Covid can't stop good old chaotic Jewish hospitality

The pandemic has put social lives on hold but it won't get the better of us forever


Multi-generation family eating together

January 06, 2021 17:08

Last year, with the naivety of a white-clad victim in a horror film’s opening frame, I wrote about my hopes for Britain’s Jewish community over the next decade. While these still hold, it’s fair to say the short-term conversation has shifted.

Still, a new year is a time for contemplation. As we embark on what will undoubtedly be a tough period, I have a more modest resolution: hospitality.

The word has been on everyone’s lips of late, sadly in the context of businesses closing, of furloughed staff, of redundancies and collapses. We’ve talked hospitality in terms of restrictions and limitations; how far apart we must sit, how few others we can break challah with, the abridged guestlists for our simchahs, or how we can only drink if simultaneously we eat (rarely a Jewish problem). If, briefly, we ate out to help out, that seems distant now.

When the smoke eventually clears, I have no doubt those who can will rush to revitalise Britain’s wounded hospitality sector, swapping Zoom weddings for real ones and likewise boosting our kosher establishments. I’m saddened JW3’s Zest is no more; hopeful the charming Head Room café, Jami’s social enterprise, can hold on.

But when I speak of hospitality, I mean it in the simpler sense; the basic pleasure of receiving guests in one’s home.

For me, and I suspect for many, this is part of the essence of Jewish life. We feast together, and engineer myriad reasons to encourage others to feast with us. It goes back to Abraham opening his tent to the wanderers in Mamre, or to Rebecca providing water for his servant’s hungry camels. Perhaps as well, to the Pesach tradition of inviting strangers to share our seders.

Our rituals are predicated on collective culinary experiences, from intimate Shabbat lunches to large-scale wedding dinners. The Purim seudah, family latkes at Chanukah, the post-fast chowdown; the Jewish calendar is one of religious milestones, but less prosaically, it is an annual agenda of cooking and catering. If Judaism is an organised religion, it is also a religion of organising plans with friends, family and loved ones.

Last January my diary was brimming with opportunities to host and attend, from Friday night meals to seder plans booked in months ahead. There was the friends’ Purim party that now feels like the last celebration before Rome burned. This year, I don’t even have the appetite to pencil anything in— just blank pages. How dispiriting a prospect; a Jewish year without the delights that ordinarily fill it.

So my resolution — and perhaps I am not alone — will be to make the most of the ability to be hospitable or to benefit from others’ hospitality, when it is finally possible. Let’s invite those guests we’d been putting off, extend an olive branch to those we’ve broigesed with, make good on our intentions to welcome newcomers to dinner. Let’s be bothered, make the effort, go to that shul function or the barmitzvah we’d once have been tempted to make an excuse for.

We can build back better. Let’s simplify hospitality. Desperate as I am to welcome guests, it’s not for those fancy, fussy, time-consuming shindigs where planning and prep is disproportionate to pleasure.

Let’s reset away from the competitive element of Jewish hospitality; the 14 side dishes that had you up all night cooking, the homemade starter when a tub of hummus would suffice. The pretence is that “it was nothing” to rustle all this up, when the reality is that hospitality asks a lot of those extending it (usually but not exclusively women) and can be too costly for those on tighter budgets. Let’s go back to basics, accepting it is company, not Michelin-starred catering, that is the point.

What I crave is the free and easy. The last-minute, “pop back after kiddush” or “come in for some honey cake after Tashlich”. The leftovers on a Saturday evening, delicious because it is joyous simply to be at a table together.

Likewise, no gifts (or regifts). Let’s declare a moratorium on boxes of Bendicks circulating round the community, on bouquets of flowers, on residual guilt for coming empty-handed. Let’s accept hosting is a privilege and requires no reward; only that of exuberant company and the promise of similar future gatherings.

In what we hope will be a second roaring twenties, let’s usher in an era of Jewish communal life that is inclusive, flexible, fun, and hassle free. An era that lives up to Abraham’s hospitality; that takes nothing for granted. Bring on eleventh-hour invitations, fold-up chairs, an added guest being no complication. Bought in food or potluck dinners; children running around; everyone piling in to help with the washing up.

Chaos, not order. Jewish life at its finest, in other words. Pull up a chair.

January 06, 2021 17:08

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