Congregation Or Haneshamah has announced a new initiative called Shabbat Around the Table to which members invite Jewish and non-Jewish guests to join them for Shabbat dinner at their homes. The first event took place in January, and I was reminded of a time when I was welcomed at a Shabbat table.
I lived in Amsterdam for a few months in 2014 and I sought out the Jewish community there. I was so moved by the generosity of the people I met at Liberaal Joodse Gemeente and Beit Ha Chidush. Just one week after meeting Mirjiam at a Shacharit service, she invited me to her house one sweltering Friday afternoon to bake challah or, rather, to bake challot, because, in the Dutch Ashkenazi tradition, you always bake two loaves for Shabbat and offer them both, holding them up together, when you bless the bread. Other communities do this too, of course. I also saw this custom in Poland at Beit Krakow in the dreamy and mystical Kazimierz neighbourhood.
Mirjiam invited me up three flights of steep stairs to her apartment with its grand piano and bookshelves filled with Judaica. She told me that she usually bakes challah from a mix, but that day we would try it from scratch. Mirjiam’s English is good, but not perfect, and my Dutch is niet so goode, but we persevered, combining the challah ingredients while I tried to calculate how to half the Dutch recipe. We laughed at how to translate “until bubbles appear in the dough” and then, later, when we were kneading the dough, how to render this from the Dutch original: “knead until the dough feels like a baby’s bottom.” I joked that this recipe is prejudiced towards mothers, and she quipped, “Why not fathers?” and then we agreed that knowledge of parenting, or at least babysitting, is required. I said that, either way, I am ill-equipped for the job.
It was my first time ever baking challah. Mirjiam explained that her ex-husband used to be the challah-baker, but, for 10 years, it had been up to her. She hosts Shabbat dinner every week for her sons and her friends. Her daughter made aliyah a few years ago to Tel Aviv.
We glazed the braided challah loaves, two of course, and sprinkled poppy seeds. I asked how her daughter was doing and Mirjiam said that, when they last spoke, she was on her way to a surfing lesson. Later that weekend, we learned about the four children from Gaza killed on a beach just down the coast.
We put the two loaves into the oven and set a timer. I felt honoured to be invited to the Shabbat table in this bright home. The guests arrived, and we collected on the tiny balcony to sit in the breeze. There were Mirjiam’s two sons, two family friends, and the lady rabbijn I met last week at the sjul. And there was me: the stranger. I was grateful to be there and wondered how I could reciprocate this act of radical hospitality.
It was still bright outside at about 8:30 pm when we decided to light the candles and we discussed whether candle-lighting protocol varies the further north or south you live. We blessed the candles, and Mirjiam’s older son made Kiddush over the wine.
We brought out the challot to great acclaim. The loaves looked beautiful, and everyone was impressed we made them from scratch. Much care was taken to salt each piece of challah. For me that summer, the salted challah symbolized awareness of the contemporary violence in Israel and Gaza, and also the history of the Shoah, which is never distant for us in Europe and for our families. At services in Amsterdam, for example, I learned that everyone stands for the whole of the Mourner’s Kaddish to commemorate the social grief. This has been a tradition for decades, a tradition to collectively mourn the world that was lost.
That evening, around that Shabbat table, conversations in Dutch and English ranged widely. I announced that, when I try baking challah on my own, I will invite a friend or stranger to help. We left in good spirits, after having eaten well and drunk much wine. I cycled home in the hot dark night feeling very grateful for the kindness of strangers.