Kiddush Talk

Make kiddush great again, some may bellow. As for me, I do my very best to avoid kiddush altogether. Nothing is less appealing than small talk with people who have egg salad in their teeth. I enjoy people but not in crowded social halls with outsized decibel levels. I’ve been criticized for hurting people’s feelings at kiddush because I didn’t see them. They were right. At a kiddush, I can’t hear. I can’t see.

But I am not the only one. Like a sociologist, I’ve been observing kiddush behavior in the hopes of getting techniques to work the room better, so I wrote to a dozen-plus rabbis across the country and of every denomination asking for advice. Who better to master kiddush talk than rabbis?

As it turns out, nearly everyone. I received nine pages of comments from rabbis who struggle with kiddush. “I hate tuna fish and oftentimes people talk, and it sometimes inadvertently comes flying at me.” It’s not just me. One rabbi went so far as to say he suffers from Kiddush Anxiety, a new neurological disorder. After services, he just wants to read a book and take a nap. For a rabbi who has been “performing” for the past several hours — noticing congregants’ needs, making sure the service goes smoothly, delivering a sermon — kiddush comes at a bad time. Many rabbis used the word “exhausted” in relation to kiddush duty. Some haven’t prayed properly in years. Some also shared that they are hungry.

Many rabbis saw liability in offering the ruse of a meaningful conversation with constant kiddush-style interruptions. “It can feel (and be) fake. It opens us to ambushes. It can backfire and make a community feel less genuine, open, and welcoming, rather than more. It can unintentionally promote lashon hara [gossip].”

One rabbi who works hard at his pastoral skills, his sermons and his classes, feels judged most by his performance or lack thereof at a kiddush. Still another observed that, “For those of us who lean more toward the introverted side of the social spectrum, there’s nothing that requires the output of more emotional energy than a cocktail party. Every interaction requires me to summon charm and wit; to call on memory banks at lightning speeds (to remember names of grandchildren living in foreign countries that I’ve never met!) … to transition spontaneously from sobriety to celebration; and then to do it all again in the next instant. And for those of us who privilege depth over breadth, we’re often left feeling cheated…”

Yet every rabbi recognized the importance of schmoozing. A former president said that kiddush “allows for the humanizing of an authority figure” — the rabbi, and one rabbi believes that for congregants who don’t take to prayer, the rabbi at kiddush is their Sinai. “If we teach Judaism as a real living thing, part of that is standing with, eating with, talking with people.” 

One rabbi is improving his networking skills this way: “I began to look at each conversation as discovering the story of each person. It was like reading autobiographies in conversation.” To add to this, another rabbi thinks that kiddush is actually a gift. “Kiddush is not something you survive but an engraved invitation to a profound encounter.”

On the positive side, one rabbi quipped that, “a good kiddush can save a rabbi three weeks’ worth of appointments.” A synagogue president had a similar reaction: “for congregants the easiest time for them to share opinions or ask questions was in shul on Shabbat.” Another rabbi saw an important side benefit: “If you feel like you gave a crappy drash, it’s a nice chance to hear compliments about it anyway.”

One rabbi (whose name I will withhold here) gave a very powerful sermon and deeply inspired a person in the pews to convert. The worshipper waited until after the service and approached the rabbi. He wanted to be part of the Jewish people. The rabbi paused and pointed to a set of doors: “You see those doors? Behind them is a kiddush. I want you to go into kiddush and then tell me if you still want to be a part of the Jewish people.”

How can we do this better? Here’s some tips from the experts.

Reach out — don’t only speak to your friends; make eye contact with everyone in the circle, especially those entering and exiting; acknowledge those who would like to break in; avoid the temptation to broach a heavy, personal topic — it’s not the place.

Also, suggest a post-kiddush conversation if the topic is sensitive or can lead to misunderstanding; transition out of one conversation by introducing people and “handing them off” rather than “leaving them hanging”; let go of conversations with dignity and love. And finally, my favorite: “leave as soon as possible.”

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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