The Shabbat dinners that my husband and I hosted at our home in North-West London had a languorous feel to them. With both my family and his living outside London, friends were our Friday-night family. I came to look forward to winding down after a long week, the lighting of candles atop gleaming chrome candlesticks (a wedding gift), and the relaxed laughter and banter around the table. We would all linger in our chairs until late into the night.
Having not been brought up within a religious tradition (my single mother’s Judaism had been more about the culture than about shul-going), as a newlywed, I enjoyed both hosting and attending Shabbat dinners in the same way that I embraced Jewish holidays: with a sprinkling of curiosity and a large spoonful of enthusiasm.
Seven months after we stood together under the chupah, my husband walked away from our fledgling marriage. Within a short amount of time, my life as I knew it had been upended on its very axis. I found myself moving house, along with Golda, our affectionate calico cat, whom we’d adopted together several months before. In between my marriage abruptly ending and our divorce being finalised, I lived in a flat that had just enough room for a circular table for four. Without fully understanding why, I knew it was important for me to continue hosting Shabbat dinners.
As I went through the quite surreal transition from newlywed to divorcee, these dinners brought me some comfort. I wanted to continue a tradition I’d only just begun, albeit without my husband by my side; doing so was a part of my evolving identity as a Jewish woman. Rituals such as candle-lighting and blessings are of course part of the very fabric of the Sabbath; they helped ground me during a time where I felt uprooted. The beautiful Judaica gifts for our wedding came to life in my flat every Friday, and the creative act of table decoration brought me a kind of satisfaction. Preparing meals for others also helped me feel purposeful during a time of considerable stress.
When you’re Jewish and single in London, with no family in the area, there are of course a multitude of ways in which you can spend a Friday night. The Centre for Jewish Life offers regular singles dinners on Friday nights; there are other venues offering something similar. But I had little appetite for these dinners; I wasn’t in a state where I was “single and ready to mingle.” I was, rather, healing from the trauma of my husband exiting our marriage and, at the same time, beginning to establish new foundations. Healing is different for every person: mine was a steady, quiet thing, not something that sought out the company of strangers. With every new dish I cooked and every match I struck, I was moving into my new life, steadily re-establishing myself as an independent single woman.
I taught myself how to cook the dishes my grandmother used to make, using cookbooks that had been passed down to me when I married. If food is an expression of love, my friends benefited from the love I had to give. Golda greatly enjoyed licking the meat juices from the pans after they’d been used, too; her obvious satisfaction every Friday night made me smile.
My Friday night guests were a diverse mix of women and men. They were people who wanted a meaningful way to spend a Friday evening. Some, like me, had not been particularly observant, but were simply interested in the tradition of a Shabbat dinner. Others were in a place of transition, too — going through a separation or divorce. A few were living a continent away from their families and others had husbands or wives who travelled often. Some were widows or widowers. Singles Shabbat events weren’t of interest to these friends either, and together we forged a new group, which, somewhere along the way, developed the nickname of “Shabbat Club.”
A few weeks after my divorce was finalised, I moved into a new flat. I sought more space in which to entertain; I wanted to host more people around my people. I purchased a large, oak dining-table, one that would comfortably fit six, or even eight if we sat close together. The table is one of my favourite objects in my flat, simply because of all that it represents.
Last year, I decided to try hosting women-only Shabbat dinners; I was curious how the dynamic might differ with only women present, and also about what might be gained from such an evening. Time with female friends is important no matter what life-stage a woman is in; there’s a palpable energy in the room when a group of girlfriends are together. For a year-and-a-half now, a growing cadre of women meet about once a month around my table or around another. The Shabbat Club has taken on a life of its own. All of us now take turns hosting.
The lighting of the candles on Shabbat is supposed to be done by the woman of the house, and there is something special that can be felt by everyone around the table in these moments, when it is only women around a table, lighting the candles, saying the prayers, and being present with each other.
At these women-only Shabbat dinners, there’s an unspoken solidarity between us, no matter our life circumstances. Around the dinner table, we are not as defined by identities such as wife, mother, sister, unmarried woman, divorcee or widow.
Instead, we are friends, making time for each other at the end of a busy week, supporting each other through the cycles of life and relaxing into the weekend together.