My mission is to make Judaism more accessible to those who are on its fringes, whether born Jewish or somehow exiled or just curious. I’m participating in a “Meet’n’Greet” on “Dream Big, Dream Often” in an effort to get the word out there about my blog. I hope we’ll meet some new friends this way. Shanah Tovah, y’all! (That’s Hebrew for “Happy Jewish New Year!”)
To visitors who are arriving courtesy of the “Dream Big” meet-up: feel free to browse about, and to introduce yourself via the Comments. Rules for Comments: be polite, and no proselytizing or “witnessing” about other faiths. I reserve the right to decide what’s polite and to make impolite messages disappear promptly.
To long time readers of this blog: if you yourself have a blog, you may want to participate in the meet and greet – or use the Comments to this message to introduce us to your blog. I follow some of you with great interest, but I’m sure there are many I’ve missed.
That said, welcome! You may find that one great way to begin is to use the drop-down menu to your right to seek out the posts marked “Especially for Beginners.”
Tonight a group of us observed a very old Jewish custom. A dear friend and student of mine is moving away, and I invited him to put together a list of people he’d like to study with one more time. We gathered around the table with some good food and our books. Some had never studied Gemara before, and some of us were a bit rusty, but it didn’t matter.
We read a famous passage, Shabbat 31a from the Babylonian Talmud. (Click the link if you’d like to read it in English.) It’s a group of stories about Hillel and Shammai and three men who wanted to become Jewish.
What I loved most about this evening was that even though I have read that passage more times than I can count, our group found something new in it, several new ideas. (They were new to us, anyway.) That’s the beauty of studying together with others: while I might wonder about something, in the process of wondering together, we become more than the sum of our parts. We were at best an average bunch of Jews, but our study was extraordinary, because we studied together.
Some of us went back twenty years. Some of us met for the first time over this table. We are all old friends now, regardless. We’ve studied Torah together, and in the process uncovered bits of ourselves.
Here’s the recipe for an evening like this:
Invite 2-10 people who enjoy learning.
Have a few nice snacks, preferably finger food. Also coffee and tea.
Agree ahead of time on the text you will study. Keep it smallish: remember you are going to read and ponder together. (Our guest of honor chose the text.)
Have copies of the text so that every person has one. Unless all of you are fluent in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, use a translation, at least as an aid.
Many Jewish texts are available online; if you meet somewhere that wifi is available, it can be done from laptops, tablets, or even smartphones.
Image: Gerbera daisy. Photo by Pezibear at pixabay.com.
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?
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.
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:
Nobody cares that the rabbi’s desk looks like a tag sale.
If the main dish is a bust, the pizza place down the hill delivers.
To carry out this mitzvah, I had to learn to ask for and accept help.
People will bring food if you ask them to ahead of time.
A plan for the evening is nice but not necessary.
All guests go home eventually.
Jewish warmth and Jewish blessings make everything glow.
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.
Image: A sukkah in New Hampshire, USA. Public Domain via wikimedia.
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. A man named Yonassan Gershom, and on his blog he writes that he built his sukkah 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.
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!
Image: Sukkas on a Jerusalem street. Photo by Yoninah. Note the sukkah on the balcony at the upper left.
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:
Leave the table expanded.
Make the next invitations today.
Find a vegetarian main dish I can prepare the day before.
Look into hiring some weekly assistance with housework.
Put “Shabbat things” on one shelf in the cupboard to make it easy for us to set the table together before the meal.
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.
I took the leap into my new home with two projects in mind:
1. Radical Hospitality – I’m going to “do Jewish” here regularly and often, with many different people. That includes Shabbat afternoon hang-outs, Shabbat dinners, and other celebrations or ordinary times.
2. Asking for and accepting help – My body doesn’t allow me to play the Lone Ranger anymore, doing everything for myself. I tried dealing with that by isolating a lot, and the result was that I lived in a half-moved-into apartment for five years. Now I’m going to do it differently: asking for help, accepting help, being gracious and when I can, combining that with being Jewishly hospitable.
Hospitality, so far, has begun with a bang. I think I’ve had more guests in my house in the past 12 days than I had in the previous 3 years. Most of it was holiday related, and not at all routine, but I am not a hermit anymore. This is good. Also, I’m enjoying it. I like having people over. I like doing Jewish with old and new friends.
Asking for and accepting help has also been a success, but that one is really giving me a spiritual workout. Two of my students and one other friend were here Saturday night, assembling bookshelves for me. I am so grateful to them – my back and knees won’t permit me to do any of the stuff they were doing – but oh my goodness, I am uncomfortable watching people do things for me! The alternative, though, is (1) do without or (2) hire people. For years now I have worked with a combination of those two, and frankly it was not life-enhancing, especially since after a while of muddling through, I didn’t want to have anyone in, friend or hired, because of the clutter. So I am faced with a choice: learn to accept the goodness of others, or be isolated.
So last night I accepted the generosity of three people who did not owe me anything, and it didn’t kill me. No one is going to hold it over my head, or take it out somehow later. It’s OK. And I look forward to giving back with things I have to give: Jewish learning, food, warmth, and so on. I am not “less” for needing their help, nor am I in some sort of mysterious trouble for accepting it.
Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh: “All Jews are responsible for one another.” I have always taken that as a challenge to look for others that I can help. Being on the giving side has become easy for me. Being on the receiving side is a new lesson to learn.
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.
Here is a suggestion from one of the Radical Hospitality enthusiasts:
What if, once a week, when I cook a meal, I cook more than I need? Then call one of these people:
– Someone I know who is having a tough time
– Someone who cannot cook
– Someone whom I know is not eating well
…and say either:
– “I cooked too much food! Can I bring you some?”
– “I cooked too much food! Come help eat it!”
The worst that can happen is that you get no takers, in which case you pop the extra into the freezer and take it to the next shiva you attend as “food for later.”
I love this. I will admit that I am not quite ready to commit to once a week for this spiritual practice, but I am willing to commit to once a month. I’ll let you know how it goes.
One thing is bugging me about posting this. I’m aware that not everyone who reads this is financially or physically able to cook for others. There are too many people who don’t even have food for themselves. If you are such a person, I’m truly sorry. I hope you get an invitation to a meal, and I hope that your situation changes for the better very soon.
My thanks to the Radical Hospitality enthusiast who suggested this! If you have an idea for how to expand the love and the mitzvot in Jewish life via hospitality, don’t keep it all to yourself. Tell me, and I’ll post it, and give you credit if you want it. Or start your own blog. Or best of all, DO it and TEACH others to do it too!