I always say that food is love. In terms of simple pleasures, the act of cooking for or eating with other people is up there with the rest. So I was delighted (and honoured) to be invited to my very first Shabbat dinner at the warm and welcoming home of Camilla and Paul and their family. I remember (with more than a little envy) Jewish friends at school rushing out of Latin classes on wintry afternoons to be home before dark. But what was a Shabbat dinner, exactly? Some highly religious ritualistic event? Did you have to wear certain clothes, eat certain things? Or, God forbid, sing, maybe in Hebrew?
So when Camilla invited me to her home my second thought (after feeling delighted and honoured) was to fret. What on earth should I take? Can we drink alcohol at Shabbat, or indeed at all? Are there certain foods that would offend? I resorted to Facebook for advice. Friends were helpful, in part. A Jewish friend suggested that, as we were close to Rosh Hashanah, I should try to track down honey cake or a big box of doughnuts. Another suggested flowers, but I’d read that you are not allowed to put flowers in water on Shabbat. And of course any food would, presumably, have to be kosher! In the end, stress levels mounting, my daughter asked Camilla’s son who suggested flowers. Phew!
When we arrived, it was nothing like I’d expected – I thought it would be formal, hushed, ceremonial. Hunger-inducing smells wafted around the kitchen, as did Camilla, looking relaxed yet effortlessly glamorous. Her children were all chatting away animatedly, greeting guests, talking about their week, pouring wine. There was none of that reserve you sometimes find at the beginning of an evening at someone’s home; it was immediately evident that a Shabbat dinner is about family, food, sharing, generosity. And fun.
The lighting of candles and the blessing of the chollah followed. After a bit of singing we all toasted the event with grape juice. This small ceremony moved me greatly. There is something profound about Jews across the world celebrating their faith with these simple acts and it felt like a huge privilege to be there. Even in a multi-cultural city like London we don’t often get the opportunity to observe each others’ customs. Religion is all too often kept behind mosque, church and synagogue walls.
From then on in, Shabbat turned out to be one of the most convivial evenings I’ve had for a long time. By the end of the evening, all 13 of us – seated around the long table on a motley assortment of seating – had bonded over Camilla’s cooking and easy conversation. Glasses were kept topped up and plates were filled again and again with soup, then ossobuco and ice cream with fruit. Somehow the no-fuss, one-pot dish – with everyone sharing in a relaxed way – summed up Shabbat. Replete, we were then asked to go round the table, recounting a negative thing that had happened in the previous week, and a positive one. Of course, the teenagers indulged in a bit of bravado and a few tallish stories, but it reminded us all of how much we have to be grateful for and to focus on the positives. It was also a fun way of getting to know everyone.
So, for me, the upshot is this. If you are invited to a Shabbat dinner, cancel all other plans. It will be worth it. And you’ll realise that the Jewish stereotype of warmth, generosity, family and sharing really does hold true.
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