Dinner for 300

I didn’t cook anything this Shabbat.  With all my talk of recipes and creating a hands-on connection to the food we share, for this Friday night, the “biggest Jewish grad student event of the year,” the food was really secondary.  Or maybe not – ask the people who waited in line for 45 minutes for sushi…

This was the 9th year of the Penn-wide Grad Student Shabbat dinner, and my 5th year running this extravaganza.  And it really is extravagant:  Set tables for 300 with every seat filled, freshly made sushi on site, open bar, students from all the graduate schools at Penn.  It’s really a scene, and I  mean that in the best possible way.

When I say “running the event,” this year more than ever, that “running” really meant “watching” (ok, and list-making).  This event is in partnership with Lubavitch House at Penn, and between them (thanks, Jen!) and the unbelievable students who devoted so much time to making this dinner happen, I actually didn’t feel like I did that much.

In the many hours of prep leading up to the event, I watched students carry tray after tray of chicken and bottle after bottle of vodka into the room.  I watched the room transform from a career fair to a Shabbat space.  I watched Marc, yet again this year (with incredibly generous help from Suzanne and the security guards), struggle to hang up our banners and, of course, make them look perfect in the end.

In the many hours of the dinner itself, I watched 300 people flood the room, but in such a way that crowd control wasn’t an issue.  I watched students meet each other, and make plans to meet again.  I watched people’s eyes flit to my belly and realized who I hadn’t seen in a few months.  I watched this extraordinarily kind mob celebrate Shabbat together.

I have a love/struggle relationship with this dinner.  I love it because it’s big and beautiful and the attendees are happy and glowing and it’s quite an accomplishment to pull off, but I struggle with it because for a lot of the people there, this is their Shabbat for the year.  It’s not just an atypical Shabbat, to be there with so many people, it’s an atypical Friday, to acknowledge Shabbat at all.

I think that celebrating Shabbat once a year is better than never celebrating it, but when I contrast dinner Friday night with lunch on Saturday, I truly wish everyone had both experiences in their repertoire.  Ilana brought lunch (and Alex), and the four us had the calmest meal ever.  Yes, it was the perfect antidote to Friday, but it was also, in a kind of pure sense, the perfect antidote to the week, a real distinction between Shabbat and everyday.

Oh yeah, and we ate well, too: pasta with creme fraiche (plus garlic, salt, parmesan, and, for everyone else, smoked salmon), Israeli salad, the most delicious roasted asparagus, and brownies, grapes, and chocolate ice cream (Marc’s contribution) for dessert.  We ate slowly, told stories, took seconds, and I took a deep  breath for what felt like the first time all week.  Then we moved to the couch, browsed magazines, talked, and had no rush to be anywhere.

There are no recipes this week (unless you count the tip that creme fraiche and sea salt improve basically any food), just the acknowledgment that this was an exceptional week in a lot of ways, and like every other passage of time, now it’s gone, and there’s a new week to look forward to.


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