When I was a kid, welcoming the Sabbath into our house was a sacred affair. Shabbat dinner was the one meal a week that we ate in our formal dining room, on fine china set on a linen tablecloth, usually with guests and everyone dressed up.
I never considered doing anything else on Friday nights. Even if the chicken Mom made every week was so dry that the only way I could eat it was to sandwich it between slices of challah, there was something comforting about the ritual of that meal, a peaceful refuge into which we retreated for an hour or two every week, without fail.
The sanctity of Shabbat dinner ended after my father died suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 13 and my sister 14, and we moved from our house into an apartment. There was no formal dining room, not that it mattered. Mom was so exhausted working full time and dealing with two hormonal teenage daughters that she no longer bothered to make a special meal.
The first time we went out for Shabbat dinner is seared into my memory. Mom took us to one of the few restaurants in town owned by Jews, as if that would make things better. It didn’t. It was just one more reminder that the good things I’d always counted on—Dad, Shabbat dinner, the house where we’d been so happy for more than half my life—were temporary and could be erased with no warning. It’s a lesson we all learn at some point, but I sure wasn’t ready for it at 13.
When I married and moved from New York state to the Canadian prairies 18 years after Dad died, I vowed to recreate the Shabbat dinners of my youth, to give my family the kind of steady touchstone that had been so important to me when I was growing up.
I did not succeed. For one thing, my husband isn’t Jewish. To him, Friday nights were for unwinding, not sitting down to a fancy dinner before going to synagogue to pray. I understood his lack of enthusiasm; he didn’t have my institutional memory and nothing I did or said could resurrect what made those nights so special. We did make a habit of saying all the Shabbat blessings, but we rarely made time for a leisurely dinner after.
Shabbat dinner became even less of a priority after our children started playing soccer and hockey. Often on Friday nights we’d rush through the blessings before heading to a field or a noisy arena where I’d be surrounded by people who didn’t know it was Shabbat and didn’t care. Even if the kids won, I’d feel as miserable as I had the first night after Dad was gone, when my sister and I ate doughnuts for dinner in the basement while watching The Brady Bunch on TV.
“Stop beating yourself up,” a wise rabbi told me when my children were young and I was lamenting that I hadn’t been able to recreate for them the Yiddishkeit that I remembered so fondly from my childhood. “There are many ways to be Jewish. You’re doing fine.”
That was years ago. My kids are grown and out of the house now. There are no more fields or noisy arenas on Friday nights, just me and my husband saying the brachot while the dog looks on beseechingly, waiting for us to give her the first piece of challah. We still don’t have a formal dinner, but it no longer bothers me the way it once did. These days I’m as exhausted by the end of the week as Mom was. If I’m going to make a special meal, I’d rather do it on the weekend when I have a full day to cook.
A few times a year—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Thanksgiving—I host dinner for family and friends. As my in-laws have aged, my husband and I have assumed the responsibility for Christmas dinner. I no longer mourn the steady and meaningful Shabbat dinners of my childhood. Instead, I’m grateful for the memories. Knowing how fleeting they can be, I cherish them.
My mother-in-law was diagnosed last year with Alzheimer’s. After a particularly bad fall that led to a six-week hospital stay in late summer, my father-in-law realized he could no longer keep her safe at home. When she was discharged at the end of September, we moved her into a supportive care unit in a seniors residence.
COVID-19 protocols had kept me from visiting her in the hospital, and I was surprised at how frail she had become. She hadn’t eaten a home-cooked meal in more than six weeks. My father-in-law, who now lives alone in the house they shared for most of their 63 years together, isn’t much of a cook. So the first Saturday night after my mother-in-law moved into supportive care, I invited the two of them to our house for dinner. My husband and daughter suggested I make stew. I used my mother-in-law’s recipe. She ate two helpings, along with salad, bread, and the spice cake I’d made that afternoon.
“I haven’t seen her eat like this in months,” my father-in-law marveled. “This is amazing.”
The following weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving. Our kids and their friends came for dinner. My brother-in-law drove three hours from Calgary. My mother-in-law ate heartily and again my father-in-law marveled. “Last week she told me that coming here was like a refuge,” he said.
“Come back next Saturday,” I told him.
And so they did, and they came the next Saturday, too, along with a cousin visiting from Toronto and her mother, whom my mother-in-law hadn’t seen in months. Earlier that week I had run into some of my mother-in-law’s friends. They’d asked if she could have visitors at the home, which she can. But at dinner that night it occurred to me that I should just invite them for Saturday supper at my house, because 47 years after my father died, I’ve realized what I had been missing about the Friday night dinners of my youth—and it wasn’t Shabbat, per se, because I’d never stopped celebrating Shabbat.
What I had been missing was the ritual of fellowship, of family and friends gathering for dinner one night a week, where stress and tension fall away and all that’s important is the people around the table, sharing, laughing, talking, eating, knowing this is something they can count on. That feeding the hungry and caring for the sick are acts of g’milut hasadim is a bonus. You’re not supposed to perform a mitzvah expecting something in return. But there’s no doubt that feeding my in-laws is also feeding my soul. Saturday supper is a refuge—just as Friday night dinner once was for me—and it’s one I never expected I’d be able to count on again. That makes it all the more sweet.
Debby Waldman is a writer and editor in Edmonton, Alberta.