Bikes, babies and Shabbat lunch

By Anna Sheinman, September 16, 2011

Having only made it to a JSoc Friday night dinner twice in my first year at Cambridge, I was flattered but somewhat surprised to be invited by the Jewish Chaplain to his house for Shabbat lunch.

As part of quite a big, relatively liberal London Jewish community, I had a batmitzvah, I did the whole summer camp thing, but my Hebrew isn't great, I don't exactly go to shul every week, and I've certainly never been to lunch with the Rabbi.

On further investigation, I discovered I hadn't been singled out for my lack of faith, he just invites the entire Jewish student body at some point, and he'd got to "S".

I opened the front door in a quiet corner of Cambridge on a charming scene. His wife had cooked a wonderful spread, there were babies everywhere, and the many guests were on top form. Apart from me.

Before my entry, I had spent a good five minutes outside trying to find somewhere to park my bike, eventually locking it in front of what turned out to be the Chaplain's front window. And guess what, despite the lack of combustion engine, apparently you're not supposed to cycle on Shabbat.

Despite the lack of combustion engine, apparently you're not supposed to cycle on Shabbat

The faux pas then came thick and fast: I walked in and shook the rabbi's hand. Thankfully a better informed fresher had arrived just after me, and he leant over and whispered that I probably shouldn't shake any more hands. At least half of those congregated, the Rabbi included, were shomer negiah. Thank you Jonny.

The blessings began. In my house only the head of the household washes their hands, so a kindly soul did a "repeat-after-me" so I could wash mine. Pleased with my progress, I walked back to the table and demanded "what happens next?"

A table of twenty looked back at me, silent. Despite being at a Shabbat meal, I had never felt less Jewish.

While everyone else present laughed it off, and the rabbi and his wife didn't seem to mind my various mishaps in the slightest (but they still don't know I tore some loo roll), I was embarrassed. I made a short-lived promise to myself to learn more, to try harder, to "be a better Jew".

I finished up my parev ice cream, mumbled through benching, and remembering I had a meeting in town, left.

As others began the long walk back to the centre, I hopped on my bike and freewheeled back down the hill.

I don't know whether it was the fresh air or ease of travel, but on that bike ride I remembered that I believe in my kind of Judaism. I may not believe in keeping kosher, or keeping Shabbat, but I go to synagogue, and I engage in my community.

Whilst learning about my religion and knowing enough to respect the values of others is valuable, it is my personal opinion that keeping more mitzvot would make me a more observant Jew, but not necessarily a better one.

With this in mind, I returned to lunch at the rabbi's house a few weeks later. He and his family were as generous and welcoming as ever, and happily I remembered not to shake his hand. But after another blockbuster meal, I still cycled home.

Anna Sheinman is a third year law student at Downing College Cambridge. She is currently chief sub editor of the Cambridge tabloid newspaper The Tab. Follow her on Twitter, or read her blog.

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Last updated: 9:06am, September 16 2011