The Door’s Open. Go In!

College-area observant Jews whip up Muddy Buddies.

Alan, Yehuda, Esther, Shira, Elisheva. There is harmony here — Alan and Elisheva have realized at least some measure of what they desired.
  • Alan, Yehuda, Esther, Shira, Elisheva. There is harmony here — Alan and Elisheva have realized at least some measure of what they desired.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Tomorrow is Succos, the happiest day of the year. September, a month ripe with Jewish holidays, has already yielded another Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, another New Year and Day of Atonement. Now comes Succos, the feast of tabernacles. In commemoration of the years the Israelites spent wandering, after they passed dry-shod through the Red Sea, out of Egypt and into the desert on their way to the promised land, observant Jews will spend this week eating in the almost out-ofdoors, in a makeshift structure known as a sukkah. Some will have walls of bamboo, some of carpet, some of sturdier stuff. But all will have ceilings made of branches, branches that let the light of the stars shine through.

The sukkah at Alan and Elisheva’s house is a fine, sturdy one. One wall is provided by the exterior of their College Area home, another is open to the covered patio (except for a small, upright plywood rectangle, about which we shall hear more later). The other two are formed from great plywood panels, roughly four feet by eight feet, reinforced with wooden slats and held together by hinges. The panels spend most of the year stored beneath the house, but now they stand upright, knit in place by a grid of more slats overhead, over which the palm branches will be laid. The palm leaves radiate out from the end of each spiny branch to form great circles; the couple’s son Yehuda obtained them by following a city tree trimmer.

Yehuda, 21, is one of seven children, five of whom will attend tomorrow’s dinner. (One is married with a child and living in University City; another is in New York.) Esther, the youngest at 13, climbs onto the roof of the house to lay branches on the grid. Yehuda and his sister Shira, together with Shana, an “adopted daughter” who has attended every Shabbos and holiday held here for years, work from below. Their mother Elisheva is in the brown kitchen — brown vinyl floor, brown wood cabinets and shelves, tan wood-grain Formica countertops. The kitchen is well used; the family is full of cooks.

“When I first left home, I didn’t know anything about cooking,” says Elisheva.“My mother wanted her kitchen to be spotless, and I might make a mess. So I was not allowed in the kitchen, except to set the table. When I met my husband, we were freshmen in college. He said, ‘Let’s go on a picnic. I’ll buy the chicken and you can cook it.’ I had no idea what to do; I got a cookbook quick. I learned first from cookbooks, and then later I learned that when you go to someone’s house and you have a meal that you like, you save recipes.”

Now the bookshelf in the long, wide (wide enough for three to pass easily) kitchen is full of cookbooks: Better Homes & Gardens, Cookbook Classics, The Kosher Kitchen: The Spice and Spirit of Kosher Jewish Cooking from the Lubavitch Women’s Organization. I recognize the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery from my own childhood. Here, there is a story behind the books. “When I first got married, Alan’s brother was in a fraternity. They didn’t have meals at the fraternity on weekends, so he would come to us, and I would cook and he would wash the dishes afterward. He would accuse me of saving all my dishes from the whole week for him, but it wasn’t true. He just had no idea how many dishes it takes. At one point, one of the supermarkets was putting one volume of those out a week. He would bring it as a present, and we would try new recipes each week.”

Tomorrow is Succos; come sundown, it is also Shabbos, which means that no work will be done. “On the seventh day, He rested.” Adds Elisheva, “We say, six days a week, Ha-shem wants us to make the world a better place and improve it. But on the seventh day, the world can run for 24 hours. We can just sit back and not make improvements on things. It’s really a day to be with your family and to learn and to go to synagogue — a little island in time. We won’t write on Shabbos, no radio, no TV. We won’t answer the phone, we won’t drive, we won’t do any new cooking.”

Which is not to say she won’t do anything with her old cooking. “We won’t do anything with electricity or with fire — anything that’s creative, where we’re changing the world — but my oven is on a timer. Things that we’ve cooked beforehand, I’ll put them in the oven just to stay warm.” (The timer provides something of a loophole: Elisheva’s husband Alan acknowledges that some Jews will have timers on their TVs that turn them on just before kickoff, though he himself does not consider that to be in the spirit of the day.)

