As anyone who’s had a newborn in the family knows, life is hectic. And by hectic, I mean often completely flipped on its head, insane, and frazzled. It’s not always very crazy for everyone, but it is often very crazy for many. The scenario centers around the mother-baby duo: The baby needs constant feeding/suckling, struggles with an unbalanced digestive system, and doesn’t know night from day. The mother, entangled in her baby’s haphazardness, is often left grasping onto any paper-thin semblance of energy to somehow get her through a day, an hour, a 20-minute feed.
While the baby’s feedings are always the #1 priority, in the meantime, the rest of the family also needs to eat. Yet, given the circumstances, how can the above-described mother, or even the father – busy balancing baby care, wife care, and older children along with trying to hold down his job or studies – be expected to prepare dinner every. single. day?
That’s where volunteer meals come in. Many communities maintain a modus operandi whereby the minute a family announces the birth, someone gladly mobilizes to organize their meals. And so it goes: For 2-3 weeks, friends, mere acquaintances, or people yet unknown bring the family a full meal, often every. single. day. Including Shabbat. We live in Nachlaot, Jerusalem, and our community is awesome at this and can serve as a model for any community, anywhere.
Families often rely on this prepared food to get them through those trying first few weeks. I emphatically believe that these meals are a key factor in preventing postpartum depression since they provide nutritional sustenance and socio-emotional support, not to mention relieving the parents of the time needed to buy the ingredients and actually make the meal. They’re now freed up to rock that crying baby, or take the older ones to extra-curriculars without fretting about “what’s for dinner????!!!!”.
That’s one front. The other front is that it’s a chance to showcase your cooking.
To best comply with the family’s food preferences, the meal organizer provides instructions: Allergic to gluten, veganism, certain kosher certification restrictions, a specific disdain for peas, or “our kids only eat plain, white spaghetti,” kinds of things.
This past week, a family had a third child (mazal tov!), so I signed up for a meal. The food preferences (emphasis: preferences) read as follows: “Shira [named changed to protect the innocent] prefers food without eggs, dairy, or wheat.”
Regarding dairy and wheat – these ingredients can be the bulk of an entire recipe, so fine; I can avoid them altogether, but eggs? “Prefers no eggs” means don’t make a full-on omelet, right?
I choose to deliver a meal for Shabbat lunch, meaning I’d make challahs, something I’ve been doing off and on for eight years. But I’m only experienced using 70% whole wheat, so I think, if no wheat is preferred, I’ll challenge myself and try my hand at spelt. I know how important these meals are for the families – so I want to make a sincere effort to make it yummy and filling and, well okay – unforgettable! I Facebook for tips. I. am. set!
But I can’t conceive of preparing a challah with a different grain, yet no egg: “What if it DOESN’T RISE?” I wonder if I should call the mother and ask if ‘prefers no eggs’ includes not using a single egg in an entire dough? Then I retort to myself: No, it says, prefers. I’m not going to bother the mother who might be in the throes of woefully coercing her baby to latch on in the hopes of assuaging screeching colicky cries, while arranging a drawing activity diversion for her three-year-old, in the midst of trying to pour herself an orange juice because she’s stark-raving-mad thirsty from the nursing, all on a total of 1.5 hours of sleep, split up into 14-minute increments over ten hours throughout the night.
But then I’m stumped. Wait, I think – they’re South African. What if they’re speaking with South African English understatement, where “just now” means “any time after just now”, “not really” means “no way”, and “prefers” means “insists.”
But I’d already decided I wasn’t calling the mother of a newborn. And at 12:30 pm Friday, it was too close to Shabbat to text or Facebook message her and possibly not get a response. In any case, I reason, the mother who organized the meals – the mother who typed in the preferences on the www.takethemameal.com sign-up form – is American, and to an American, prefers means “better, but with a dose of optional – you can be the judge”. And I can’t even call this American organizer to clarify, because guess what? She herself just had another baby YESTERDAY.
More to the point, we live in Israel. Why is this pertinent? Because if I would call the mother, it could be considered a “she’elat keet-behg” – a kit bag question. It’s the Israeli term for a question that should just not be asked – it goes even further than a rhetorical question, because its answer has consequences.
Here’s the explanation: You’re a soldier in the army, and you’ve got these “kit bags” – bags which contain all the items you need for army living, but don’t necessarily need throughout a given day. Your unit is set to go out on a drill, and one soldier asks the commander, “Do we need to bring our kit bags?” “Well, now that you asked,” replies the commander, “yes, let’s bring them”. The consequence is that the entire unit is now stuck carrying an extra, formerly unnecessary, burden.
So I don’t want to be in this predicament of having to do MORE because I asked. I say (to myself), listen, just make the spelt challah dough with the one egg – after all, the instructions say “prefers”.
I bake the spelt challahs. They come out soft, thick but light, and cooked fully with no doughy remains in the centers. I feel grateful my new recipe is a success – see? What if I hadn’t used that one egg?
I then bake the cherry-liquor chicken, and husband cooks the garlic-turmeric rice to complete the meal offering. We put it all together in a box and add in a few rye chocolate chip cookies from the local natural foods bakery. No wheat, no dairy, and just one egg in a ton of other ingredients.
Taking my three-year-old with me, we deliver the food. All goes fine. We chat for a few minutes, and then return home.
About fifteen minutes later, I get a text from the mother: “Hi Chaya, Thank you so much for such a delicious-looking meal for Shabbat. I just want to check – does the challah have egg?” Wump.
To her credit, she prefaced her question very diplomatically and gratefully. At the same time, the actual question sinks my heart and puts me in my place. My lips twist, as do my emotions, into a half-Murphy’s Law laugh, half-scream of disappointment mode.
Humbled, I learn my lesson: Sometimes it’s worth risking egocentric embarrassments such as a non-rising dough, or a change of perceived plan with a she’elat keet-behg, in order to maintain integrity and help out in the way that truly matches the needs of the recipients. The point is to serve them best, not us best. Just ask.