Teaching reading I am always looking for articles which could engage my students and convince them to speak in English and to write. I was surprised to see how much they liked an opinion article about the significance of eating dinner together, especially with the family. In that article the writer, C. J. Moore, claims that “eating together is one of the most civilizing social events in life. It follows that eating with children should bring a socializing influence to their lives, too.”
I had been familiar with this approach, when we lived in the US we were told that having dinner together as a family would contribute to the emotional well-being of our children and improve their social skills.
But in Israel, whenever we speak in class about this topic, most of my students say that growing up they only had dinner together with their family once a week, on Friday night. They told me that they still met at their parents’ home every week for Shabbat dinner.
When we just started exploring this topic, about eight years ago, I had assumed that it was the parents who insisted that their adult children would spend Friday night with them .
I asked the students to write an essay in which they describe a typical Friday night meal with their family. I expected the essays to be critical, ambivalent or even ironic since I was convinced that they would write that Friday dinner was a burden and that they would much rather spend Friday night with their friends.
I was wrong, my students wrote that Friday night dinner was significant for them. They loved being with their family every week, some even wrote that it was the highlight of their week. They described the joy of seeing their grandparents, siblings, or young nephews and nieces. Students, who did not have a family to go to, wrote poignant essays about being lonely.Some mentioned memorable Friday night dinners at a friend’s home. Others expressed the hope that one day they would celebrate Friday night with their own children..
There was no irony or hidden messages in those essays, but a simple appreciation of the opportunity to connect with their family.
Looking at those essays I realized that I was reading about a new Israeli ritual.
A ritual is defined as a series of actions which are always performed in the same way. Indeed from their papers it was clear that my students relied on that certainty. They wrote about looking forward to finding their favorite food which was prepared especially for them every week, about the joy of working together with their siblings as they helped with the meal, or cleared the table and washed the dishes.They knew exactly what to expect and did not wish for anything to change
It appears that the custom of Friday dinner gives comfort, strength and a sense of continuity to the family. Some of the traditions are even passed from one generation to the next.
Although the meal usually takes place on Friday night (some students have their family meal on Saturday lunch), most of the students are not religious and they don’t regard their family gathering as a religious occasion.
As a child we never sat together for a family dinner on Friday nights. At that time mostly religious families celebrated Friday night dinner. Growing up in Israel during the late 1950s, after the Holocaust, families were small and most of us did not have grandparents. Thus, family events were often small and quite dreary.
The new ritual of Friday night dinner was a new one for me. After being away in the US for 15 years I came back to a different country. I wonder if in Israel there are more changes than in other places around the world, or that in general “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
C.J. Moore’s article