“Things that we’ve cooked beforehand” covers a great deal in terms of both time and material. “This week was really an easy week,” explains Elisheva, “because my daughters Sara and Shira are both home on vacation.” Sara attends college in New York; Shira is a sophomore in a Los Angeles Jewish high school. “They were here to do a lot of the cooking. Normally, Esther and I do all of the cooking, and I’m working all day and she’s in school. We do one thing each night, so that we get everything done by Friday night, but this week, with my daughters here, it was nice. They’re both good cooks. I’ve been getting spoiled.”

A list sits on the kitchen counter. It reads:

  • Cinnamon buns — Sara
  • Caramel squares — Shira
  • Fish — Yehuda
  • Cabbage salad — Sara
  • Matzoh ball soup — Shira
  • Sweet potato pie — Shira
  • Brisket — Mom
  • Candied yams — Esther
  • Spinach puff — Shira
  • Salmon — Mom
  • Hot dog soup — Mom
  • Carrot kugel — Sara
  • Chicken, potatoes, onions,
  • mushrooms — Mom
  • Muddy Buddies — Esther

Muddy Buddies are Chex cereal, covered with chocolate and peanut butter and powdered sugar — a family treat from way back. The recipe card (among many others), gathered, written out, laminated, and decorated by Shira last summer as a present for her mother, is kept in a solid gray plastic box with a hinged lid. “Those are only the tried-and-true favorites in our family,” boasts Elisheva. They are arranged alphabetically by category: baked goods, breads, dairies, desserts, fish, meats, misc., pasta, poultry, soup, veggies, side dishes. For some, there are no directions, only a list of ingredients — the “how” is too well known to warrant spelling out. But the recipe for Muddy Buddies is there in its entirety: nine cups Chex, one cup chocolate chips, half a cup of peanut butter, quarter cup of margarine, quarter teaspoon vanilla, one and a half cups powdered sugar. Melt chocolate chips, peanut butter, and margarine. Add vanilla, pour on top of Chex. Cool. Mix in garbage bag with powdered sugar and freeze.

Not everything that was made is on the list (Sara made cookies and soup), and not everything on the list will be served tomorrow. A second refrigerator, housed in the garage, stores many dishes for future meals. The dishes stand ready to withstand the onslaught of company, a common occurrence here. Between family, friends of the parents, friends of the kids, and me, tomorrow night will see around 14 people at the dinner table. “Sometimes, we pick up people at the synagogue,” says daughter Shira.

When I arrive, Sara’s kugel is finishing its stay in the oven. After it comes out, Elisheva begins work on the chicken. She runs potatoes through the food processor, which shares counter space with a bread machine, an oversized KitchenAid mixer, a blender, and a juicer, the latter of which gets a daily workout from son Danny. The potatoes are rendered into slim discs; Elisheva sends onions through the whirring blade. She lines a pan with the potatoes, then adds a layer of onions. “These will be under the chicken. The juices from the chicken will make it nice. I’ll add some spices — I don’t know which ones yet; we’ll see what I’m in the mood for.”

