This is what was on my table after the Yom Kippur fast: lox, bagels, white fish, pickled herring, etc., etc. — the smoked fishes and salads many of us serve at the end of the long day. But this year I added something new to the table. Whales. No, not the flesh of whales (not kosher, in any event), but whale salt shakers and a set of small white ceramic whales that paraded along the center of the table between three pots of flowers and some flickering little candle lights. The theme was taken, of course, from the Book of Jonah, read at synagogue services in the late afternoon. True, the Book speaks of a big fish that swallowed Jonah, but tradition has identified that fish as a whale, and that was good enough for me in decorating my post-Yom Kippur table.
Here’s my secret: Decorating the dining table for holidays gives me much more pleasure than cooking the meals. I can spend hours choosing the table décor — cloths, napkins, flowers, candles. The table becomes a canvas for me, and I fuss over its every detail. Not only that. Over the years, I have accumulated objects to adorn my table for every occasion. For Rosh HaShanah there are china pomegranates, glass apples and enamel apple-and-honey salt shakers. Thanksgiving features ceramic turkeys along with pilgrim figurines and pumpkin-shaped candles. Chanukah has an array of dreidels, some of them antique. Predictably, a collection of porcelain and glass frogs enhances the Passover table.
Reading over what I’ve just written, I’ll admit I sound a bit crazy. The world is falling apart, our president is toying with nuclear war against North Korea, earthquakes and hurricanes are ravaging entire populations and I’m obsessing about miniature whales and frogs?
Well, I have a justification. Such obsession with decorative objects and details of the environment is part of my DNA, and not only mine but that of all the Jewish people. Just look at chapters 36 through 39 in the Book of Exodus. The text describes in the most minute detail the building of the tabernacle, the holy place in the wilderness for God’s spirit. When those portions are read during Sabbath synagogue services, my husband gets impatient with the endless descriptions. But I love the lush images that take form under the direction of Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab. We read of cherubim decorating linens of blue, purple and crimson, of coverings of goat hair and dolphin skins, of planks of acacia wood and clasps of gold and copper. We read of golden bowls, jugs, and jars placed on the table. For each item made we get exact measurements — an altar of acacia wood exactly one cubit long and another five cubits long and five wide. My favorite part is about the high priest’s clothing with its breastplate of precious and semi-precious stones such as emerald and turquoise, and its robe hemmed with alternating pomegranates and bells that tinkle as he enters and leaves the Holy of Holies.
Yes, it is a part of our DNA, this commitment to beautifying the tabernacle and later the Temple and then our places of worship. People have often mistakenly believed that Jews shunned art, because of the second commandment forbidding graven images. In fact, the ruins of ancient synagogues, such as the third century Dura-Europos in Syria or the sixth century Beth Alpha in Israel, have beautiful mosaics, several with human figures, indicating that early houses of worship were frequently lavishly decorated. And consider the gorgeous illuminated manuscripts that date back to the Middle Ages and are part of our rich artistic heritage. Aesthetics have always been intrinsic to Jewish life as they have been to all peoples. In fact, when terrorists or conquerors seek to destroy a nation, they begin by trying to destroy its art and culture. Think of ISIS smashing ancient statues and other artifacts in places its militants invaded. Think of the Arch of Titus, with Roman soldiers carrying off the most sacred symbol and aesthetic element of the Temple, the seven-branched menorah. Rome had conquered Judea and was out to conquer the spirit of its inhabitants as well.
OK, my holiday tables do not fall into the realm of temple art. But tradition holds that the Sabbath and festival table in our homes replaces the altar in that ancient temple, becoming a place for families to celebrate their religion and beliefs. What better place, then, to beautify?
Sukkot this week is easy to embellish. My table, like those of others, has been decorated with fresh fruits and vegetables representative of the season. But I might as well confess: I couldn’t resist, also, the lovely silver plated pear-shaped salt and peppers I’ve recently acquired. Oh, and did I mention the eggplant colored napkins with their lovely leaf-like pattern? Perfection.
Francine Klagsbrun’s new book, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” (Schocken), will be published on Oct. 17.