My beautiful Shabbat
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For once I’m ahead of myself. The table is set for ten, the chicken is pre-casseroled, the one vegetarian – bah, humbug – has been catered for and the high chair is out, even though the grandchild won’t actually sit in it. All that’s required is a dash to the deli for veg, fruit and challah.
Friday nights with no play to perform and the prospect of a granddaughter to beam at over the candles is, as my old Dad used to say, a mechiah. Guido, my “young” swain, will arrive with herring and babaganoush, the kids will ring to ask if they can park outside, and friends will drift over with bottles of plonk and the odd pie. I get misty as the crisps diminish in the dish, remembering how my late husband, Jack, loved the preparations. He regularly requested the presence of our old chums Paula and David, who’d have a row at the table, becoming the 13 year olds they were when they met. Jack would crumple into laughter, glasses on head, snorting and braying until the rest of us joined him.
Or those Friday nights with our friends Bruce and Sarah and their four kids, when everyone was asked to say the best and worst thing that has happened in their week. The grown-ups inevitably cite the present moment as their “best”, good food in good company, while the kids are more likely to mention, “um, like, this amazing Snap-Chat I got from my best friend?”
This week, my “best” would have to be dining at the Deanery of Westminster Abbey, followed by a late-night tour of every stone and cranny of our history. My “worst” would be my own somewhat high-handed behaviour with an Audi service person, wearing a green Velcro roller in my hair throughout.
I like it best when there’s a general topic around the table, rather than left-and-right head-turning. The other week, we explored the question I’d been asked by a radio journalist: “What does it mean to be human?”
In between watching almost two-year-old Ava lick an alarming amount of Palwin’s off her fingers, everyone threw in suggestions: “Self-awareness”, suggested one guest and “the intimation of mortality”, said another.
Humour, memory and creativity were all mentioned, yet there’s evidence of all this among animals too. Ilona was reading a book about crows which gave a fascinating insight into their formidable intelligence, and another guest threw in the monkeys on YouTube laughing themselves into hysterics as one of their clan fell noisily off a branch. I like to think it gave everyone food for thought, as well as dinner. A kind of philosophical going-home present.
If I bring up Israel, familial eyes will roll, in dissent (son) or despair (daughter). But could we not discuss the female prelate of St James Church, Piccadilly, whose idea of constructive interfaith was to erect a facsimile of the Israeli border wall outside her church? The installation, part of an exhibition in the courtyard of a house of God, cost £30,000. Nowhere was there mention of why it was erected, how many lives it has saved or any comparison with the long-existing walls bordering Mexico, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus. Perhaps blinkered tribalism is what we most share with the animal kingdom.
I’m quiet though now, at 6.30, because I am tired. My trip to north London for challah was like the search for the Holy Grail. At midday, the Sephardi bakery was entirely out of anything farinaceous. I raced to St John’s Wood, parked 40 minutes later and got to the all-purpose deli, to find their bread-bin equally bare. I picked up three figs, an aubergine, some parsley, nuts, carrots and green beans and the bill was £28!
I disputed this. Turned out the figs are £9. £3 per f* fig. I threw the veg at the till with a few choice words and set off for the still further and more frozen north. I returned home with prototype-challah rolls, no petrol and some sad garage flowers. If I still smoked I’d light up with alacrity and enjoy the perfect punctuation of my smoke-rings. Since I don’t, I sample all the food. By the time the doorbell rings I am humanised again. Full of good hummus, all smoothed out and ready to stop the clock for another Shabbat.