Family & Education

What makes Friday nights great?

Friday night dinner is the quintessential Jewish experience - but it can be a sensitive subject. Claire Cantor investigates


Few hearts sink at the thought of a Friday night dinner. That delicious, comforting, familiar feast of chicken soup, roast chicken and crispy potatoes, followed by a selection of lovingly prepared, homemade desserts is loved by all, surely?

But this quintessential Jewish experience can be a sensitive subject. It can lead to feelings of guilt —for not doing it “properly”, or for failing to get your reluctant teenagers at home or off their phones on a Friday night. If you’re alone, Friday nights can exacerbate your loneliness. And then there’s the pressure to prepare and cook a huge, not very healthy meal every week.

The TV show Friday Night Dinner brought the Jewish family gathering to a mainstream audience. Tracey-Ann Oberman, aka Auntie Val, believes its popularity comes from the universal theme of family. “Everyone recognises the love, the frustration, the humour, the crazy antics, and the tradition that keeps the family and friends together,” she says.

My childhood memories are nothing like the fictional family on our screens. As the Welsh winter nights drew in, we would sit in the living room, noses in our respective books, wearing our Shabbat best clothes. My mother would routinely describe the scene “like the reading room at the British Museum.” We would then be treated to lemonade or shandy, and a meal topped off with homemade chocolate chip ice cream, pavlova or chocolate mousse.

These days I congratulate myself that, as my son, Louis, turns 18, we have managed to keep Friday night dinners sacred throughout his teenage years. Like many of my friends we do allow the occasional week off for special events. Whilst my daughter is mainly interested in her grandmother’s chicken soup, Louis likes our ‘highlight of the week’ chats and the specially laid table.

Is there a magic formula for keeping the family engaged with Friday night dinners? For Karen Goldstone, 50, family is the key. She merely needs to invite some of their favourite cousins and family members to make sure her teenage children stay home.

“Even though I don’t do big dinners every week, I always light the candles and buy challah,” she says. “It’s a bit of spring clean as well — I tidy up the house and make it look lovely. My kids like the build-up, getting the table ready, lighting the candles, saying the blessings. I generally invite family, there’s a bonding, a closeness and sense of belonging you get with family gatherings. My daughter Elisa, 15, even likes us to play games.”

Goldstone’s son Freddie chose to study in St Andrews, “to get as far away as possible from his Judaism.” Ironically, once there, he reconnected through the Jewish university fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. “I have fully immersed myself in the Jewish scene here,” he says. “Welook out for each other in both the good and bad times during our university life. We get together on a Friday night to hang out in AEPi house and eat together. I have met some amazing people and made friends for life.”

The student years are often a chance for young adults to reconnect to Friday night dinner in their own way. Jack, 26, from Finchley, was a regular at Nottingham University Chabad on Friday nights. “Some people would go out clubbing afterwards — but they still came to dinner, they were there for the atmosphere.”

Now in his 20s and back at home, his friends are organising their ownShabbat dinners. “These are not kippah wearers, nor completely shomer Shabbat. Most guests will drive home afterwards,” he explains. “But they have been brought up in traditional Jewish families and Fridy night is important to them. Some of my friends invite non-Jewish people for these dinners, because they want to share an experience that they love.”

Jack feels that the stricter the parents are the less interested or observant the kids will be. “We have always had a balance in our house, and Friday night dinner is not a chore. Also my mum is a great cook! When my work friends ask me to a pub, I know I would much rather spend a lovely time with my family.”

If you’re alone for Friday night, a communal dinner can be a lifesaver. In Crouch End, the Liberal community often host community Friday night dinners, Shabbat b’bayit (Shabbat at home) led by Rabbi Sandra Kviat. Around 20-30 people enjoy the dinners, with singing and discussion. Even the teenagers join in. Rabbi Sandra suggests Friday night offers a sanctuary in time, in a world where we are all craving peace and family time. Her magic formula? Continuity, but in an open way. “Engage with Friday night however you can — be it with singing or talking about the week. Try to include the children and keep it going.”

Friday nights can be difficult for young families. “It’s so much easier now the kids are older. When they were younger it usually ended up in meltdown,” says Deborah, 45, who has three teenagers at JFS. “These days it’s the only night of the week that we gather round the dining table, so it’s a different vibe.”

Deborah prefers an informal Friday night. She’s married to an Israeli and lived in Israel for many years, and liked the laid back approach more common there. “People get up and move around, and there’s always some deep discussion. We have taken out the element that it’s a duty, that you have to be there every week. I can see it dropping off at some point when the kids leave home, but coming back perhaps when they are older and have families.”

What’s clear is that you don’t have to be particularly observant to include Friday night dinner in your life — like the family on Friday Night Dinner. It seems to endure despite the attractions and distractions of modern life.

Friday night dinner is an inclusive, easy access, open-to-all way of connecting with Jewishness for one night a week. And, of course, there’s the chicken soup…

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