Come to my house on a Friday evening. Hear the faint murmur of footsteps as our doorbell echoes. Then a pause: my family gathering behind the door. The quick straightening of dresses. The smudge wiped off cheeks. The quick reminder of names. The door swings open. We crowd the doorway. Our cheeks already flush. Come in! Come in! We are an intimidating force: cacophonous and glorious. We exchange handshakes for wine bottles, repeating your names to engrave them into memory, responding to polite inquiries into whether we take off our shoes when we enter the house. You can if you’d like. And yes, you can lay your coat over there. Please come in. Join us.
Now, we are not a family inclined to regularly celebrate Shabbat. Our synagogue attendance leaves much to be admired, our knowledge of Hebrew is spotty, and my bat mitzvah was DIY. But we do. In a family, where no week resembles the next. Every week, we set down our phones, our devices, and sit together for Shabbat.
Shabbat encompasses more than just the meal. Shabbat is the two hour preparation. It is the pilgrimage to the grocery store. The careful selection of ice creams. The choosing of the best chicken. The spooning of olives and pickles. The sniff to determine the best slice of parmesan cheese. It is the bagging. The banging of the bags against your legs on the walk home.
Then there is a slow gathering of bodies. Concentric circles of slowing down. One last email, one last scroll. The squeezing in of a last bike ride.
We lay out the appetizers. I arrange the cheeses, separating according to smelliness. The gluten-free crackers splayed out, almost artfully. Lemon hummus. Baba ganoush. Sly sneaking of bites in between vigorous conversation.
My dad hands me the spoon, gently clothed in honey, after spooning it onto the squash. Our challah has been a lesson in slow change, in lessons served, red-faced and laughing over a challah that turned out a little raw, or burnt, or that time we exchanged the sugar and salt. The challah dough pried from its cloth covering, carefully, like one pulls a child away from their toys. Then the braiding of the challah: the dough nimble under my fingers. Over and under. Over and under. It sticks to the creases of hands, the scent voluminous. We take out brushes. We become artists with yolk, become Jackson Pollack with our flicks of Everything Dust -- what goes on top of an everything bagel. It simmers on the glistening silver pan. Growing slowly, yeast ballooning as Shabbat arrives.
The waiting. The interval where we dash to change our clothes, exchanging jeans for dresses, dark clothes for light. Nothing tight. Nothing confined to the rest of the week.
The doorbell. My feet are lighter when I skip down the hallway. Every second is a moment our guests are waiting for us.
Then here you are. You are in good company. Our guests range from professors to poets to Nobel Prize winners to artists to governors to rabbis to chefs to changemakers. My parents give my sister and I gift us experience and new opinions. Gift us debate and civility. Manners and memories.
Red wine? White? We open both. Sparkling apple cider settles into an empty stomach. Its sweetness curls in the mouth. Our eyes watch you as you sample our appetizers. We recommend cheeses. Isn’t that one good?
You watch our carefully strewn together orchestra: how we duck around each other, drizzling olive oil on the asparagus, pulling out extra crackers just in case, dodging my dad as peers into the oven to check on the chicken, receiving, as we lovingly call it, a ‘Shabbat facial’, a face full of steam.
The conversation hovers around the counter. Politics. Work. The latest internet inspiration. You ask how my parents met, inspired by their wedding pictures on the wall. It was a dark and stormy night, my mom always begins. Then my sister and I jump in: fighting to tell the rest of the love story that has been our favorite fairy tale since before we can remember.
Soon, the chicken is carved. The crispy, floured skin has been sampled, gently dished out by my dad. My mom gently herds you to the table, urging you to pick up a plate. Our shabbat is buffet style.
The cold ceramic ridges of the plates press into my ribcage as I clutch my plate to my chest. Guests always go first, my sister and I chorus.
We have the same meal every week: only exchanging vegetables per season. It consists of my dad’s famous roast chicken ( stuffed with oranges and garlic and nestled in with onions), roast acorn squash (spooned in with Hawaiian honey, doused with cinnamon and cardamom), salad with my mom’s interpretation of a Green Goddess dressing topped with avocados, toasted walnuts, and apples, usually a type of pasta, vegetable, and of course our challah.