She scissors open a couple of packages of kosher chicken. The chickens, from what I can tell, are cut in half.“We will only eat meat that is kosher, which means it’s prepared in certain ways. The animal has to be killed in a specific way — instant death, so it doesn’t suffer. Afterwards, it must be prepared in certain ways. So I can’t buy chicken on sale in the supermarket.” Her birds, both biggies, run $1.99 a pound. She trims them, then lays them atop the vegetables and heads for the spice cabinet, which is loaded with jumbo-sized (eight-ounce) spice jars. “When I don’t have a lot of people in my cupboard, things are alphabetical. But when there are a lot of people, things get all mixed up, and I have to search for everything. And we work very hard on everybody remembering to write on a shopping list when they use something up.” She selects garlic, paprika, and poultry seasoning and sprinkles them on the chicken. A couple of breasts that don’t fit in the potato-onion pan get put in a separate pan and slathered with sesame teriyaki sauce. Both pans go into an oven set at 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, chicken soup simmers on the stove in a stock pot with “meat” written on its side in Magic Marker. “I happen to have a similar pot that’s for dairy, so we label it. In the Bible, it says that you’re not supposed to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. We don’t mix meat and dairy. We have three categories of laws in the Torah: laws of justice, which you would figure out even if they weren’t commanded by God, things like ‘Don’t kill,’‘Don’t steal.’ Then we have memorial laws — we’re going to be observing Succos tomorrow. We know why we do it; it’s commemorating something in our history. Then we have a category of laws which we don’t understand why we do it; we just do it because God said to do it. We can guess at the reasons, but unless it actually says in the Torah to keep this law for this reason, we’re just guessing. We keep it just because God said to. None of the laws are harmful, because God is a benevolent God.” Another law prohibits the mixing of meat and fish.

Once the chicken is in the oven, Yehuda begins work on the fried fish cakes that are the sole contribution from the family’s male contingent. (Alan’s job is to carve the brisket. “I believe in expertise — for people to do what they are good at,” he says.) Yehuda shreds carrots and onions in the food processor, then mixes them in a yawning bowl with great soft mounds of matzoh meal and generous quantities of gefilte fish. He is a quarter cup shy on the matzoh meal.

“We need to write matzoh meal down,” says Elisheva, grabbing a pencil and writing on one of the three pads that cling to the front of the kitchen fridge. Above the pads hangs a computer-printed Mother’s Day card from Esther: “Happy Mother’s Day. I owe you one 100-percent free Shabbos meal. Friday night. Sorry, but you’ll need to buy the food. Menu will also be prepared by me, with at least one week’s notice.”

Yehuda dollops the fish batter into a pan coated with hot oil, presses it into patties, and begins frying it to a golden brown. (Later, the patties will be baked in tomato sauce with mushrooms.) The removal of his wisdom teeth this afternoon has left him drained, however, and he relinquishes frying duties to Shira.

Yehuda is studying to be a rabbi. His sisters joke that making the fish cakes is “one of the trials” that rabbis must undergo. Who judges the trial? “Mom. All the moms.” Mom, for her part, must be proud and amazed to have such a son; neither Elisheva nor Alan was a religious Jew when the two married. They came from assimilated, non-practicing families. They met at UCSD, then transferred together to UCLA. After some time back east, they spent a year in Israel and then made their way back to San Diego.

There — or rather, here — they met a young rabbi. “We were much younger then,” says Elisheva. “We started asking questions, and we liked the answers we were getting. We had all of these friends, and we’d gone to their weddings where they wrote their own ceremonies because it was going to be really moving, and three years later, they were divorced. We said, ‘We don’t want that to happen. What can we find that will reinforce stability?’

“We were seeing this rabbi and his wife, and we met some other families, and we saw they had the sort of life that we would like. Their sons were respectful; their children were polite. I was seeing this in the homes of religious families and saying, ‘This is what we want.’ The first thing was seeing that this was the way we would like to be living. Then, it was also that the beliefs appealed to us.” In a later conversation, Alan notes that when the latter (belief ) fades, the former (culture) often follows suit.

Shira arrives home with her friend; Shana joins them in the living room, and there is a buzz of young womanhood. (However buzzy, it is a modest young womanhood — women wear skirts that fall below the knee and shirts that descend past the elbows and rise up over the collarbones.) Esther hovers about the buzz. The house’s living space — kitchen, living and dining rooms, all separated by a minimum of walls — feels full. Danny strolls through. Esther overhears me commenting on the cranberries that adorn the brisket.“Cranberries? Why did you put cranberries on it?” she asks her mother.

“Remember how good it smelled last night?” counters Mom.

“I don’t remember smelling it.”

“Everybody else wanted to eat it last night.”

Esther holds her ground.


