When I realized what I had done, what I had said, it was too late. I was unprepared to answer for my actions or to ask for absolution. So, I did the only thing a gentile born on Christmas Day could do at a table full of Jews after a substantial gaffe: I started to laugh uncontrollably, turning a shade of red not found in nature, while silently being crucified by their eyes.
I grew up in the suburban Bible-belt: a product of strip malls, ‘70s television and Baptist churches bigger than the Acropolis. What we lacked in culture we made up for in religion -- almost religiously. Long gone were the customs of my Irish, German, and English ancestors, yet for thousands of years many Jews continue to celebrate the Sabbath with family and friends in holy commemoration of redemption and creation.
It was the weekend before Valentine's Day that I was invited to my first Shabbat: the weekly day of rest in Judaism observed before sundown on Friday until after nightfall on Saturday. Lynn, a cherished co-worker and friend, enticed her guests to dinner with a traditional Shabbat menu courtesy of her grandmother’s recipes for homemade bread, traditional soups; and for the gentiles, an opportunity to sit in on a tradition that once carried the most severe punishment in Jewish Law if not observed. The honor to receive Lynn’s invitation was almost more than I could bear and my excitement increased each week the date grew closer.
On the day of the event, the smell of fresh challah bread met us outside the front door of Lynn’s home, while inside, the aromas of meats, vegetables, soups and wine made for a dizzying effect as guests arrived. Lynn, being the woman of the house, and following tradition, lit two candles then recited a blessing to mark the beginning of Shabbat. There was silence at the table; only a few glances and smiles were exchanged as remainders of conversations still lingered.
The men, including me, wore previously owned yamakas left over from a wedding from years ago.
“The two candles represent the two commandments: zachor (remember) and shamor (observe),” Lynn said to the gentiles whose Shabbat cherries were popping during the first chapter of the meal.
When a fellow guest recited Kiddush, the prayer over the wine sanctifying Shabbat, I bowed my head for the first time in many years. Being a self-identified Agnathiest, a person who believes in the possibly of God’s existence but is somewhat pissed about it, I typically bow my head only to check my zipper. Regardless, I was there to experience Shabbat from A-Z, or in this case, K-B (Kiddish to Bikrat) since everything is written in reverse in Hebrew.
A “vay’hiy erev” and a “voqeir yom” or two later the wine was blessed and it was time to eat the mouth-watering food before me -- or so I thought.
After Kiddush I was instructed to wash my hands by filling a cup with water and pouring it over the top and bottom of the right hand and then the left hand, which I did at the kitchen sink. Before wiping our hands dry on a towel, another blessing was recited, which thankfully was told to me in English and I responded with a delicate “right on!” It was then I was told no one could speak until the hand washing ritual was complete and the bread was broken at the table.
At the time I thought this was group punishment for my playfulness so I settled down.
I thought we would never eat and that Shabbat was kin to the Buddhist belief that it’s the journey that matters more than the destination. But eventually, the cover was removed from the two challah loaves followed by another blessing. When the challah was passed around the table and everyone had a piece, the dinner, finally, ritualistically, after thousands of seconds since I arrived, began.
And it was good.
Our conversations were about each other, about what the future held for each of us. We discussed politics, the ins and outs of gay marriage, families and tradition. Soon our bellies were full and the wine gone. Then came time for the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals).
“Does anyone want to do it,” Lynn asked. “It’s going to take a while since we have a large group.”
This was curious until it was explained that the length of blessing was equivalent to the number of people attending Shabbat. Despite our large number the majority agreed to recite Bikrat and a leader was chosen. She began to read from a small paperback book which everyone was handed at the start of the meal.
“Turn to page 46 and let’s begin,” she said.
My eyes deceived me -- page 46 had no more than 30 words on it. This was long? What was I missing?
“Now turn to page 47, read only the bottom of the page.”
“Page 52. In the middle.”
Ah, there was more -- much more. We were eight minutes into the blessing and the page numbers kept coming as the group read blessing after blessing in Hebrew, slowing a few times to sound out a forgotten pronunciation.
“Page 52, skip over the part that says ‘Read if at your parent’s table’.”
After a few more pages I looked up at Lynn and saw her smile at me while she recited the current blessing from memory. It was a knowing smile, one that said “Ah-ha! You had no idea what you were getting into. Welcome to the table, friend.”
I realized I was eating at a table of survivors. Some lost family during the Holocaust, others had family barely make it out of the camps, out of Germany. I thought about their connection to their ancestry, the traditions they followed together and the kindness they showed a gentile from suburban Georgia who wanted to break bread beside them.
When I returned my eyes to the page, trying to find my place, I realized I was lost. The words I was hearing didn’t match the words on the page. Panic set in. Here I was: invited to attend a custom that will outlive me, that has already outlived face-to-face ridicule, suspicion, even death—all in an effort to survive persecution and reach redemption.
Between the page turning and my furrowed brow I unknowingly sent out signals that I was out of place. A guest next to me quietly whispered, “We’ve moved on to page 63, six pages ahead where you are” to which I innocently replied…
Curious about everything, Michael plans to do it all. A ruffian by day and a lover by night he's managed to go where no one else has gone. His slight forgetfulness means he is curious about everything and plans to do it all. A ruffian by day and a lover by night he's managed...
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4.24.06 @ 11:02a
Said a Jewish-by-marriage friend of mine during Passover:
"The customs are pretty easy, really. 'They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat.'"
Agnathiest - is that someone who follows ABBA?
4.24.06 @ 11:08a
Man. This is a MUCH more complicated ritual than I ever observed at a Shabbat dinner.
4.24.06 @ 11:18a
Me, too. And I'm Jewish.
Actually, we used to say the Birkat after every meal at summer camp, albeit an abbreviated version that only lasted about two minutes. Though I once did the math and realized that equates to about 24 hours of Birkat Ha-mazon for me over the course of my lifetime. That's a full day.
And as my brother and I proved at our Seder last week, we both still remember the entire thing.
Oh, and it's "yarmulke." I couldn't explain why.
4.24.06 @ 11:26a
Erik/adam: are you telling me there's a McShabbat instead of the full-on Shabbat?
4.24.06 @ 11:51a
Well, there's many different levels of observance. The Orthodox do everything, follow all the laws. The Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist tend to pick and choose.
My family's Shabbat dinners - when I was younger, anyway - tended to just be: candle blessing, wine blessing, bread blessing, let's eat. And we never said the Birkat. I didn't learn that prayer until I was at camp.
I have found, though, that in areas where the Jewish population is smaller, that the level of observance tends to be higher among those who do observe. Like saying, "There aren't that many of us here, so we need to really represent." Whereas I consider simply living in New York to nearly fulfil all my responsibilities as a Jew. Nearly.
4.24.06 @ 3:00p
I've never been to a Shabbat dinner, but I've been to a seder in the basement of a Lutheran church, and I was always happy to help my college friends celebrate Purim.
Woo-hoo! Drink til you can't tell the difference between Haman and whatshisname!