Dayenu! (And yes, I know it’s Rosh Hashanah)
Rosh Hashanah preparations are well under way in my house.
Have been for weeks. Cooking (and freezing), studying Torah portions, learning new choir music, designing the seating arrangements and place cards (don’t judge me), and placing bakery and butcher orders; all executed in an effort to have an enjoyable (and organized) holiday celebration.
I’m good at planning. It is, after all, how I make my living. Years spent trying to anticipate needs before they arise have honed my analytical and research skills. They have made me a good predictor of what is to come.
So it is natural that I find myself ruminating about that which is the hardest thing to predict — human behavior.
There are a quite a number of people at my Rosh Hashanah dinner table. Twenty-three are expected this year. The gathering spans four generations, careers from rabbi to lawyer to retail management (with several Jewish communal professionals thrown in for good measure), and a broad spectrum of political leanings.
The opinions of the people around the table are diverse. The conversation is always robust and usually cordial. There have been a few tense moments over the years, when widely disparate social views became the topic of dinner conversation that rendered the nicest, most gracious amongst us into loudly spoken, fist-banging-on-the-table disruptors of my carefully crafted holiday experience.
The political atmosphere of late has been intense. Even those who never seem to think about what is going on in the world are discussing political debates, world politics, and economics. Some of these issues have become so polarizing that they enable some people to conduct themselves without civility, relegating minority or unpopular opinion holders to whisper their positions rather than risking the harsh criticism that might accompany giving full voice to them. They are afraid of being judged and denigrated. They are tired of fending off disgust.
It is good to care. It is good to advocate. It is the responsibility of every citizen to pay attention and to be heard. Amen. But when such discourse bumps civility — dayenu! Moreover, to have this behavior at a holiday table is simply unacceptable.
This year I am banning certain topics at my holiday table. Among them: the Republican presidential candidates, the pros and cons of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the Iran deal, and border control. Health care, labor unions, and lashon hara also are on the no-fly list.
With my list of banned topics, I realize that I might need to provide some conversation starters for those around the table. I was inspired to do this in July while visiting a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor on Cape Cod. A three sided, self-standing table topper with questions you might ask of your companion was placed on each table. (Because I did not have the forethought to write the questions down and now I am unable to find them on the Internet, I am drawing from memory.) The questions were of this kind: “If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why would you choose it?” “If you could invite three people to dinner (dead or alive), who would it be, and why?” They seemed to be basic questions, but I realized that I did not know how anyone in my family would answer them. Not my husband, my kids, my mother or mother-in-law, my sister and sisters-in-law, my brothers-in-law. Not one of them.
I also realized that I wanted to know the answers.
Perhaps these questions are not quite as holiday appropriate (or holiday specific) as asking about hopes and dreams for the coming year, or about the greatest triumphs and defeats from the year that is coming to a close. To me they are less contrived. (Although if I were forced to pick a holiday specific or appropriate question, I’d go with “What is your favorite Rosh Hashanah memory?”)
So here are my conversation starter questions for Rosh Hashanah. They will appear on three-sided table toppers at appropriate intervals along my table.
Side one — the superpower and dinner companion questions I’ve already discussed.
1. What are three things that are fun for you? (One of mine is canasta . Yes, canasta.)
2. What quirky things are you interested in that I might not know about? (My own consist of an insatiable curiosity about Tristan daCunha and avid watching of survivalist/subsistence living reality shows such as Life Below Zero and Alone.)
1. (From TheFamilyDinnerProject.org) Gertrude Stein said, “Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.” Describe the most creative way you’ve ever expressed thanks to someone, or someone has expressed thanks to you.
2. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” What is something you recently did that scared you — that required courage?
I am putting these questions on my holiday table because I want to create a an oasis from the political, the angst-filled, the opinionated. Moreover, I want to know these things about the people I care about, and I want the people I care about to know these things about one another.
And to that, there will never be Dayenu.