Hosting a dinner party is an art. It takes careful planning and balancing. You’ve got to have the right number of men vs. women, singles vs. families, little kids, big kids, shy adults, dominant Type A’s and not too many teenagers obsessed with Game of Thrones.
Now, try hosting a dinner party every single week. Well, that’s what it’s like for us when it comes to the traditional Jewish custom of inviting guests for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays.
Fortunately, there are 52 weeks in a year and two main meals per Shabbat. So if every once in a while the guests don’t gel, it’s not the end of the world.
The holidays are different. They only come around once a year. And Rosh Hashana night is one of the most important holidays of them all…guest-wise at least.
Everyone gets dressed up in their very best clothes. The evening synagogue service is longer and more spirited than during the rest of the year; the food prepared more lavish. Anticipation always runs high.
In our house, we have a tradition of inviting several singles we are close with for Rosh Hashana evening each year. The group knows each other, everyone gets along.
A few years ago, however, for some reason the guest list grew. In addition to our regulars, we invited four other guests who needed a place to eat. It sounded great on paper. But the mix didn’t work.
I can’t put my finger on what went wrong. Maybe because people didn’t know each other. Maybe because it was a change in our “tradition.” But it felt awkward. There were two many moments of silence.
I hate silence.
Now, there is a tradition on Rosh Hashana of bringing out several symbolic foods and saying a blessing and short wish for the New Year over each. My wife Jody thought it would be fun to try this and had prepared everything in advance.
I figured anything that might break the ice could help.
Jody started with the traditional apple in the honey. We said the blessing for fruit – borei pri ha’etz, then added “May God renew us for a good and sweet new year.”
The guests smiled politely, a couple of quiet comments were even made. But still, there it was, that sticky but not sweet silence.
Next up were the pomegranates. I’ve always found pomegranates to be the oddest fruit. It takes forever to carve out the good stuff and then what do you get – these hard tiny seeds that never fail to fall on your nice white shirt, resulting in an irrevocable permanent stain on your fashion record.
But I was willing to play along. I carefully raised the pomegranate and added the saying “May our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate.”
There were a few smiles, but still no measurable increase in conversation. What the heck was wrong with this group!
We continued on, downing a couple of bright purple beets (ditto on the aforementioned stain danger), several honey-glazed carrots, a crunchy bunch of celery and a plate of truly luscious fresh dates.
When we got to the green onions, Jody described a Moroccan tradition where participants gather up the stems “like you’re gathering up all your troubles” and then you toss them over your shoulders “to ward off the evil eye.” We raised our onions and prepared to fling.
As I looked down the table, our oldest son Amir made a mischievous gesture, as if instead of flicking the onion towards the wall behind him, he was aiming forward, straight at me. I returned his gaze and sent a stern nonverbal rejoinder that said in no uncertain terms “you wouldn’t dare.”
Boy was he shocked, then, when I let my onion loose and it landed dead center across his face!
Without missing a beet (so to speak), he flung a stalk back at me.
The guests looked at this father and son skirmish as if madness had taken root. And then…everyone joined in.
For the next five minutes, there were onions flying back and forth.
Plop, there went one into a water glass.
Splat, another on the floor. Our daughter Merav bent over to pick it up…whoops, now it’s in your hair, kiddo.
Our youngest son Aviv tossed one up into the revolving fan that’s just to the right of our table, resulting in a thunderstorm of finely chopped chives. (OK, I made that one up, but it would have been fun if it happened.)
Finally, the flinging and pelting petered out and the crowd settled down. But the ice had definitely been broken. The rest of the evening flowed like the honey on the apple that started us off in what seemed at this point like a different holiday altogether.
When the chicken soup came out, though, I saw Amir eyeing the matzo balls as a naughty smirk spread slowly across his face.
But I’ll save that story for next year…