Cultivating Jewish Peoplehood: One Shabbat Dinner at a Time

PP13[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood:
What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it?
– published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Dasee Berkowitz

Growing up, Shabbat dinner was a focal part of my family’s life. My father, who traveled for business, would always make it home in time for candle lighting. My parents intermarriage – Ashkenzi father meets Mizrachi mother – yielded a Kiddush chanted with Yiddish intonations over sticky sweet Israeli wine and traditional mizrachi suppers, chicken with curry and lemon, rice with coriander seeds. When we were small, renditions of the parasha animated our table discussions, and when we were teenagers sibling conflict occupied the space around mealtime. But the lessons of compromise always prevailed, as my parents worked to have us stay engaged and connected to one another. At times it was just our nuclear family. Other times, guests were invited: refusenkiks from Russia, Israeli consul generals and friends from the community. The conversations expanded to include world events and our responsibility to take action. It was around the Shabbat table that I became aware that I was a part of something bigger than myself.

Cultivating a sense of Jewish Peoplehood is not an abstract notion. It emerges from robust experiences with Jewish people. It happens in settings, which connect us to a collective past (through ritual and attention to shared values), makes space for the differences between us (cultural and ideological) and creates pathways that lead to an understanding that we are bigger than our individual selves and that to be a part of the Jewish people is to be connected to a sacred mission.

Shabbat Table as Model for Experiencing Jewish Peoplehood

An experience around the Shabbat table is one tangible way that we can cultivate a sense of Jewish Peoplehood on a weekly basis.

Connection to collective past. Every ritual at the Shabbat table connects us of our past. Our home is mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary to remind us of the Temple in the Jerusalem that once stood. The Kiddush reminds us of defining moments in our history – the exodus from Egypt and the creation of the world. And the prayer for our children reminds us that we look to our forefathers and mothers, whose lives are depicted in our ancient literature, to be living role models for our own children. Shabbat celebration also makes space for a symbolic connection to the Jewish People in our knowledge that every Friday night, Jews the world over are also marking these sacred rites.

Space for differences. From the moment we sing Shalom Aleichem, we welcome in difference. The Midrash speaks about “good angels“ and “bad angels“ that we invite into our home. We make space for opposing forces. We enact the mitzvah of welcoming guests with the knowledge that the more people, whose life experiences and opinions differ from ours, the livelier the Shabbat dinner conversation, will be. Other differences from cultural to aesthetic are experienced from the moment we enter into another person’s home. Stories can be told about the food, which is served, and the framed pictures of grandparents on the wall can speak volumes to the different cultures, which animated the lives of ancestors who came before.

Create pathways to sacred mission. Each Shabbat we connect to the twin missions – seeking peace and repairing the world. The moment we light the Shabbat candles we are bringing peace into our homes. It starts there, but over the course of 25 hours radiates outwards and into the next week ahead. And as we call on everyone to stop working on Shabbat, the rich and poor alike, we lay the groundwork to create more just societies which values individual dignity over incessant productivity.

Each Shabbat – we will raise our cup for a l’chaim, and to hearing the ancient melodies which express some of Judaism’s deepest values, to knowing that the differences between us enrich us, and to taste the sacred mission that gives our lives meaning.

Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish educational consultant and frequent contributor to and JTA. She recently made Aliyah and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three (adorable) children.

JPeoplehood newThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.