“More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Last Shabbat, I participated in and helped facilitate what I thought was one of my most moving Jewish experiences in recent memory. Sam and I hosted a remarkable Shabbat dinner (Pictured above; sorry for not smiling), and I want to share the experience here.
Sam and I have both been making friends and contacts throughout the Jewish community in Budapest, and we have been excited to see some new opportunities and experiences coming from those networks. One example was that we had both connected with a man named Gyuri who is very involved in the Jewish community and currently runs a seminar that trains Hungarians to be able to lead Taglit Birthright trips. The training focuses on much more skill and content building than simply leading the Israel trip. One such focus is on expanding familiarity with different types of basic Jewish knowledge and experiences. As such, Gyuri asked Sam and me if we would be willing to host a Shabbat dinner that would include the full menu of Shabbat traditions, while also presenting Shabbat in a very interesting and accessible way. Of course we agreed!
The final guest list included Sam, Gyuri, and me, Gyuri's American friend who was visiting from Israel, 3 participants of the Taglit training, 2 of our friends who live at the Budapest Moishe House, and 2 American friends who are in Budapest studying abroad. So in total, we had 11 people, including 6 Hungarians and 5 Americans, ages ranging from 19-30, and Shabbat experience ranging from first Shabbat ever to weekly Shabbat observers.
After initial shmoozing in our living room area, we opened the formal Shabbat experience with a general introduction to Shabbat, during which Sam and I introduced ourselves and shared what Shabbat means to us and how we have marked the day throughout our lives. Since Shabbat had actually started hours earlier, we did not light candles, but we mentioned that lighting candles marks the ritual and spiritual transition into Shabbat, and that the eyes are covered during the blessing as a sort of meditation to guide that transition. Accordingly, everyone closed their eyes and spent some moments thinking about their week and thinking about the time of rest to come. Everyone then had the chance to introduce themselves and share a word or two about what Shabbat means to them. We heard a range of interesting answers, from "holiness" to "community" to "family" to "unplugged."
I conducted the Shabbat table rituals (Shalom Aleichem, Kiddush, Netilat Yadaim (handwashing), and Hamotzi) by offering explanations and introductions, and also encouraging questions. People asked both technical and philosophical questions, and everyone seemed incredibly open to the rituals, even if it was all brand new.
During dinner, people had the chance to share a bit about their Jewish journeys. Hungarians were eager to hear a bit about the American Jewish denominations and the many different backgrounds and attitudes of the American group. I think for the Americans, it was a great and rare chance to self-reflect about our identity in a honest way that we could articulate and present to others. My Jewish "style" of observant egalitarian Judaism shines in some of the communities that I have been lucky to affiliate in the US, but is actually a rather small group in the landscape even of American Jewry. In Hungary, that type of Jewish identity really just doesn't exist, and that's ok. But to be able to share what it means for me to be an observant Jew with progressive attitudes and openness and excitement about all sorts of Jewish identities was really a special opportunity for me, and some people shared with me that they didn't know such a Jewish perspective existed but that they found it really exciting. I was in no way trying to persuade/recruit on behalf of any Jewish lifestyle or mindset, but just the opportunity to broaden perspectives felt important. The Americans were eager to hear about the Jewish stories of the Hungarians, which included stories such as growing up in a Marxist household, a Catholic household, and a Hungarian-Israeli household. Judaism mattered to everyone at the table, but it meant very different things to different people. People so clearly relished the opportunity to learn how Judaism can have such profound and variant meanings for different people.
(Note: In case the dinner sounded exclusively deep and formal, believe me that we had amazing conversations and jokes, and it was just a lovely meal in every way. Also, it was vegetarian AND delicious!)
After dinner, people took turns teaching songs to the group. We learned Ozi V'zimrat Yah (and even harmonized after a run-throughs), Od Yavo Shalom, a Joey Weisenberg niggun (yes, I taught this one), and Kol Ha'olam Kulo in Hebrew, Hungarian, and English! The singing was incredible, and people who knew no Hebrew and none of the melodies were maybe the most eager to keep singing.
Our Shabbat dinner left me truly energized and enriched in so many ways. I shared with the group that I have always found Shabbat to be a compelling and beautiful idea and experience, but I understand that those feelings had to be nurtured, and also that Shabbat means very different things to different people. Our Shabbat experience succeeded in that it allowed every participant to be open to the ideas and backgrounds of the others, while at the same time being incredibly focused and introspective. I hope to have more opportunities this year and for many years to come to celebrate Shabbat in a way that allows me to share my love for Shabbat that has grown throughout my life with others, and to be open to all that I can learn from sharing Shabbat with all sorts of people from various backgrounds and beliefs.