Escape the Passover Anxiety Trap!

anxiety

Passover is coming at us like a freight train. I’ve gotten rid of my chametz, but my kitchen is buried in preparations: pans and ingredients are in piles only I understand and the refrigerator is filling up fast. I’ve located the Passover boxes with dishes and linens and seder-stuff.

Company is coming and I can feel some old anxieties rising. Will they have enough to eat? Will they like what I’ve planned? Are there enough dishes for everyone? Who will sit where? Will so-and-so behave nicely? What will I do if they don’t?

STOP.

I invite you to take the moment I took earlier this evening and go through your anxieties. Separate them into three lists: (1) things I can control, (2) things I can’t control, and (3) things that don’t matter anyway. The only worries that are worth my precious time right now are the things I can control.

It will be OK. There will be food. If I burn all of it, we’ll eat Hillel sandwiches and have a story to tell for years to come. They’ll all like something, and if they have any manners at all, they won’t announce what they don’t like. I have enough dishes. They can sit where they want, since that is what they’ll do anyway. And if someone misbehaves, that is their bad behavior, not mine. Again, maybe a story to tell someday.

It’s easy to get so wound up over a “perfect seder” that we forget what we are really doing: We’re gathering to tell the story and make it our own.

Hospitality For Growth

Lighting chanukiot at our Chanukah party.
Lighting the candles at our Chanukah party.

Long-time readers may remember my Hospitality Challenge: 16 months ago I challenged myself to grow in the mitzvah of hospitality. Yes, it is an actual mitzvah: Abraham and Sarah are famous for their hospitality. The Torah commands us to follow their example. After all, this is how all of us learn to “do Jewish:” not from a class or a book, but from observing the mitzvot with other Jews.

What I didn’t expect was that hospitality could also be an avenue for personal and spiritual growth.

Here’s where we started: I’m an introvert married to an introvert’s introvert. We are not great housekeepers, nor are we good cooks. We were both intimidated by the idea of opening our home to people who might (eep!) judge us on our housekeeping and cooking.

We’ve had fewer Shabbat guests than I originally hoped, but we have hosted more people in the past year than ever before.  We have celebrated almost every Jewish holiday with friends and family and some new friends (aka “strangers.”) Sukkot and Chanukah each saw a large gathering at the house. During the summer, I hosted regular Torah study gatherings here, and we’ve had countless folks over for an afternoon or an evening.

We’ve had great dinners, and burned dinners, gatherings where we were overrun with guests (who thought they’d all say yes?) and gatherings we canceled for lack of guests. There have been some wonderful people here, and a few who’ve been a challenge. And yet one thing has been constant: after the guests left, there was a glow that remained, a sense that home was indeed a holy place of warmth and friendship.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Nobody cares that the rabbi’s desk looks like a tag sale.
  2. If the main dish is a bust, the pizza place down the hill delivers.
  3. To carry out this mitzvah, I had to learn to ask for and accept help.
  4. People will bring food if you ask them to ahead of time.
  5. A plan for the evening is nice but not necessary.
  6. All guests go home eventually.
  7. Jewish warmth and Jewish blessings make everything glow.
  8. Jewish hospitality grows our Jewish souls.

Taking on this mitzvah has made me grow into a happier person and a better Jew. Here’s to 16 more months (and more!) of sharing the joy.

What’s a Sukkah?

A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom
A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A sukkah (soo-KAH or SUK-kah)  is a small temporary structure Jews build to celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot. It is often translated “booth” but might better be translated as “shelter.” In the ancient Near East (and in some places, even today) farmworkers built these little shelters for the hurried end of the harvest, when it would take too much valuable daylight to travel home from the field every day. For Jews, the sukkah also is a reminder of the time when we were wanderers on the road from Egypt to Israel.

A proper sukkah is a temporary structure. Its roof is partially covered with greenery (ideally tree branches) but open enough that one can still see the stars on a clear night. The sukkah should be large enough for at least one person to sit in it at a table, and it may not be more than 10m tall. The walls should be constructed in such a way that they will not blow over in a wind.  It is important that you acquire all the materials in a legal manner: “borrowing” greenery from a neighbor without asking (aka stealing) invalidates the mitzvah.

A sukkah can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you wish. The sukkah pictured above was built by a man named Yonassan Gershom, and on his blog he writes that it was built mostly of found materials; the bill came to $5. You can also purchase sukkah “kits” on the internet, which is one way to get a proper sukkah without too much worry. If you are skilled with tools, then you’ve got a head start!

Many people decorate their sukkah with carpets and wall hangings, and furnish it with a table, chairs, and even a bed! Since the mitzvah (commandment) is to “dwell” in the sukkah, it is good to eat meals and even sleep in the sukkah, weather permitting. It is especially nice to practice the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim [hospitality] by inviting others to eat in your sukkah.

What if you don’t have a yard in which to put a sukkah? In cities, people sometimes build them on balconies,  fire escapes or rooftops. (Be careful not to run afoul of local ordinances, however!) Synagogues and Jewish organizations often have a sukkah. If you sit in the sukkah of a friend or neighbor often, it is nice to offer to help them take it down at the end of the holiday; this is usually not a small job.

Sukkot is an opportunity to appreciate and enjoy nature while we share meals and conversation with family and friends. Whatever is available to you this Sukkot, be sure to get outside and enjoy the season!

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.
In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.

Improving My Hospitality

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It’s time to outgrow the fantasy.

The biggest barrier to my observance of the mitzvah of hospitality was my conviction that if someone saw my home looking the least bit out of order, something terrible would happen: the sun will explode, a large earthquake will destroy the West Coast, or I will die of embarrassment. I have had a tendency in the past to think that I will invite people over “later,” when things look “nicer.”

