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My Very First Shabbat: Looking Back

My Very First Shabbat: Looking Back

Hand lighting Shabbat candles in silver candleholders next to a challah

It’s June 2009. I’m approaching my friend Malachi’s home for Shabbat dinner, and I have no idea what to expect. I’m wearing a green dress shirt, which is odd, because I rarely wear green, but it goes well with the dark green satin yarmulke that the fine folks at a nearby synagogue gave me when I told them my Friday evening plans.

Malachi invited me over because he knows I’m Jewish. Well… Jewish-ish. Some of my ancestors were German-Jewish immigrants, and I was curious about reconnecting to that part of my lineage. He himself is a Reform convert; he converted with his family after his mom married his stepdad and committed to making their home a Jewish one.

It’s a nice, sweet summer evening. The setting sun gifts the sky with tinges of pink as the Sabbath bride – to me, still just a beautiful stranger – washes over the rolling cul-de-sac hills. As Malachi lets me inside, I’m also greeted by his girlfriend, whom I’ve come to know quite well, and his family, with whom I’ll soon become familiar.

Even though my eyes had never seen their home before, my soul is mysteriously quite familiar with it. Their space is decked in Jewish artwork, special Shabbat china, shelves of siddurim (prayer books) and books about Jewish identity and conversion, and an acoustic guitar with a nearby bin of percussion instruments they sometimes use to usher in this weekly glimpse of olam haba (the world to come).

The warm, nourishing scent of tonight’s meal permeates through this home, and while I am enjoying every second of my conversation with Malachi and his family, my stomach and my soul are ravenous for dinner.

As the sky darkens, the evening becomes a very warm, Jewish weave of prayers, food, and conversation. We gather around the dinner table, and Malachi’s mom invites his sisters to light Shabbat candles. The dining room fills with the sounds of feminine voices, grateful to the Holy Blessed One for the chance to experience this sweet foretaste of Paradise.

Malachi’s father opens up his book of prayers, On the Doorposts of Your House,and begins reading Eshet Chayil (A Woman of Valor, Proverbs 31:10-31). I’m mystified by the way he uses King Solomon’s centuries-old language to pay loving tribute to his partner. He then asks God to make Malachi like Ephraim and Manasseh, and his sisters like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, while also acknowledging accomplishments his children achieved throughout the week. Soon after, he leads Kiddush (blessing the wine and grape juice), to which I respond with my very first, “L’chaim!”

Soon after, they say HaMotzi (the blessing over bread before a meal) and bless the challah, which is adorned in an elaborate silk cover patterned with ancient beautiful lettering I’ve still yet to understand. When I taste the warm, rich multigrain bread, it’s as if I’ve eaten it hundreds upon hundreds of times before, each bite a distant memory slowly surfacing in my nefesh (soul).

As the main course is served and I indulge in the robust and savory vegetarian lasagna, I become closer with everyone at the table. Malachi’s parents regale me with what they most enjoy about being Jews: the gift of Shabbat, the beauty of interweaving music, study, and prayer, and the devotion to God through devotion to others. Malachi’s sister, a grade younger than us, expresses her excitement to pursue engineering at our university. His youngest sister fills the room with joyful laughter and talks endlessly about her new toys.

And then there is Zayde, Yiddish for “grandpa,” Malachi’s maternal grandfather (now of blessed memory). I’m told that Zayde isn’t Jewish, yet he remains one of the most quintessentially Jewish men I’ve ever met. I am overwhelmed by how accomplished and learned he is while also remaining humble and genuine. With every story he tells us, I’m rewarded with an intimate, beautiful glance into this man’s rich life. Even now, I still feel that if I can become even half the man Zayde was, I’ll consider myself a success as a Jew.

As I say my goodbyes and leave Malachi’s home after the first of many Shabbat dinners with him and his family, I reflect on the experience I’ve just had. My relationship with the Divine is still tumultuous at best; I’m angry about things that have happened to my loved ones and me, and I harbor a jaded attitude toward religion.

And yet, as I leave, I still feel this seemingly contradictory sense of peace.

I’ve just experienced my first real taste of Judaism and, by extension, my first glimpse of Jewish audacious hospitality. In the course of an evening, total strangers have become like close family, and I experience a connection I’ve never felt before. My mind tells me it’s odd to have these conflicting feelings, but my soul knows better: that this questioning is the very essence of Judaism.

I can’t wait until next Friday night.

Chris Harrison is the writer and editor for Audacious Hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism and a fellow in the 2018 JewV’Nation Fellowship’s Jews of Color Leadership Cohort. A graduate of Miami University in Oxford, OH, he holds a degree in creative writing and film studies. He grew up at Payne Chapel A.M.E. Church in Hamilton, OH, and converted to Judaism at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Named one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36,” Chris is passionate about Jewish studies, cinema, health and fitness, and bisexual advocacy in the LGBTQ+ community.

Chris Harrison
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