It’s the Friday night ritual that I most remember from growing up; and I have made a fairly good effort to pass along the same tradition to my own children. But last night we did something new for Shabbat dinner that was in many ways small but profound. A gesture both little and big.
“Yikes, I got rear-ended,” was the text I received from my wife earlier in the week. Followed by the reassuring, “Car was parked, we weren’t even in it.” So with the real worries gone; all the less important “first world problems” creep in. Will this raise our insurance rates, plus the hassle of getting the car fixed and the whole thing taken care of? The last thing I wanted to do was write some big check to a body shop. “Not to worry,” my wife Leslie later explained. “The man who hit the car was much older, and he doesn’t want this to go on his insurance, so he is bringing cash to the body shop and will cover the whole thing.”
We all have older relatives and the man who collided with my wife’s car was well into his 80’s and apparently came to the realization that he should no longer be driving. The following day he took Uber or Lyft and met my wife at the “Golden Hammer,” which sounds much more like a gym than a body shop; and as they waited for the verdict on her drivers side bumper; my wife heard the man’s story.
He was married and had adult children of his own and grandchildren as well. He had been with his wife for decades; but recently together they took a class in ‘fall prevention’ and ironically and sadly, his wife soon fell after that class. That began a downward spiral for her, resulting in some medical problems and eventually the onset of dementia. After living together for more than six decades; she had to be placed in a home. He told his story to Leslie without trying to elicit any upset or pity. They had exchanged phone numbers and email addresses as a result of the initial car accident and parted company at the body shop.
I am not entirely sure what struck her; though I think I have an idea; and later that evening she extended an invitation to the man, his name is Walt; to join us for Friday night Shabbat dinner.
Probably like most anyone else; once Friday afternoon rolls around, my entire family is virtually exhausted from the week that has just transpired. So while I took an obligatory two-hour afternoon nap; Leslie started to prepare the Shabbat dinner.
My kids attend a school that has many great features; perhaps chief among them is a weekly Challah delivery service. So while we have that component taken care of; Leslie spends considerable time and effort in the kitchen to make the rest of the meal.
Around 6 pm I went to pick Walt up. He lived close to us, in a condominium in Brentwood about 10 minutes from our home. He was standing outside the condo with a cane; and a bottle of wine. We settled into the car, and shared our background stories. He had worked in Southern California for years as an aerospace engineer; just as my own father had. All the same companies, in and around El Segundo; TRW, McDonnell Douglas, and Raytheon. For so many people who grew up in Southern California in the 60’s and 70’s; this was one of the major bread and butter industries.
When we arrived at our house; the table was set; and with the addition of the wine Walt had brought, we were all set to go. I know the Shabbat prayer by heart; but I know the abbreviated versions. I think own father’s favorite phrase was “good food — good meat — good God — let’s eat.” My daughter Darcy is 9, but has mastered more Judaica than I will ever know, sings the full version of the prayer over the candles. She is really good at it; but it lasts almost as long as the album version of “American Pie.” “It’s like living with Golda Meir,” I say to Walt; an aside I have used many times. My son Colby passes out the Challah, which came to our home via his school backpack, and dinner begins.
The whole meal is comfortable and familiar. Certainly Walt has sat at several Shabbat tables in his own home and elsewhere for years.
After dinner, the kids asked to be excused - something vital on the Disney Channel is scheduled to air - and the three adults walk over to our living room where we learn a little more about Walt. His oldest son is 65. I immediately do the math; and realize that when my own son is 65, I will be 112. Walt can see my own efforts at personal arithmetic and points out that he was married at 21 and he and his wife started having children right away. Still, I can’t imagine what it must feel like when you own adult children are old enough to begin thinking about or engaging in retirement.
Walt talks of another son; who didn’t marry until he was 40. “He had graduated from a top law school; and was working very successfully as a lawyer. He dated a lot of women. In fact when he would bring a woman home to us for a Friday night dinner, we always referred to it as ‘The Last Supper,’ because usually after meeting the family, he would find some flaw in that particular date and move on to someone else.” I found that ‘The Last Supper’ phrase hilarious; and am reminded once again that often the very biggest laughs come from simple conversation. We talked a little bit about the election, and Walt told us he was helping a friend work on developing a new app that will help people master writing fiction. I was impressed that a man who was easily 30 years my senior was working on developing an app as I am still trying to figure out how to download an app.
Probably two hours after he arrived, Walt said, “I’d better be getting home, let me call for an Uber.” I insisted that I wanted to drive him back home, and as I dropped him back off at his place he said; “please thank your wife again for dinner. It was so delicious and I really enjoyed myself.” Clearly he meant it; and by the time I had returned home, he had also sent a ‘thank-you’ email to Leslie.
I try to “honor” Shabbat as best I can. If there is a can’t miss event or invitation for a Friday night; I’ll still say “yes.” I don’t insist that my 14-year-old daughter attend every meal, and often she will get what she describes as “a much better offer.” We will share the evening with other families or relatives; but this is the first time in as long as I can remember, that we basically had a stranger over for dinner.
But it won’t be the last.
The spirit of community doesn’t have to have a somewhat formalized ritual like a Shabbat dinner to thrive. I think it thrives when we extend ourselves to people we would not normally or necessarily extend ourselves to. And then they extend themselves back. I don’t know if this is a lesson my younger kids learned as a result of having Walt over last night for dinner. But I hope they did.