Erev my second Shabbat of college, a stranger added me along with 10 or so other strangers to a Facebook group titled “Noodles, Poodles, and Dinner.” I panicked. Not just because I suffer a severe a fear of dogs (though that definitely played a significant role), but moreover, because over the past year, fear had shifted from being the only one skirted in high school to catching the last bus before Shabbat in Israel, to eventually, each new day of college all the surprises it held. My mind raced back to that afternoon’s club fair, where I had been cajoled to leave my name on lists for several of UMD’s diverse extracurriculars, and I remembered several eccentric people I had met. In seminary, you were “different” if you weren’t from New York; in college, you could be “normal” if you had purple hair, abstract tattoos, and walked around barefoot. Would these people force poodles to accompany a joint dinner of noodles? What type of voodoo involving the poodles over the noodles did one perform at said dinner? Or, shuddering, I wondered if I was expected to actually eat poodles along with the noodles for dinner? We were warned about the pressures of secular college, but I had envisioned a kashrut test to involve some new friends and a convenient non-kosher pizza place, not psychopaths with savvy Facebook stalking skills. Or maybe I was safe. Maybe, noodles, poodles, and dinner were three separate entities to be celebrated respectively? Turns out, I was wrong on all accounts: I had merely received my first college Shabbat meal invitation.
The meal turned out to feature neither noodles nor poodles. Instead, it was a very nice and random dinner hosted by some very nice and random sophomores who invited very nice and random freshmen solely to introduce us to college in a very nice and random way. In Jewish high school and seminary, we were taught that fear and love were really the same emotion when it came to feelings towards God. After that meal and a few others, the same proved true for feelings towards Shabbat meals at college: appreciation accompanied by an apprehension of the unknown. Fear is love. Love is fear.
Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community, a random meal could mean being schlepped by your parents to a new family in the neighborhood, seated, as a teenager, at the “kids’” table, with your closest acquaintance being a tie between the opposite gender child five years younger than you or the terrifying pet dog nipping at your feet (hopefully not a poodle), and your only source of entertainment being discovery that the tablecloth you accidentally spilled water on is actually waterproof: eureka. Going to seminary for the year, a random meal meant accompanying your friend — “I swear it will be fun if we do it together” — on three buses and walking two miles to their “distant” cousins Rachel and Moshe, who live with their 17 kids and 17 and a half pets (did I mention poodles?), while contemplating, as the main and only dish of chicken liver is passed around, whether to plead vegetarian. Going to a random meal in college, I soon found out, was typically full of icebreakers, potluck, and alcohol. And in most schools, for better or for worse, you can expect to wash down those icebreakers, potluck, and alcohol, with a side of alcohol. And then sterilize it with some more alcohol because you know it’s flu season. Not a drinker, I choose to combat the flu on my own with an increase in my vitamin C intake. An orange a day.
As we turned from freshmen into not-as-fresh men and women (college is liberal like that), the invites did slow. The novelty of initiating freshmen became a burden of cooking and hosting people older students just weren’t friends with, which is totally understandable. But even with the initial novelty worn off, meal culture persists, and with #seudahszn around the corner, it’s more rampant than ever.
As a foodie, I’ve explored the various meal options for Shabbat at Maryland as well as other campuses I have visited (Barnard, Brandeis, Penn) and listed them according to the various agendas one might have on a Friday night. Here are my discoveries:
Mission: GET THE JOB DONE. As a default, and especially as freshmen without an apartment, you can eat at Hillel or whatever the main dining hall of the campus is for some free Shabbat food which looks, tastes, and functions as free Shabbat food. You can be in and out within minutes, or you can linger and capitalize on the social opportunity.
Mission: I MISS HOME. Going to a JLIC couple’s home for Shabbat can be a real treat. You can enjoy being in a house, playing with their children, and schmoozing over homemade food. If it’s a weird crowd, you can make yourself extra useful in the kitchen and score some extra brownies along with extra brownie points. If you’re like me and you just like being in kitchens, you can do that too (yes, I promise, this has nothing to do with me being a woman; after all, I did go to both SAR and Midreshet Lindenbaum).
Mission: SHAKE IT UP. On some campuses, a rowdy dinner at Chabad is the norm; at Maryland, it’s a bit more adventurous to yam liyam all the way across Route One to the Chabad house, fending off the horrors of frats and bars and college kids on Friday night (oh my!) along your journey for some surprisingly tasteful parve ice cream and Chabad-style inspiration.
But sometimes it’s all fun and code names until someone gets an invite. Sometimes, there is drama akin to middle school social dynamics – who shouldn’t have been invited but is, and who should have been invited but isn’t, about who is doing more work than who. Yes, sometimes, Shabbat comes and then you eat and then it goes, and it is nothing more than that. But some weeks, Shabbat comes, feelings are hurt, rival meals are initiated, and for some, a panic reminiscent of being a small child finding themself at the front lines when kiddish doors open settles in: bound to trampling, forced to surrender, all in the name of some chulent and stale crackers.
We know what it’s like to be children standing in the way of middle-aged kiddush men and their chulent. Yet we are distracted by the candy, the prized potential of a mature and well-hosted meal, and find ourselves at the battle lines, time, and time again. At some meals, we are adults entertaining in homes of our own (which our parents pay for, of course). And at others, we are the entertainment itself, children playing with rolling pins in the kitchen while realizing that one does not roll chicken and wait…we forgot to invite that person. I’ve been to both.
We are Jews. We argue over whether women should be Rabbis or if a one-state solution is viable or if God exists, but food…food is our one absolute truth. And because of this truth, because of this importance, as a foodie, I am both baffled and amazed by this shared obsession, and the vibrant Shabbat meal culture at college. It can bring us together or tear us apart. We can sweeten it with sugar, or we can screw up and throw on a little too much spice, but I hope in the end, we figure it out and execute its potential to be something very, very nice.