How I Learned to Live with Six Sets of Dishes
The young woman had just set the table. She frowned. It seemed ridiculously fancy for two people-white damask tablecloth, silver crystal, china, candlesticks. And because nearly everything on the table was brand new, the dinner table exuded the warmth of a department store display. Only the glowing brass candlesticks which had belonged to this newly married woman’s great-grandmother softened the cold table.
It was Friday, 4:28, and time to light the candles. She knew this because she had dutifully checked the Jewish calendar given to her by her in-laws. After ten minutes of squinting and finally resorting to a ruler, she had lined up 4:28 with Los Angeles. Taking a deep breath and nervously shrugging, she covered her head with a scarf and lit the match. She’d only seen the ceremony a few times. The blessing emerged haltingly as she resurrected it from her days in Sunday School, and when the ceremony was over she felt self-conscious and foolish. She was glad no one had heard her. In her hand she still held the burnt match, because she didn’t know what to do with it.
By now you may have guessed that I was that awkward bride seventeen years ago. I’ve come a long way-I’ve learned to rest the match on the candlestick and if you look carefully you’ll find wine stains on the tablecloth-but first I’d like to describe my beginnings, because it is my past that lends significance to my present.
I was raised brave-new-world Reform, with a strong emphasis on ethics. Ritual was for ignorant people or hypocrites. All one needed to be a good Jew was to be a good person: ham was irrelevant. No one I knew lit Shabbat candles or kept kosher. I grew up thinking that Shabbat and kashrut were part of some ancient time. My family did celebrate Chanukah grandly, Passover a little less so, and the High Holy Days sort of.
Searching for Spirituality
By the time I was in college I began to have yearnings for a religious experience. I wasn’t sure what that would be, but it would have something to do with helping me to feel the sense of the world. I didn’t want a rational explanation; I wanted something I could feel like love. I went to Hillel a few times, but found it dispirited and boring. So I put my longing aside, went back to reading Byron and scouting boys.
I found one, a good one, and I fell in love. Part of what I liked about this guy, besides his blue eyes and smooth talk, was his background. He would teach me the path to enlightenment. Wonderful! I was ready to live happily ever after. Not quite. What I didn’t realize was that his commitment was permanent, not like my sporadic searching. It wasn’t optional for him. He never are lobster. I liked to do things when I felt like it.
The next surprise about being observantly Jewish came when we sent out our wedding invitations. Dishes from his family began to arrive. In the end, I was the proud, if bewildered, possessor of six sets of dishes.
Going to a kosher butcher for the first time was another revelation. I was one of those kids that never connected the plastic-wrapped stuff in the supermarkets together with the feathery creatures in barnyards. Imagine my surprise (and horror) when an unshavened old man in a bloody apron shouted at me in barely comprehensible English, “Chicken? You want chicken? Look at this beauty!” He thrust this obscenely bald fowl inches from me and asked how I’d like it prepared. I answered broiled and he shook his head, disgusted. He cut it up and thoughtfully included the feet, which discouraged me from making dinner. We had grilled cheese that night.
Moving Towards Observance
Things got better. Friday night became a friend, not a formal stranger. It became our time to reach one another again after the long week. We’d sit on the floor with a glass of wine and an artichoke, play Simon and Garfunckle records, and enjoy long before I knew the words, shalom bayit (household peace). I came to love Friday nights and came to make the day part of the celebration as I prepared the house and meal for the Sabbath.
The discipline of kashrut began to appeal to my ethical sense. At first I objected to being told what to eat: I felt punished by kashrut. But once I learned that it limited killing and encouraged moral sensitivity, I felt grateful for its direction.
The next step in my journey happened at Valley Beth Shalom’s Shabbat morning service. I was very uneasy in synagogues, but Steven had gone to VBS for his father’s yahrzeit and had heard Rabbi Harold Schulweis. When he came home he told me about the service and it sounded great. The intellectuality of the Torah discussion he described intrigued me. So the next Shabbat I went and was amazed. Rabbi Schulweis talked about the Torah the way my English professors talked about Shakespeare-with wit, drama, and respect. It was rational, intellectual, and I loved it. But what was different from school was that as he asked questions I found my mind traveling new paths in my search for answers. One day tears came to my eyes when the Torah was returned to the ark. It was no longer just intellectual nourishment; it had finally become my tree of life. A few weeks later I began to call myself by my Hebrew name, Malka.
The journey continues. I sing my songs of praise by writing books for young people about the rich Jewish tradition. My children know far more about Judaism than I did at their ages. By sending them to a day school and celebrating the full Jewish calendar, their Jewishness is an important and sweet part of their lives. And my sense of self is clearer. The tradition claims me and I feel embraced.