridays,” she said. “But sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.”
Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didn’t know what to do. And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. “Want me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?”
Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?
She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but it’s tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
She responds, “I know of a few places, but there’s not really ‘Catholic fish.’ Catholics eat pretty much anything.”
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!
It’s been a few weeks since the dinner and I’m 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 “How to braid a challah shaped like a fish,” I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and I’m bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.
One of the many lovely things about being a rabbi is you tend to know many other rabbis and when you move to a new place, inevitably you’ve probably got a few colleagues already there, happy to help you create a sense of community. I moved to the Boston area about a month ago and even before I arrived, I had a Shabbat dinner invitation waiting for me. There is a whole culture around Shabbat dinner and depending on how you define yourself, where you live and how you were raised, a good Shabbat dinner can sometimes trump any other Shabbat ritual. Shabbat dinner is about delicious food and wine, good company, long meandering conversation and hopefully the start to a restful weekend after a long week.
Despite the wide variety of Shabbat dinner traditions across the world, there are two constants: One, the most obvious, is the day of the week—Friday—night and two, the most important, connecting with other people.
So I drove a bit nervously to my Shabbat dinner invitation, wondering how the evening would go. This particular Shabbat dinner was sponsored by a ‘20s and ‘30s group from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, and I was told that there was going to be a big turnout. While you might imagine my comfort level to perhaps be a bit higher than the average Shabbat dinner attendee because I am a rabbi, I believe it is human to be a tad anxious about any new social situation. I wasn’t concerned about knowing the prayers but I was curious about who would be there and what kind of community this would be. Amidst my nerves I was also excited to meet new people, to hear new stories and to feel a part of something bigger than me on Shabbat.
I parked my car, walked to the backyard and the fear and anxiety faded as I was warmly welcomed by some I knew, some I had never met. I met newly married couples, recent college graduates, graduate students, teachers and doctors who all came from very different backgrounds. Some grew up with weekly Shabbat meals with their families, some had never really attended one before. Some diners were synagogue members, some were newly Jewish, some were in love with Jews and some were rabbis! And we all came together on this Friday night and laughed and drank and ate and created our own little community. This Shabbat dinner was a great equalizer for all there because it was shaped by those in attendance, by all of the things that made us unique and all of the things that brought us together. What a wonderful and peaceful way to end the week!
Have you had a particular memorable Shabbat dinner? How do you come together with friends and family to find peace in your life?
There are more and more projects sprouting up around the country to encourage people to have Sabbath meals or Shabbat experiences with others. In the non-Orthodox world, many people who grew up with Judaism or are exploring it as adults do not have a Shabbat practice and so it takes programs to support this new practice people are willing to take on. In fact, as we make spiritual promises and resolutions for our new Jewish year, one of my personal goals is to make more frequent and regular my own family’s Shabbat practice.
Why so much emphasis on “doing Shabbat?” It’s funny because Shabbat is thought to be a cessation of work and adding Shabbat to your routine does take a little planning and organization. However, whatever input is needed, I think the results will feel worthwhile.
Here are my top 5 reasons for why it’s so important to have Shabbat in our lives:
1. Rest: Shabbat is a Hebrew word that comes from the words for rest, sit and pause. This is an ancient nugget of wisdom which is timeless. If we never get off the merry-go-round we get dizzier and dizzier. It’s fun for awhile when we’re whirling and twirling and building speed and laughing and getting things done, but eventually we need to slow it down and gain equilibrium and perspective. Pausing on Friday evening or marking a time apart on Saturday can do this for us.
2. Beauty: We need beauty and poetry in our lives. Sometimes the school/work week seems to make us as efficient, robotic, programmed and structured as possible. These qualities are needed to keep schedules intact and to get everything done, like homework and people to where they are supposed to be. Hopefully, the school day or work day does have moments of creativity, new experiences, closeness, nuance, fun, learning and more which is beautiful, but the week as a whole can feel bland and monotonous. Shabbat is beautiful. The glow of the candles is mesmerizing. Communal prayer can be uplifting. The adorned ritual items like a Kiddush cup or challah cover bring art to the table.
