Low-Stress Shabbat Dinner

I like to invite my students to Shabbat dinner at my home. It’s a low-stress way for them to experience the rituals of Shabbat, and a chance to just hang out and chat. It’s also a chance for me to meet their families, if they choose to include them.

However, there are challenges. Many of my students are vegetarians or vegans, so the menu needed to account for that. I needed a main dish that everyone could enjoy and that wasn’t too expensive. I finally settled on something that was a treat for me, and a novelty for many Californians: Hoppin’ John, a dish of black eyed peas and rice, seasoned with onions and spices, and with an assortment of hot sauces on the table for those who enjoy a little heat.

I needed to keep the work to a reasonable level. Cooking a big meal for as many as twenty people was just too much for me, so I make the rest of the meal potluck. For side dishes and desserts, I ask the students to bring a dish if they can.

I buy the challah from a local bakery. I could make it, but I’m hoarding my energy to play host later in the evening, remember?

The table is deliberately simple: white cloth, plates, silverware, candlesticks, challah plate and cover. Cups for wine or grape juice. Matches where I can find them.

Once people begin to arrive, the evening pretty much runs itself. They are excited to see one another, and curious to see what everyone brought. Some enjoy rummaging through the hot sauce tray, looking for interesting things. We light candles, I make kiddush, we make motzi, and we have a lovely meal. At the end, we bless and clean up. I send leftovers home with anyone who wants (thank goodness for Ziplock bags) and by then I am ready to fall into bed!

It’s not hard. It need not be a production. Why not call some friends and give it a try?

A Post During Shabbat?

Sometimes I debate leaving messages here to post over Shabbat. I worry that I’m sending the wrong message about Shabbat, that I’m encouraging people to use the computer or to work on the holy day.

However, this blog isn’t for the talmid chacham (the person very wise in the life of Torah.) I like to have something scheduled to post for the person who is alone and lonely over Shabbat, and for the newcomer to Judaism who isn’t organized for Shabbat quite yet. Maybe Shabbat has been working on your heart to bring you to look for Jewish content during this time, or maybe you know it is Shabbat and you’re interested and don’t know what to do.

And of course, some of you will find it after Shabbat is over, and that’s fine too.

Feel free to browse around. I’ve got some messages marked “Especially for Beginners” (see drop-down menu to the right on your screen) and those may be particularly helpful. Just make yourself at home.

I hope that you have a blessed Shabbat, whatever that means for you right now, wherever you are in your own personal Jewish journey. You’re welcome here.

Shabbat Shalom!

Be a GREAT Shabbat Dinner Guest!

You’re going to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner.  Perhaps you are worried: what’s expected?  Here are five suggestions to help you be a great Shabbat dinner guest:

1.  ASK QUESTIONS:  Every family has their own customs about Shabbat dinner.  Some are very formal, some equally informal.  Asking a few questions ahead of time is essential.

What should I wear?  Dress will differ from household to household, so ask.  You don’t want to be the only one at the table in blue jeans, or in pearls, for that matter!

May I bring anything?  The answer to that may be “Yes, bring —-” or it may be “just yourself!”  If you are asked to bring something, be sure and ask if they would like it to be kosher, or if there are any restrictions you should know about:  allergies, etc.  Better to ask than to show up with something lethal, right?  And even if the answer is “just yourself” it is nice to show up with flowers.  Not required, but nice.

Finally, it is fine to ask questions about the prayers, the food, or the objects you see as the evening progresses.    Some things (a kiddush cup, for example, or a recipe) may come with family stories.

2.  BE ON TIME.  Your hosts may be juggling the hour of sundown, service times at their synagogue, hungry toddlers or other variables.  Shabbat dinner is not a time to be “fashionably late.” I cannot over-stress this: be on time!

3.  DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW.  The dinner may begin with candle lighting and blessings over wine and bread.  If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe.  If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” (ah-MAYN) at the end of prayers.

Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew. No one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner! There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew. As for singing, if you don’t know the words, or don’t sing much, that’s OK.  Enjoy the singing and don’t stress over it.

4.  COMMUNICATE!  Shabbat dinner is not just about food.  It is also about taking time to enjoy one another’s company. Treat each person at the table as if you expect to learn something important from them. Contribute to the conversation when you have something to say. In many Jewish households, friendly dispute is welcome at the table, but keep the tone friendly! Off color jokes and off color language are completely out of place at the Shabbat dinner table. When in doubt, save it for another time.

5.  SAY THANK YOU.  Write your host afterward and thank them for including you.  Email is common these days, but if you would like to make the best possible impression, a written note is best. When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!

No Nagging Shabbat

So you have heard about Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. What you heard sounded very good, but the logistics are intimidating: no cooking, no electricity on and off, no work of any kind, no electronics. You look at your family and wonder how you are going to sell them on this idea.

Stop. Let me tell you about how I began to keep Shabbat more than 20 years ago.

