Because how does one measure or even think about measuring the importance of a room?
Chopped herring and kichel
Boerewors and rassols
Shtetl like renditions of Shalom Aleichem
Super Rugby, Premier League, weekly Parsha commentaries
3 and In
Copiously generous doses of Elie Wiesel, Athol Fugard, Primo Levi, Amos Oz and Rudyard Kipling
Passionate readings of Alfred Prufrock
Hugs, snuggles, heated debates, arguments, loves
This is some of what surfaces when casually pondering the substance of my spiritual childhood: whole fragments of various inheritances; the product of a geographical and cultural straddling. Being of this proudly dynamic traditionally South African Jewish complexion, on my most recent visit home, we decided as a family to collectively affix mezuzot in my parents’ new home, all intuitively believing, in hindsight erroneously, that our Jewish day school education and a lackadaisical skimming of the rule book would suffice. For those unfamiliar, mezuzah (plural mezuzot) is the Hebrew word for doorpost and refers to a parchment scroll that is inscribed with a religious text and affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes, symbolizing a physical expression of a Jewish faith.
Before affixing the first mezuzah to our front door, we consulted Chabbad Online, the go-to source of clarification on all areas of Jewish life, from the lighting Hanukkah candle manual to Halachic rulings on kosher for Passover food for your dog. In accordance with Jewish law, Chabbad notes, ‘a mezuzah is affixed on the right doorpost, which for the front door is the doorpost to the right of the person entering from the street.’
Simple enough. First one down. We got this. Off to a staggering start.
Chabbad continues: ‘In internal doorways, it is the doorpost to the right of a person entering in the direction towards which the door opens. If there is no door, think about importance and function.’
‘The dining room is more important in the hierarchy of the home (it’s used more formally) than the kitchen, so in a doorway between the dining room and the kitchen, the mezuzah should be on the right of the person entering the dining room.’
With this nonchalantly phrased explanation, our supposedly simple task devolved (or evolved) into an intense family debate and enquiry into the human condition. Perhaps this was to be expected as most matters concerning the interior nature of things, be it internal doorways or that elusive inner equilibrium we seek, possess a complex nuance of their own.
How does one measure or even think about measuring the importance of a room?
An array of traditions and heritages have long acknowledged the omnipotent potential embedded in the material structures and objects that define the daily humdrum of our social lives. In the intergenerational rabbinic conversations recorded in the Talmud, the sages write that ‘now that the Temple is no longer standing a person receives atonement through his table’ [Chagiga 27a]. Similarly, in a bygone French custom one’s coffin was constructed from the wood of one’s dining room table, a compelling commentary on what it means to be human in the moments we collectively inhabit. However, beyond this, both the sages and the French fall short in offering a ready-to-go-mezuzah-affixing-guidelines-room-importance-measuring blueprint.
With what metric system do I evaluate the moments lying on my parents’ bed with my brothers relaying the day’s events or reading The Velveteen Rabbit to the overlooked privilege of having a room and space of my own? And then compare this emotional nourishment to the nourishment I encounter in the kitchen, where the daily, mundane, routine actions of boiling a kettle, stirring a cup of tea, cutting a cucumber, is imbued with care, sacrifice and recognition? And then measure this up against the room over, the embodiment of a different form of sustenance, healing and belonging?
Or rather than a narrowly directed focus on the importance of a room, why does Jewish law emphasize one’s entering the room and not one’s leaving? Although Dave Matthews proffers to ‘walk where you like your steps,’ most of us will pass through multiple doorposts in our lives, sometimes by choice yet more often not, so perhaps predominant significance should be on how we depart and not how we enter? Or forget right doorpost, left doorpost, dining room, kitchen, entering, exiting, coming, going: would not an assessment of what transpires beyond these doorposts, the texture and content of our being in the room, those prosaic ordinary everyday overlooked actions and rituals which create and establish the spiritual conditions of family and home, be a more accurate and fitting unit of measurement?
Or, growing up in a country entrenched in a process of recovery and discovery from her racialized policies of ruin and ravage, and moving to a country with her own rigidly chiseled divisions and divides, and in a global moment of fractiousness and ‘belonging gone bad,’ perhaps the nobility, sacredness and generosity of spirit of just inviting someone into your home is the act worth focusing on? Perhaps sharing a meal with our respective Others is as helpful a metric in measuring the rooms we inhabit and one day hope to create?
I most definitely don’t profess to hold any of the answers, not even the correct way to affix a mezuzah. But what I do know is that the Romans were correct in their insightful construction of the word ‘companion,’ from the Latin com ‘with’ and panis ‘bread’.
Left doorpost, right doorpost – ‘There is such a shelter in each other.’
Halachic – the collective body of Jewish religious laws that are derived from the written and Oral Torah
Mezuzah/mezuzot – parchment scroll that is inscribed with a religious text and affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes
Talmud – the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology
Dave Matthews Band. 1993. I’ll Back You Up. Remember Two Things.
Joseph Liechty & Cecelia Clegg. 2001. Moving Beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The Columba Press.
Nick Laird. 2005. Pedigree. To a Fault.