The mitzvah

“I…I…I’m not Jewish,” I tell the orthodox woman in red who has invited me to her house for lunch. More than wanting to protect myself from humiliation, I’m hoping to shield her home from my ignorance. I understand enough to know that a Jewish home’s dining room has, without the temple and bronze altar, increased in significance. Food on a table, especially on Sabbath, is a sort of offering to God.

I explain my situation in a nutshell: how I am married to a Jew who feels alienated from the faith, that I am interested in Judaism and religion in general, how the visit to her synagogue is a tiny step in an effort to educate myself.

She nods slowly. I can see her considering my words, measuring them with private weights. Perhaps she consults God. Whatever the case, the result is in my favor. “So you’ll join us? We don’t mind if you drive.”

Now it is my turn to consider. If she is willing to put up with me, how can I refuse? “Okay,” I say. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Wonderful,” she says, offering the first smile of our exchange. She tells me her name is Barbara and gives me her street address; I repeat it to myself over and over again, as I am not writing on Sabbath. “My husband and l will start walking home in about 10 minutes, so give us a half hour.”

About 30 minutes later, I approach what I hope is the right house. As I get closer, I spy Barbara through the screen door sitting with a group gathered around a dining room table. “Hello?” I call, marching in, not even thinking to stop and press my kissed finger tips to the little mezuzah posted at the doorframe. This gesture is meant to remind all those entering of the unifying presence of the Divine. Instead, I offer my toothiest grin as everyone turns to watch me ignore God.

Four men and one other woman besides Barbara and me sit around the table. As Barbara introduces me, I make sure to nod a polite greeting to the men, congratulating myself on knowing that orthodox men and women do not shake hands upon meeting. Barbara directs me to an empty seat on the lady’s side of the table. Barbara’s husband occupies one head, and the oldest gentleman present sits at the other. Two younger guys roughly my age sit directly across from the women. The table is set beautifully for seven and, knowing it would have been prepared the previous afternoon, it suddenly makes sense why Barbara pressed me on whether I would be joining them. Mine was the spot left empty in case God sends a lone traveler; feeding me is a mitzvah, or good deed.

When it’s time to eat, everyone takes a turn going into the kitchen for the ceremonial hand washing. The counters are crammed with the remnants of yesterday’s meal preparations, everything left just where it was when the sun set. The oldest gentleman shows me the ropes: he pores water from a pitcher over my hands and then asks me to repeat the Hebrew words after him, feeding them to me a few at a time. I try desperately not to mangle them. It’s the basic prayer before eating when the meal includes bread and translates as, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” After washing, we return to the table in silence and wait as Barbara’s fills each of our plates with the meat and beans from her slow cookers.


Dearest miners,

As promised, here is the podcast of my conversation with Justin Campbell of The Two Cities website. Among other topics, we discuss how the One None Gets Some project has revealed to me the importance of vulnerability in any spiritual quest. I hope you enjoy it, and please tell me what you think.