Musings on My Childhood Shabbat Dinners

Estelle is the latest in the “guest bloggers I’m meeting through the blog” category.  Like Mordechai a couple weeks back, she’s writing about past Shabbat experiences, but what’s a format for if not to be broken?  You can read more of her writing at http://www.musingsonmotherhoodmidlife.com.

“Is this the little girl I carried,” I smile as I prepare a chicken dish while listening to a CD of an orchestral rendition of the song “Sunrise Sunset,” favored at Jewish weddings, bat mitzvahs, and the occasional funeral. Although these days I lead a very secular life with my husband and pre-school-age daughter, my mind leaps through the years, and I’m taken back to the early days of my childhood, when I used to have Shabbat dinner at the garden apartment of my paternal grandparents where we lived in Kew Gardens, Queens.

I’ve always loved music; in fact, I studied opera and planned on having a career as an opera singer, before the mathematical aspects of music theory derailed my dream, and I opted to pursue my second love, writing, instead. During my early adolescence, I’d often launch into spontaneous performances for my family and grandparents, who would kvell over me.

I wish I could say I sang for my supper of boiled chicken, stewed carrots, and knubel borscht (beef simmered in beet soup and garlic) and rib-eye steak or cholent, (a traditional Jewish stew of beef, beans and barley) cooked the night before for my dad who was allergic to chicken. But, at the tender age of three, I was too young. In this case, I remember it was my grandpa who would do the singing.

My grandpa Phil was the clear patriarch of the family. A man short in stature,
but large of personality, he had risen to manage a suit factory and was an early
organizer of trade unions. He was also a highly religious Orthodox Jew. Although my father had graduated from a Yeshiva, I was raised as a conservative Jew, but I traversed both worlds easily.

Grandpa had a boisterous laugh when he was amused, but mostly I saw him as
authoritative, usually admonishing me that “if you don’t stop your running around, Estelle, you’re going to fall and hit your head on the table.”

Ah the table. I remember the table was carefully set, covered with a pure white
cloth, on top of which lay a large doily. My grandma Frieda was a fanatic about
cleanliness, and in those early days, I remember how pristine she kept her citadel of a kitchen. She had a sweet tooth, and she indulged it, but only she knew where the desired chocolate treats were stashed. As was tradition, grandma always made a special ceremony of lighting the Shabbat candles, and even though I was only three years old, I remember holding a candle for her to light, as my mom and grandma covered their hair, while we all were benching lecht.

But after enjoying the meal, which was rich in protein, vegetables and grains (before magazines were urging families to follow those rules) and prepared with my grandmother’s loving hands, I watched my grandfather run through his faithful repertoire of Jewish and Shabbat songs. He never sang the words to Sim Shalom (Sim sim sim shalom, sim shalom tovah uv’rachah) and Adon Olam (Adon olam, asher malach, b’terem kol y’tzir nivra) or even Jerusalem of Gold (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) or Sunrise Sunset (that was left to my parents and grandmother), but he would start humming, and as he hummed, I watched his normally tense features soften as he basked in the moment.

Grandma and Grandpa passed on long ago, but I still remember those warmth-filled evenings where food, music and ritual possessed the power to transform, stamping the moment in the memory of my tomorrows.

What’s your early family Shabbat memory?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Musings on My Childhood Shabbat Dinners

  1. JEROME SOBEL

    From Dad to Estelle.
    I loved your beautiful article. This article brought back beautiful memories re our celabrating the Shabbas meal with my parents, your mother, you and Michelle in Kew Gardens. You wrote this beautifully and with great feeling.
    Love,
    Dad and Mom

  2. Thanks Dad. Glad you enjoyed this tale from my childhood.

  3. I have had Shabbat dinners in my house since my children were born, never before that. It’s become a special night in my house and a tradition I hope to keep up.

  4. Holly, just saw this. Its wonderful that you are doing Shabbat dinners. It is something I will explore as my daughter gets older, I think.

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