I once read about a tribe somewhere on an island in the Pacific, or maybe it was in Africa, that had such a primitive culture that they counted “one, two, many.” I felt like I had suddenly joined them on Rosh HaShanah this year.
As on almost every Shabbat that we are home, we invite some of the students at Machon Meir to have a meal with us. Sometimes, Allen (known to them by his Hebrew name Baruch) says to someone in his Gemara class, “If you don’t have other plans, would you like to join us for dinner Erev Shabbat?”
Most weeks the invitations are second hand. Baruch tells the madrich (dorm counselor) that we have room for two or four guests, and the madrich sends us students who have signed that week’s “Hospitality Needed” list.
Almost every week we also end up with last minute guests. Somebody forgot to sign the list, or suddenly couldn’t face a noisy dinner with a hundred other students, eating institutional food and singing Shabbat songs through the meal. Sometimes a young man, still unfamiliar with our Jerusalem neighborhood, forgets where his host for the evening lives. Or perhaps he was supposed to meet his host at evening services, and the host didn’t show.
Baruch returns from synagogue bringing an unexpected guest or two.
I’ve learned to cope with it. I cook generously for Shabbat. We always have what to feed hungry students. We have plenty of chairs—we have a stack of plastic chairs we bought to use outside in the Succah. The problem can be finding room at the table. Which brings me back to Rosh HaShanah.
I thought I knew how many guests I was feeding at each meal. I had made menus and cooked, complaining about the lack of a big freezer as I did so. Back in the US, I cooked during the summer for the holidays. By the end of August, the freezer was filled with gallons of chicken soup and vegetable soup, lasagne and chicken casseroles, apple and peach pies, and pumpkin, chocolate chip, and chocolate cakes. Maybe I’d made some round challahs, studded with raisins, for the holidays and frozen them as well.
But my Israeli top-of-the-refrigerator freezer won’t hold all that. So I started cooking the week before Rosh HaShanah. After squeezing the chocolate chip cakes in, I could barely close the freezer door. To accommodate liters of chicken soup, I moved two chickens and the brisket into the refrigerator, where they could defrost slowly before being cooked. The lasagne would stay in the refrigerator from Thursday until Tuesday. Friday morning and Sunday then became marathon days of cooking and cleaning.
By candle lighting time, I was ready for Rosh Hashanah. I walked to our son’s house for dinner. I felt secure in the knowledge that all I would have to do on Monday and Tuesday would be to warm up the main courses and chop some parsley to add to a salad.
And that’s where it all began to go crazy. I had planned a dairy meal for lunch on the second day of the festival. Four meat meals in three days is too heavy for me, so I prefer to have at least one dairy meal. The second day Daniel and Aliza were coming for lunch, and I knew they like lasagna. Except, as Aliza reminded me, two of the children don’t eat lasagna and would probably refuse to even taste the corn pudding. Rather than serve them plain pasta for the festive meal, I mentally changed the menu to pot roast and chicken. There were sure to be enough of both left over from the previous two meals
Baruch set the table for eight people for lunch before he left for synagogue Monday morning. The pot roast had cooked on the plata (warming tray) all night; when I got home I put the cooked potatoes and salmon on the plata to warm up.
Since none of our guests from the Yeshiva had ever been here before, Baruch stopped there before coming home. Although most of the students were new this year, they were not strangers. I had met them all during the English department’s Shabbaton in Tekoa, just two days earlier. One of the expected young men was a no-show, so I quickly removed one place setting from the table.
Monday evening everyone arrived at once. It seemed like a large crowd. By the time Baruch came in, at the end of the line, I didn’t need him to tell me we had three extra guests. That made eleven people to fit around our table, a table made to seat eight people comfortably when the extra leaf is in place, and ten if they don’t mind a little crowding.
While Baruch, with the help of several guests, added three place settings and chairs to the table, the sister of one of the students came into the kitchen to help me. She is spending this year working as an intern at a high-tech company in Tel Aviv, and had stayed overnight with us during the summer. That weekend, as now, she helped with last minute preparations for the meal. While she washed three wine glasses, I put six or seven chicken schnitzels on the plata, and got the salads out of the refrigerator.
I moved the symbolic foods for the holiday to the table: apples, to dip in honey so we have a sweet year and pomegranate, so our merits increase to the number of seeds in a pomegranate. Some of the foods are eaten because their Hebrew or Yiddish name lends itself to a fortuitous play on words. Thus, we also eat carrots and black-eyed peas to increase our merits, beets so our enemies will be removed, dates so that our enemies will come to their ends, and pumpkin or another gourd so that decrees against us will be torn up.
Everybody had enough to eat. If Rosh HaShanah is a sign for the rest of the year, this was going to be a year of good food and stimulating conversations with good friends.
Lunch the second day was Daniel, Aliza, and their four children. Two friends our age also came from the Yeshiva, one of whom was expected. But we had enough leftover pot roast and roast chicken, plus another package of store-bought chicken schnitzel for the main courses, enough salads, and enough cake and apple pie for dessert to make sure no one went away hungry.
Later I reflected on the holiday. We served meals to 22 guests, plus Baruch and me at each meal. Five states and eight different countries–Switzerland, Poland, Germany, India, Namibia, South Africa, the US, and Israel (native born)– were represented at the table. We all spoke English, with an occasional smattering of Hebrew thrown in for good measure.
Thank G-d for the stores that sell disposable dishes and flatware. If not for them, I’d have spent half the holiday washing dishes and silver. As it was, I had to wash all our silver kiddush cups, the wine glasses, and every serving spoon, bowl, and plaltter that we own, twice.
Hachnasat orchim, hospitality to guests, is considered an important mitzvah. In the morning prayers every day, we include this in the list of mitzvot whose “fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come.” We have been in the habit of inviting friends, Yeshiva students, and Birthright participants to fulfill the mitzva. And it’s always fun to see what we have in common with people from all over the world, and to learn how people manage in places where there are few Jews.
Of course, I’m not the only one who cooks for an unknown number of people on Shabbat and holidays. I was discussing the situation last week with Ruth, who lives in the Old City. Her late husband frequently brought tourists who were at the Kotel home for Shabbat dinner, so she was always prepared for extra guests. She said, “But of course, you always know in advance the number of people who will be at your table—many!”
So I’m not the only woman in Jerusalem who counts, ”one, two, many!”