It was about the time I began to study for conversion to Judaism. My enthusiasm was building, even though the other members of my family weren’t interested in going to services. I wanted to have some Shabbat at home, too.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. Their rooms were disaster areas, they preferred wearing old rags to clothes, they were not industrious students, and I felt responsible for them.  There were a number of areas where it seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted to take a break from it, I wanted them to take a break from it, and I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.'” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

Shabbat Shalom: A Visit to Kehilla

Today was an especially sweet Shabbat, exactly when I needed it.

My dear friend Rabbi Robin Podolsky is visiting town, and we joined up to attend services at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland this morning. Their website proclaims:

Kehilla is a community of social progressives and spiritual seekers:a  participatory, musical, celebratory and democratic congregation of all ages, identities and family constellations.

I have experienced them as a Renewal community that is serious about both social action and spiritual growth, and it was a treat to daven with them this morning. We didn’t quite have a minyan (a lot of the regulars were away at an event) but the prayer was nevertheless sweet and the Torah study led by Rabbi David Cooper was inspiring. Our welcome from all attendees was warm and very personal.

It was a particular pleasure to learn with Rabbi Cooper, since he was one of my first teachers of Torah, back when he was the proprietor of Afikomen bookstore in Berkeley. I was exploring Judaism, not yet ready to talk to a rabbi. He was just a bookstore guy, as far as I knew, and he had a knack for picking out good reading for me. Those books are still in my library; many of them have been lent again and again to other explorers.

At the simple kiddush meal following the service we chatted about lots of things, then Rabbi Cooper gave us a tour of the newly-decorated sanctuary and we chatted for a bit about the Pope’s new encyclical Laudato Si. Then I returned Robin to the home where she is staying and I returned home to a nice Shabbat shluff [nap.]

So, nu, how was your Shabbos?

A Little Twitter Trick

Busy day ahead! I am meeting other members of the Social Action Committee from my congregation to sort donations at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. I think we’ll do a little bit of good and have a nice time. Then meeting my son for lunch, then getting ready for Shabbat. I suspect this was my one chance at a blog post, so here I am.

I have learned a new trick – if you use Twitter, try searching for the name of the weekly Torah portion, which you can get at the Hebcal Jewish Calendar site. Go there, and look at the top of the page for the link to the weekly portion. (That link will take you to a directory of various ways to access the portion.) Now go back to Twitter, and search on the name of the portion, with or without a hashtag.  Voilá: Links to many current posts about the portion!

This works better the closer we get to Friday.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Wonders of Shabbat

There is a Jewish mystical tradition that holds that every Shabbat a Jew receives a neshamah y’teyrah, an extra soul. The first time I heard that, I thought it sounded excessive: I have my hands full with the soul I’ve got.

The concept of the extra soul holds that on Shabbat, we are given extra capacity because of the holiness of the day and the opportunity for learning Torah. Torah study is not just an intellectual activity, although it is certainly that. It also has the power to transform our souls. Traditionally, study on Shabbat is even more powerful: we can take in more Torah than on an ordinary day, and the Torah we take in is more potent than usual.

I confess that I’m a rational little person, and I don’t know how seriously I can take all that. If someone asked me to locate for them the mind or the soul I would have no idea where to look. I think of the mind as attached to my head and the soul to my heart, but I have no evidence for either. (Nor does it explain why I feel sick to my stomach when I feel guilt.)

However, I do experience something different about Shabbat, something that I cannot simply move to a different day. Those who are mystical will have their explanations of that, and I have my own. For me, Shabbat is the time when we, the Jewish People, build that “cathedral of time” that Rabbi Heschel wrote about in The Sabbath. Whether it is given from above or created by human beings, there is power in the intentional pause that so many Jews make as the sun sets on Friday. We stop and take a collective breath, and then for 25 hours, we simply are.

Any individual can opt out, of course, and many do. Many Jews go on to work, or to sporting events, or to the shopping mall, and they don’t feel that they are missing anything. There are Jews who have experienced Shabbat, but for whom it has been marked with the stink of deprivation (“No, you may not listen to the game,” “No, you may not color,” “No, you may not make mud pies!”) and for them, being able to make or do is an expression of freedom their Jewish souls crave.

Anyone who has read this blog for long knows that I think there are many ways to be Jewish. When I think of the world on Shabbat, I think of the vast sphere of the planet revolving on its axis, and as it turns, candles light in Jerusalem in some homes. In other homes, in Tel Aviv, music plays on the radio as people enjoy their dinner. In London, a group gathers for Kabbalat Shabbat, and somewhere in Dublin, another Jew meets friends at a pub. A little later, as the sun sets in New York City, a young adult group meets for potluck in Manhattan while Chabadnikim walk home from shul with dinner guests in Brooklyn. In Cincinnati, Kabbalat Shabbat begins at the Plum Street Temple; in Denver, young families gather for Tot Shabbat. An hour later, in Berkeley, a group parks on the street near Urban Adamah where they come for singing, and prayers, and dinner; afterwards, they’ll drive home. And even later, on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, a few Jews light Shabbat candles and welcome the Sabbath Queen on the beach. And some simply watch the sunset and marvel at the wonder of it all.

It’s all Shabbat, and it is all authentic and good. What will happen in your life when the sun goes down for Shabbat this week? Whatever it is, I wish you Shalom.