“If I just made it plain with nothing on it, you wouldn’t like it.”

Mom turns to me. “When Esther leaves the room, I’ll tell you what went on it, because she’s never going to eat it if she hears what went on it.” Esther, who has conducted this whole exchange with a frank tone and a half-smile — and without any detectable teenage snottiness — drifts behind a sliding-glass door and into the study. “I browned it on both sides at high, then I mixed the sauce: ketchup, cranberries, and beer. That was mostly from a cookbook.” She calls in to her daughter, “Esther, I promise...”

The adolescent buzz and the butting over food are common enough, but it seems clear that there is harmony here — Alan and Elisheva have realized at least some measure of what they desired. Nobody is sullen, nobody is shrill. Sara quizzes Esther on Jewish history. Esther explains that the suitcase full of clothes in the living room is there because she is the last child, and so the outgrown clothes that might otherwise have been handed down are being donated to the poor. She asks her mother if maybe I would like some cookies and gets some for herself while she is at it. There are two kinds of chocolate chip, along with caramel squares and something fudgey.

Good Shabbos! Good Shabbos! Today is Succos, the happiest day of the year. It is also Shabbos, and as evening approaches, the Jews gather for shul. In the vestibule of the Chabad House on Montezuma Road, there are many hearty handshakes and wishes of Good Shabbos! There are beards here as well, noticed first for themselves and then in comparison with others. Some beards, like Alan’s, are magnificent in their autonomy — they grow as they wish, untrimmed and untamed. “You shall not round the corners of your beard.” These beards grow in wide bushes, or they hang long and white and straight; on some of the younger faces, they sprout like scraggly chaparral. But many beards are trimmed — full beards that have been reined in at the base; close-cropped beards that still cover much of the face; narrow strips of beard along the jawline; even goatees. A few men are altogether shaven.

Clothing mirrors this range of observance. Alan wears a black, broad-brimmed hat with a black skullcap beneath, a double-breasted black three-quarter-length coat, black pants, and black shoes. Under the coat, he wears a white shirt without a tie, and under that, a prayer shawl. Several others are dressed as he is; the formal dress follows the free-form beards. Others wear suits — gray, blue pinstripe. Still others favor a simple white dress shirt and black pants. One older gentleman has arrived in a tucked-in short-sleeve polo shirt, white with a teal and salmon-pink color-block pattern.

There is a reason for this variety. Chabad House is an outreach community, with a mission to gather non-religious Jews back into the practice of the faith. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent young couples to found Chabad Houses in college communities in an effort to call Jews away from worldly decadence. (San Diego’s was the third such house; the first two were founded at Berkeley and UCLA.) But the Rabbi did not send his disciples to condemn. “We’re a very nonjudgmental organization,” Alan explains. “We focus on the good people are doing, as opposed to what they’re not doing.” About the shaven and casually dressed, he says,“Some people, that’s as far along as they are in their understanding.”

The men have arrived here in the family’s van. Because the sun is setting and Shabbos is beginning, they will not drive it home. They will walk and leave the van here until after Shabbos has ended. The women have remained at home. “You won’t see as many women in the synagogue tonight,” Alan tells me.“If you were to go tomorrow morning, you would see more women and children. Women are not required to pray in the temple. They are obligated to pray, but not in the temple. That’s simply a recognition of the fact that the woman is the center of the care-taking in the home and that her responsibilities are there.” Nevertheless, five of the eight women who eventually arrive to attend this evening’s shul are either from Alan’s family or guests in his house.

Before they came, in the roughly 18 minutes before Shabbos began, the women proceeded, in ones and twos, out to the sukkah, there to light candles. The primary candelabra is silver, sporting multitudinous arms, each outfitted with a tiny hurricane lamp around the candle. (If the wind should blow a candle out after Shabbos begins, it cannot be relit.) Girls and unmarried women lit one candle, married women lit two, plus one for each of their children. Elisheva lit nine. After they set the match to the wick, the women wafted the smoke towards their faces with their hands, inhaled, bowed their heads, and covered their faces in silence. It was the first of many rituals to be observed this evening.

