Of all the TV programmes I'm involved with, the one that gives me most pleasure is Channel 4's Friday Night Dinner, in which I play Auntie Val. The programme follows the weekly exploits of two 20-something (acting 12) Jewish sons at their parents' home every Friday night for their chicken and crumble. Last night was the screening for Series Three and I marvelled at how accurately the writer captures family dynamics.
Families are a mystery. My friend was bemoaning the looming family get-together at her mum's house in Ireland. "This christening is going to be a nightmare." Curled up on the sofa, clutching her cardigan as if it were a comforter, she looked about three years old. "My sister picks on me. My brother makes me feel stupid and Mum always gives me the worst guest room," she whined. My friend is pushing 50 with two teenage children of her own.
What is it about returning to the womb of the family that reduces us to become the children we once were, with all the same unresolved simmering tensions with siblings, parents and extended family? Most of my non-Jewish friends experience an en masse family get-together rarely, sometimes just at Christmas - "and there's always a row".
One of the main aspects of being Jewish that my secular friends still get a confused kick out of, is the tradition of Friday night dinner, aka a family reunion every Friday night! It causes amazement that a family would choose to meet weekly, with all the baggage that it entails. "Isn't it like Christmas lunch every week?" one university friend used to ask in horror, as I'd get into my Shabbat finery every Friday and forgo the big weekend social night out. What's the mystery? Why do Jewish families want this togetherness?
I know the spiritual answer. I tell my daughter every week: the Jewish people have a special night set aside to welcome in the Day of Rest. It is one of the 10 Commandments, a religious imperative to take a day off, to cast aside workaday concerns and look toward spiritual meaning within the family
Oh, the weekly masochism of Fridays
Yes, I know and love all that. And I get the beautiful symbolism of Shabbat dinner. But I think there is a deeper answer. Jews are masochists.
Why else would we go back into the fray every week, acting out the same squabbles we have had since childhood? I've seen High Court judges lambast their fathers for giving their brother a bigger piece of challah, or a businesswoman daughter run out of the room crying because her chicken got a negative shrug from the mother-in-law. Seriously. Week after week, back in to it, feeling the less loved, the less intelligent, the less valued, the favourite, the macher, the nebbech, each time hoping for a different outcome.
I think Hashem knew a thing about family counselling. Shabbat is the time to face the hell of family as well as the heaven. Again and again, generation after generation. And eventually, if confronted enough, there will be resolution.