You have to play tetris with the food on your plate to get it to fit.
Sit. Sit. My mom calls. We don’t want the food to get cold. You watch us sneak bites before everyone sits down. We’re not supposed to eat before the blessings, but we’re not terribly strict about it. My mom urges you to hum if you don’t know the words. They’re really short, we try to reassure you. My dad uses the blessing over the candles while walking over to the table. In a faux deep baritone, my dad starts singing. Then we all start in. All singing different notes at different speeds. We will win no awards for this performance. Then the wine: we raise our glasses. When it draws to a close, cries of l’chaim ring out. My parents insist on making eye contact with everyone, stretching over plates to hear the satisfying clinking of glasses. We hold eyes longer than we do on other nights. Shabbat, unlike every other night, is intentional.
Then the challah. The blessing over the challah works like electricity. Hand to hand. Hand to shoulder. One person touches the challah: everyone touches the challah.
We break bread. Tear a piece to pass to the person next to you. My mom urges the butter down the table. Challah is always better with butter.
I make what I call the Heschel sandwich. During Passover, we make what we call a Hillel sandwich: matzah, charoset and horseradish. During Shabbat, I invented a Heschel sandwich. Heschel after the Jewish philosopher who called shabbat ‘a palace in time’. A Heschel sandwich involves a doughy piece of challah, spread with butter, soaked in the chicken juices, topped with chicken and squash.
Once everyone is well into the meal, my mom calls on my sister to introduce our tradition. At each setting lies a unicorn card. And yes, we know it is terribly cheesy. What is on the cards is not much better. At the top of each card lies a word. Each person goes around and speaks about how the word has related to their week. They are words like judgement, self-love, and spontaneity. Spontaneity is the special card. The wild card. My dad has made the spontaneity card infamous. He once took off his shoes, stood on his chair, then gingerly walked across the table, still laden with glasses and places. Now, how’s that for spontaneity?
Don’t feel a need to repeat his stunt, I tease.
My dad mimes getting on the table again.
The conversation is unified. We’ve done away with separate conversations for the children and adults, separate conversations for the women and the men. Because of the unicorn cards as cheesy as they are, we all talk to each other. Listen to each other. In a society where we talk so little time to listen, during Shabbat, one person has the floor and everyone listens. No one competes for time. Time, like the butter, is spread liberally.
Shabbat has always been a meal of abundance. A meal for eating a little more than you should. A meal for indulgence. My mom has her one glass of red on Friday nights. Shabbat is the one day that dessert is not only served, it’s encouraged. The ice creams are presented. The fresh fruit served in little bowls. This is where you recline. Laughter spreads easier.
Shabbat makes friends of strangers in only one meal.
Then there is a subtle shift in conversation. An impossible to place ending. The meal is over. Eyes are heavy. We are now in the in between. You awkwardly start towards the door. We trade hugs like girls exchange high fives after a soccer game.
You pause to admire the art on the walls. The family portraits. There is a reluctance to leave that always marks a good Shabbat.
The door closes. You are gone. But we are not done yet.
I tell Alexa to put on Sinatra as I start the dishes. I enjoy the calmness that comes from the color coordinated order of the dishes. It is a multi-variable test of my efficiency. The Shabbat dinner in its final stages, under my fingers.
We alternate putting away the leftovers with attempting to swing dance. I join in, lip-synching with a scrub brush.
Fly me to the moon.
Let me dance among the stars.
This is the part of the evening you will never see, but a part of the evening all the same.
A gradual shuffle to sleep. Toothbrushes taken up. Newspapers and magazines read. The clamor of bedtime shifting into quiet as sleep looms large, comfortingly.
It is always the best sleep of the whole week.
Shabbat is more than a meal, more than a gathering. Shabbat is the continuum. It is the culmination of every dish we’ve perfected, the insights, the laughter. Shabbat is the open door, the big hug.
And I know soon, it will be me knocking at the door. A guest in my childhood home. But as soon as I walk inside, as soon as I taste the parmesan, smell the chicken, dip my hands into the challah, as soon as I return home, Shabbat will be there to welcome me as if no time had passed at all.
(awarded an Honorable Mention at the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards 2021)