3. Perspective: It’s one thing to say that we should not sweat the small stuff but when so many small things pile up it can feel overwhelming and exhausting. When the car breaks down and you forgot to pack your child’s lunch and your child is having problems with friends at school and you are not seeing eye-to-eye with your co-worker and you need to make the second trip to the pediatrician that week because the first child got strep and now the next one’s ear hurts and you are sleep deprived, and, and, and, (and sometimes there are big, chronic things we are dealing with) it’s easier said than done to keep perspective.
Shabbat doesn’t take away our troubles. Shabbat doesn’t make the woes of our week go away. But it provides us a respite. Even if your respite is only thirty minutes on Friday evening over dinner when the mood feels different and the rituals and prayers usher in a connection to the Sacred, it helps. This time, however brief, takes you out of your own little bubble and brings you a taste of paradise, of perfection. And if we can store up this feeling, this mood, these images, it sweetens the difficulties we endure. And the messages about creation that are woven through a Jewish Sabbath remind us to help create the world we want to live in.
4. Gateway: There is an idea in Judaism that one mitzvah (commandment: often thought of as ethical and ritual living) leads to another. One mitzvah may encourage us or inspire us to learn about and try out another. The more one observes, the more connected one can be to Judaism, to the People, history and culture. I don’t think more is “better” and that there is an ideal way to practice one’s Judaism. However, I do feel that observing Shabbat reminds us of the rubric Judaism provides throughout the whole week to add order, purpose, social justice and awareness to our lives. If we love taking time to observe a Sabbath, then we may also be inclined to wake up each morning listening to Modeh Ani, a prayer exclaiming one’s gratitude for the new day. If we live by the rhythm of the Jewish week and usher in some time of observing Shabbat, we may be inclined to observe Jewish holidays and to see how the sonar-lunar calendar connects us with nature and with history and narratives in powerful ways.
5. Intimacy: Maybe it’s because we are tied to our phones, but many of us crave a time when it feels safe to put the phone away for a minute. We use our phones as distractions, as entertainment, as sources of information, as ways to stay connected and as a safety net for knowing what is happening all the time. I for one like to be able to be reached almost all the time. But, I also love having a moment when I don’t need to hold my phone. For me, that moment is Friday night Shabbat.
The way our Friday nights shake down is that our Sabbath consists of the three main prayers—it doesn’t, incidentally, involve dinner most weeks. This is because my kids usually eat early and my husband is a congregational rabbi. He is often preparing for his services and may grab dinner somewhere before he comes home. Also, we are not foodies. I am not a good cook and I don’t enjoy it. I am working all day on Friday and it’s hard for me to get the family dinner piece together with our schedules. See, I sometimes feel a bit defensive about not basing our Sabbath on the Friday night family/friend dinner.
What we do is we light candles, we say Kiddush (Hebrew word meaning holy referring to the prayer over the fruit of the vine; often wine or grape juice), we eat challah and my favorite part is when we bless our children and each other. I take my kid’s head in my hands and I whisper to them my prayer for them. It is specific and spontaneous. I also say Aaron’s blessing to them. The traditional prayer said to sons and daughters is too gender-binary for my family (this is the topic of another blog). I look at my partner and we soak each other in, what we have, what we hope for; we breathe. We kiss. We hug each other. It is intimate. When we have friends over, we bless one another with our words and we feel each other’s actual presence. When you are alone on Shabbat, this last piece especially, may feel sad or distant. It is not good to be alone on Shabbat. This is why Jewish organizations are working hard and putting resources into creating opportunities for people to find one another over Shabbat.
There are many more reasons to do something to mark the Sabbath each week. Among your Jewish New Year’s resolutions, will adding or creating a Shabbat ritual be among them? If you are not Jewish but you love someone who is Jewish, how does this all feel for you? Let us know what you are thinking about doing or what you already do. When we hear from one another, we get ideas for what we might want to try. Here’s to opening this ancient gift and making it come alive in ways that work for you.