Shabbat 101. My own ten commandments to surviving a meal in the overbearing and loud Thunderdome that is my family. There used to be sixteen of us every week, a jumble of debate, random dishes, and color clashing before my senses. It was overwhelming, but as a small child, I could get up from the table, draw and read, without anyone blinking an eye. However, as the years have gone on, and my cousins have started skipping dinners in favor of college, relationships, and jobs, the role of maintaining tradition has fallen solely on the heads of my brother and I. Now, I say that this is a weekly Friday Night Dinner, but it is more twice monthly. I have a busy schedule, but friendships and schoolwork fall to the wayside when there is a "free" Shabbat. It is off on the thirteen minute drive to my grandparents' house.
Now, many of the meals have ended in tears and tiredness for me. I become overwhelmed, and at a table full of eggplant dishes and computer engineers, I often feel out of place. I am by no means a picky eater, but I tend to avoid the vegetarian meals made for my cousins, dishes consisting of green sauces that look rather like vomit, and on occasion, cauliflower. The smells of family and Shabbat are a lot. The house smells like warmth and chaos, which is probably what sets off the smoke alarm 50% of the time.
I could give you ways to survive these dinners, such as push food around on your plate, situate yourself away from the nutjobs, but when your whole family are nutjobs and you are a nutjob, you find yourself right in the middle of it all. As the youngest, I am used to being simultaneously ignored and pestered with questions. "How is school?" It's fine. "How is dance?" It's fine.
It's fine. An easy way to escape a greater interrogation, but it does not satisfy. It is probably why they ask me week after week. If I could find a way to weave some intricate answer, one that closely resembles the challah on the table, perhaps I could enjoy my meal in thought amidst the lively debate.
I am drawn to the challah. Plain bread, made better be dripping honey or salted butter. It is a staple for Shabbat dinner, and the one food I can always rely on. It appears as a metaphor on the table, sometging so simple but complex, holding the scerets of history and religion in it's braid. The word hallah comes from the Hebrew word "halal." This can mean "to let go" or "put space between." This is what I often feel like I am doing with my family. I detach with sarcasm, separating myslef from my family with silence or excuses for why I cannot attend dinner.
Challah is made of few ingredients, consisting only of eggs, water, yeast, flour, sugar, and salt. I see the eggs as the substance, something to bind the ingredients together, much as Shabbat is a fading tradition of velcroing family members together. Water is the life force, the people, the breathing, and the living that occurs around the table. Water is the chaos of family that I try to untangle but find myself dependent on. As much as I resist dinner, my family has been a constant stream, a constant ocean of crashing waves of love.
Flour and yeast are substance, the topics of discussion. Ranging anywhere from plans for the future or the crumbling state of the government, the conversation yeast makes the room rise with lively debate, crescendoing with words.
Sugar is the peace keepers, my brother, my parents. They are the ones who keep me in check, pouring sweetness onto my skin. I soak it up, finding ways to laugh and joke with my cousins. They see when I become aggravated, and choose to sedate me with bribery in smiles and glances.
Then there is the salt, the natural ingredient that I bring to the challah of family. I bring the flavor, the bite, of the rebellious youngest member. Back handed comments add tension to the evening, smoothed over when other ingredients are added. On its own, salt is not the favorite, but it does liven the dish. I guess I liven the room.
My family dinners are not perfect. They are often undercooked or burnt in places, but in the tapestry of my childhood, it has braided an interesting narrative. I am grateful for my love-hate relationship with Shabbat, as grateful as I am for always having challah to fall back on on Friday nights.