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Part of what makes being Jewish special is that every week you are given the gift of Shabbat. It is a day set apart from all others to do with as you please--to rest, reflect, celebrate, study, to enjoy the company of family and friends. When this gift is given to you all of a sudden, how do you make it part of your life in a meaningful way? One way in which I have found to make Shabbat an enjoyable and significant part of my life is to celebrate Shabbat dinner with the same group of friends once a month.
Two years ago, I took my Introduction to Judaism class with about 40 other people--some couples considering interfaith marriages, some Jewish individuals wanting to learn more about how to live their religion more fully, and some people like me, as part of the conversion process. There were eight of us who sat together for the two-and-a-half hour session every Monday night: Michelle and Jim, a couple preparing for an interfaith marriage; Steve and Mary Catherine, an interfaith couple expecting their first child; Michael and Jacque, an interfaith dating couple; Marta, the daughter of a former Catholic nun and a Jew, who wanted to explore Judaism for herself; and me, a single woman preparing to convert to Judaism.
As was familiar to more than one of us from junior high school, we were known in class as the talkative table. A constant stream of commentary, stories, questions, arguments, and jokes flowed among us and out to the rabbis and the other students. Our enthusiasm for the material, and for each other, was apparent. When the six-month course was over, we felt happy to have our Monday nights back, but reluctant to give up something that had started to seem like a mini-tradition. We decided to have a Shabbat dinner together at Michael and Jacque's house the Friday after class ended, and we have made a dinner together one Shabbat a month ever since.
We do most of the planning via email, alternate hosting and take turns bringing wine, salads, desserts and, of course, challah, of which we are all serious connoisseurs. At first, we took turns on who said which blessing, but we have settled into a bit of a routine: Michelle and I bless the candles, we all chant Kiddush, and the guys say the motzi, the blessing of the bread. Along the way, we have practiced our Hebrew, shared stories of Shabbats growing up, and extracted bits of crucial Shabbat information from each other (Example: Why is the challah covered? So it won't be jealous that it is blessed last!)
Our Shabbat friendship has pushed happily outside its bounds, as these things will do. I share season Red Sox seats with Jim and his family; Steve recently gave them some crucial help in buying their first home. Michelle and Mary Catherine are both social workers and are able to relate to the frustrations and triumphs of each other's work. I was the backup ketubah, or marriage contract, signer at Michelle and Jim's wedding, in case a friend coming from Europe couldn¹t make it. I was honored to be considered for this important job and thrilled that I could accept the responsibility of witnessing their marriage.
Over the past year, we have had culinary highs (Michael's brisket) and lows (the night I ordered pizzas), as well as emotional ones. The birth of Steve and Mary Catherine's baby, Max, last summer, gave us all much joy, as well as our first new group member. We gave Jim and Michelle an aufruf, or wedding blessing, in October and threw Halloween candy at them in their kitchen. We had a special Hanukkah dinner together, after which my apartment smelled like burning oil for several days. We listened to Max's reminiscent wails as we watched the video of his bris (circumcision) together.
Claiming Shabbat, or the Sabbath, as one's own means creating traditions that make that night and day more meaningful to you. In addition to my dinner group, I attend Friday night Shabbat services regularly and Torah study on Saturday mornings (irregularly!). I occasionally join a friend for challah baking on Friday afternoon and am still experimenting with other ideas: meeting friends for Saturday lunch, not carrying money, meditation. A study session with friends could turn into a favorite pastime: what begins as one dinner may become a lifetime tradition of Friday nights together.
Each time my Shabbat friends and I get together to light candles, recite the blessings over the wine and bread, and eat together, we share the events of our lives and add a little more to our tradition, still new to most of us.Our Shabbat dinners give us time to reflect on our memories and to create new ones, and add a certain continuity for those of us to whom Judaism still feels a bit new.