The catch is, I am a busy person, and I am also an untidy person. As a result, my House Beautiful fantasy has prevented me from observing the mitzvah of hospitality as often as I might. One of my successes of late has been relaxing that silly fantasy and focusing more on making guests comfortable than on maintaining an image, while at the same time working on the tidiness thing. After all, if this home of mine is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, shouldn’t I keep it tidy?

This past week, I hosted Shabbat dinner at my home for my students. When they arrived, I wasn’t quite done with the frenzy of cleaning, cooking and arranging, and the first guests arrived as I was wrestling the extra leaves into my table. I was embarrassed (but I didn’t die) and nothing else terrible happened. The guests helped me with the final setup: setting the table, and it looked like they had a good time arranging my china and placemats and such.

Read that last sentence again: they had a good time. It had never occurred to me that setting the table could be part of the evening’s entertainment. When I think about the times I’ve been asked to pitch in at other people’s homes, I recall that it actually made me feel more at home. So from now on, that’s part of the evening: “Let’s set the table!”

So, going forward with my growth in this mitzvah, I’m going to experiment with some changes:

  1. Leave the table expanded.
  2. Make the next invitations today.
  3. Find a vegetarian main dish I can prepare the day before.
  4. Look into hiring some weekly assistance with housework.
  5. Put “Shabbat things” on one shelf in the cupboard to make it easy for us to set the table together before the meal.

As I said back in September, a lot of my Jewish learning as a beginner happened as I was invited into Jewish homes to participate in Jewish routines. I really, truly want to pass it on!

What gets in the way of you inviting people into your Jewish home? And, dear readers, does anyone have a great prepare-ahead veggie main dish for summer Shabbat dinners?

Image: Barbie Beach House by DollyKnickers Some Rights Reserved.

For a Great Shabbat Table, Mix It Up!

Mix it up!
Mix it up!

Shabbat dinner last Friday evening was great. I always look forward to having students over for Shabbat evening; in that leisurely setting, with fewer people, I have a chance to really get to know them. This past week was no exception: we had five guests from the Intro class, and they were delightful.

However, I discovered a new secret ingredient, courtesy of my Hospitality Challenge. Earlier in the week, I posted a message on a local women’s listserv advertising that I had a lot of book boxes to give away. I got a message back from a woman who closed her note with “toda, thanks.” Hebrew! Wow! A fellow member of the tribe!

When she came to pick up the boxes, I blurted out, “I’ve got a bunch of students coming to Shabbat dinner this Friday night, want to come?”  She looked surprised, and then said yes.

It was a pleasure to have a different voice at the table. She grew up in Jerusalem, but has lived in the Bay Area even longer than I. My students got to meet her, and I got to know her. I have a new friend: over the table, we had time to connect. I am pretty sure, had she not needed boxes that week, we’d never have met.

So here’s my advice: mix guests you know well with guests you’ve just met. Mix old friends with new. Make impulsive invitations. Don’t worry about the perfect combination of guests – let Shabbat worry about that. The blessings have a way of bringing a table together.

For a great Shabbat table, mix it up!

Image: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by chatirygirl

Chanukat HaBayit

Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming
Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming

I’m feeling tired and happy. A lot of work came to fruition in the past few days.

First, I came very close to my goal of posting to this blog every day for the month of November, despite the move, despite everything. I missed one day near the beginning, but otherwise, good.  I think the alternative was letting it lie fallow while I went crazy with everything else.

Second, we had the housewarming, the first Shabbat Afternoon Open House. The whole neighborhood was here, and a lot of students, friends, family. Our “Abraham’s tent” with four sides open wide is launched. I’ll continue blogging what I learn about doing Judaism with friends, teaching the process of keeping a hospitable Jewish home.

What did I learn yesterday? That not everything has to be perfect. There were a number of things that were not picture perfect, but that was OK. People had a good time. The neighbors had a chance to compare notes on Linda and me, on the house, and to update each other on all the news. My students know how to find me now, and they are looking forward to classes here at the house. My friends were here with love and support.

We finished the day with havdalah (hahv-dah-LAH) and menorah lighting, very appropriate. Chanukah means “Dedication” – it’s a memorial of the rededication of the Temple long ago – and yesterday was a celebration and dedication of our new home.

Welcome!

Opening the Tent of Hospitality

Shabbat on a card table.
Shabbat on a card table.

Yossi ben Yochanon from Jerusalem said: “Let your home be open wide to the multitudes. — Pirkei Avot 1:5

I posted last night just before Shabbat that we were going to have our first Shabbat dinner in our new home. It was wonderful! Our friend Dawn came, and we blessed and talked and had a wonderful time. The food was simple but it was eaten in the glow of Shabbat candles.

Now I grant you, having one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone I call “sister” to Shabbat dinner is hardly a wild act of hospitality. Still, it set a tone: we are not going to be hermits in that house, Linda and I. We are going to have guests at the table as often as we can. Food won’t be fancy (not with my cooking!) but it will be eaten with others.

I went looking for the source of the midrash that Abraham’s tent was open on four sides, and I found this article by Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg. It seems that in the commentary on the mishnah above, Pirkei Avot 1:5, the talmudic commentary gives the example of Job, whose home was open on four sides to all guests. He is then compared unfavorably to Abraham, who actually ran out on the road to welcome his guests in Genesis 18. If Abraham was even more hospitable than Job, then his tent was also open on four sides, or so the reasoning goes. The point is that hospitality is a mitzvah, an key part of being a Jew.

So we’ve begun. I’m sure it will be better when we have chairs for everyone and the oven actually works!