Shabbat Dinner Memories

by Aaron Wertheimer (Irvine, CA)

 I remember as an eight-year-old how every Friday night our car would take us to my Aunt and Uncle’s house off Greenspring Avenue in Farmington Hills, Michigan where we would slip out of the car, slithering like snakes, and I would wriggle  free from my brother tickling me (my punishment for throwing a ball at him).

“Jason, stop it, come on!”

“I’m going to squeeze all the funnies right out of you with my bare hands!”

He’d chuckle as he, too, sported the same sheepish grin that I saw on my mom’s face.

By the time we laughed our way on to the snow, dirt and ice spilling down our shirt sleeves, my mom had picked both of us up off each other. 

Tov, we are ready!” she would say. “Wipe that snow off your face, luvadahling!”  

How I loved that word she would use to describe how much she loved us.

We wiped our boogers off, threw on our puffy jackets, which made us look like Michellin men and duck-walked our way over to the doorbell before ringing it. 

“Whoooooooooo issssss ittttt?” a sing-songy, lilting voice deep in the house would call, moving closer and closer, sounding excited and eager to open the door. 

The voice from within always seemed to feign ignorance about the giggling guests at his door, as if each time it heard us, it was the most exciting surprise it had ever heard.  This game of “Guess who?” was our little ritual between my brother and me and our uncle, whose excitedness and and eager “Who is it?” question reminded us that Shabbat was beginning with surprise, wonder, mystery, and joy. 

The only other magical surprise (that never seemed to surprise us) was when the door would fly back with such swiftness, revealing my uncle’s smiling face, just like mom’s, with the same excited smile, like he was ready to eat us all up in one delicious bite.

“Uncle Mark!  You know it’s us!  You can tell by our laugh and voice.  Come on!” we chided him. 

“Oh, I know sweetie.  Come here!  Let Uncle Mark give you a huge kiss and eat you up!  Look at that punim.  How did you get that cute?”

“I was born that way.”

“Then, what happened?”

“I don’t know.  I just want to eat!”

Inevitably, we would bust up laughing.  And the fun did not stop there. 

We would continue to hear small explosions of joy, like a pinata rupturing and gushing laughter raining down from the sky for everyone to collect and smile about, different colors, sounds, and breaths filling the room.  Shabbat was the end of the week, a time for us to eat, smile, laugh, and have time to sing songs like Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi at the dinner table with family.

Every week, we would eat roasted chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes, and chicken soup with matzo balls as large as your face, food that would leave your stomach feeling as heavy as rocks, a full basket of rocks!   

On other nights of the week, we ate Kraft macaroni and cheese, bologna sandwiches, or kosher microwaveable chicken tenders.  However, on Shabbat, our family dined like kings and queens: macaroni and cheese suddenly turned into lasagna with pesto sauce, bread-covered sandwiches became braided, baked, and cinnamon sugar-dusted challah bread stuffed with raisins, cranberries, and chocolate chips, and with salted butter slathered on each slice. Most of all, chicken tenders became, melt-off-the-bone chicken cooked in pan-seared chardonnay lemon garlic sauce drizzled with parsley.  In a way, because the food was elevated, so too were we, and our house became that of a kingdom of royalty, making Shabbat a time to feel elevated and elegant.  On Shabbat, I never felt like anything less than a king.

As little kings and queens, my cousins and I would run through the island kitchen playing “Spy on the Parents Club,” a game during which we crawled on the ground like detectives spying on the parents without the parents seeing us, and, of course, we played Tag in a crowded house of 20 plus people. 

Grandma (Bubbie) was there, Grandpa (Zaydie) was there, cousin Sam and Joe, Mom, Uncle Mark, Uncle Eric, Uncle Michael were there, and even non-Jewish friends of my family would attend on occasion. On the Sabbath, I felt like I had total freedom to allow my imagination to run wild with my kid-cousins, and I felt like I was building something larger than life: a community of people from all walks of life celebrating the joy of being together.

I was happy, just as long as it was Shabbat, and I was playing and talking with family and friends.  Shabbat was a holy time to count our blessings, be grateful, and of course, throw more spongy balls at my brother, my cousins, and family under the dinner table.

It didn’t matter that my kid-cousins and I were running around underneath the dinner tables where, of course, no 30-40-50-year-old adult could have seen us.  Shabbat was a time to be in the moment, to look at the large Evergreen pine trees outside, to feel the cold crisp air, to smell the frosty grass outside, and inside to smell the barbecue coals, olive oil, and lemon garlic champagne sauce drizzled over fall-off-the-bone tender drumstick chicken.

Shabbat made me remember why I was alive: to savor each moment of life with those we cherish and to bring as much of that flavor into the rest of the week. 

Although I am 29-years-old and no longer a child throwing spongy balls at the dinner table, I am reminded of how all my detective work from “Spy on the Parents Club” helped me learn much more than simply learning to share a delicious meal with friends and family.  These Shabbat evenings were gifts from my family on how to consecrate what is most important to us all: having family and friends around, adequate health, a generous portion of laughter, and maybe a bissel food and drink, too. 

Perhaps, this is why I continue to celebrate Shabbat each week, and why I hope to continue to do so for the rest of my days. 

Aaron Wertheimer lives in Southern California, but his heart still lives on the slushy snow-scraped streets of suburban Detroit, Michigan.  In his free time, he loves to celebrate Shabbat each week by running, surfing, playing piano and drums, meditating, and dancing with friends and family.  If you would like to see more of his writing collections and creations or just chat, check out his Upwork.com portfolio page here.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

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