Hosting big, bustling meals on Shabbat is in the DNA of my sister-in-law, Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter. Raised in a modern Orthodox family in Maryland, Fruchter grew up celebrating Friday nights with her family’s table at full capacity of both people and food. More recently, as the founder and spiritual leader at the South Philadelphia Shtiebel—a vibrant Jewish congregation in Philly—hosting guests was a central aspect of her job. “On Friday mornings I would wake up at 6 to shop for ingredients, then come home and cook and work and cook all day until Shabbat began,” she said. “My table comfortably seats eight people, but I usually packed in between 15 and 20.”
But in mid-March, as Fruchter was forced to shutter her synagogue’s physical doors in the wake of COVID-19 and transition the community online, her hosting life also came to an abrupt halt. For the past four months, Shabbat dinner has been a much quieter affair. Sometimes she eats with her parents, who live nearby. Other times, dinner is simply a baguette, some spreads, and a pot of soup.
Fruchter’s Shabbat dinner pivot is particularly dramatic, but she is hardly alone. In early April, as the severity of the virus’s impact became clear, people panicked about preparing for Passover and spending the Seders away from family. Then, as the weeks of social distancing wore on, people began to settle into a new normal of Jewish ritual life. In most households, the numbers around the table for Shabbat meals have shrunk to just one person or immediate family members. “I’m going on four months of completely solo Shabbat meals,” said Rachel Pezzlo, who was used to hosting friends and family. “Sometimes it’s lovely, and sometimes it’s not.”
In the warmer months, some people have moved Shabbat meals outside—to the backyard, the front porch, an apartment rooftop, or the park—allowing them to share a socially distant meal with another person or small group. Others have expanded their nuclear family into pods they consistently gather with for meals. But the crowded, boisterous dinner table of pre-pandemic life feels, for now, to be a thing of the past.
With fewer guests to cook for, some people have experienced a drop in motivation. “It is hard for me to make my normal special food when it is just four people,” said Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein who lives with her husband and two sons in Brooklyn. “We have eaten takeout pizza and sushi for Shabbat for the first time ever.” In Montreal, Jason Rosenblatt said he used to prepare multicourse dinners for his family and guests: vegetarian chicken soup, a salad course with hummus, and lecsó (a Hungarian pepper spread), Moroccan-style tofu, and some kind of curry. His wife Rachel Lemisch typically made dessert.
These days Rosenblatt mostly sticks to the soup course, usually pea soup, minestrone, or lentil soup—something he knows his kids will eat. “If I wanted to make five courses I could,” he said, “but without guests, a lot of it would go to waste.”
The shrinking of the Shabbat dinner table in the time of COVID-19 signals a deeper, more profound loss. Jewish practice, be it spiritual or cultural, is tied up in community. Jews are a gathering people—a people that sings and prays together in the synagogue, shares stories over the Kiddush table (or the delicatessen booth), and passionately argues while passing the Friday night gefilte fish. Fruchter, like other Jewish communal leaders, has moved mountains to create meaningful online experiences for congregants—classes and lectures, Torah study, and Havdalah ceremonies. But the moments bound by breaking bread together are harder to replicate. “We’ve been able to capture serious magic online, but nothing around food,” she said.
And yet, some people have found surprising moments of meaning amid the chaos and isolation wrought by COVID-19. Thanks to the surge in pandemic-inspired home baking, many families are making challah regularly, either for the first time or reviving a lost practice. “I can’t host, but I have baked and delivered challah for people with my mask and gloves on,” Fruchter said. Rosenblatt’s family bought a 20 kilo (44 lb.) bag of flour early in the pandemic. “At first it was just a giant sack of flour sitting on a chair,” he said. But now his kids dip homemade challah into olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and za’atar on Friday nights.
In San Diego, Ilene Tatro said she began baking challah weekly on Friday afternoons. She tried at least 10 variations over the first several weeks of isolation, and has committed her preferred recipe to memory. “I vow to make it weekly, in normalcy or not,” she said.
Tatro also said that her family’s experience of social distancing has ironically strengthened their Shabbat dinner rituals. Tatro works at a Reform synagogue and, in pre-COVID times, often spent Friday nights working at various synagogue programs. Since March 13, she and her husband and daughter have had Shabbat dinner together every week. “That never happens!” Tatro said. “Social isolation has given me back the gift of Shabbat.”
For Ben Kraines, a New York City resident who recently moved back to his parents’ home in northern New Jersey with his wife and toddler in tow, said the pandemic has also had a net positive effect on his family’s Shabbat practice. “Back under one roof with my parents and brothers, we’ve revived our childhood Shabbat dinners,” he said.
Rosenblatt, meanwhile, noted that in the absence of regular synagogue attendance (Montreal’s synagogues have been closed for four months), he has started bringing some of the learning his kids would normally experience there to the table. “I’ve been taking more responsibility to print out articles about the parsha [Torah portion],” he said. “That is not something I did before, and it has been one of the benefits.”
Like nearly everything impacted by COVID-19, the existential future of Shabbat dinner—and Jewish communal life more broadly—remains uncertain. Fruchter, who caught the virus in March and initially lost her sense of smell and taste, is unfortunately experiencing lingering, “long-haul” symptoms plaguing some survivors. One side effect has been that most foods have developed a distinctly disagreeable taste. “Out of all of the fears, the thing I’m most scared about is losing my ability to cook because food no longer tastes good,” she said. “Hosting people for Shabbat is a big part of my identity. What will happen if I lose that?”