At the synagogue — a brightly lit, low-ceilinged front room in what used to be a dormitory — the women sit on the left side, the men on the right. Sections of redwood fence run down the center of the room; only the rabbi standing at the altar in the front of the room (and the milling crowd at the back) can see both groups. Though there is no requirement that makes it so, there is a marked difference in behavior between the left and right side of the fence. During the service, the men repeatedly break into chanted songs and marching dances, now circling the altar and pounding on its top, now heading out through the sliding-glass doors onto the Chabad house’s patio sukkah. Men carry boys on their shoulders; some even carry other men. The air is raucous with their smiling, shouted singsong. The women remain in their places, now standing, now sitting, comparatively silent.

The rabbi gives a short talk about the victory of a good year, but most of the service is taken up with chanted prayers in Hebrew. Many of the prayers are psalms of David. The service runs longer than usual; I am told one of tonight’s chanters is particularly slow. Through it all, the milling about continues. People discuss in their seats while others stand and pray. Children wander in and out from the patio. A man retreats to a back room to sit on a couch and take a nap. Nobody seems bothered by all this extraneous activity — “We focus on the good people are doing, as opposed to what they’re not doing.”

After shul, the family, along with some others, embark on the long walk down Montezuma toward home. The walk takes them past several sororities; it is Friday night, and the festival spirit is in the air. Young women in skimpy party attire crowd the sidewalks, waiting for things to begin. All seems blonde and bright and fleshy, a sharp contrast with the darker, less revelatory garb of the Jews. Mostly, the two groups are content to exchange curious glances (though Alan, with whom I am walking, scarcely seems to notice the throngs). But one fellow, when he spots a mass of girls gathered outside a sorority, cannot help shouting, “The door’s open; go in!” Then, to his compatriots, “There’s safety in numbers. They’re just like us.” Then, not quite as loud as before, “Look out! Packs of Jews roaming the streets! You might get mugged by an accountant!” Nobody responds to this. The blonde gauntlet passed, Alan says hello to a couple of skateboarders waiting at a street corner; their reply is cordial.

When we arrive home, we walk through a side gate straight into the back yard. A fluorescent light — on a timer — illuminates the sukkah. The tables, two of them, set at right angles, are set — floral outdoor tablecloths, two white paper dishes with purple iris borders. Clear plastic cups show the same iris pattern. The silver — two forks, one knife — is white plastic. Elisheva is already here, talking to three of tonight’s guests, all longtime friends. Larry and Mary are married, Robbie is a former neighbor. Everybody exchanges greetings.“Well, I guess nobody’s hungry,” jokes Alan (the time is about 7:45). But if hunger is present, it keeps a low profile and doesn’t make any moves. Nobody seems in a hurry to get dinner underway; everybody seems interested in talk.

As she talks, Elisheva begins heading my way with a bag of plastic Solo cups, which will be used for the wine. The bag is tied with a twist tie. “We can get our guest to help us. Matthew, would you undo this?” I undo the tie.

“See, that’s why God made non-Jews,” says Alan with a smile.

“You can take things out of bags, but you can’t undo twist ties?”

“The laws refer back to the building of the temple. We can’t tie or untie permanent knots. You could tie your shoe, but we consider a twist tie to be more permanent. In the days before electricity, this presented certain problems, especially in colder climates. If Jews couldn’t feed their fires, how could they keep from freezing? What they would do is, they would have a non-Jew come around to the house and stoke the fires. He was the village goyim. You couldn’t pay him for doing work on the Sabbath, so you would have him do some other work for you during the week and pay him extra for that. Is it a loophole? Yes.

“I have a neighbor who is not a Jew. On weeks where there is a holiday, our trash is picked up on Saturday. I take it out the night before, but on the Sabbath... He brings my cans back in for me. He jokes that he’s my village goy.” Alan laughs.

“What would you do if everyone converted?”

“Well, you know we are not a proselytizing religion. If someone wants to convert, that’s fine, but our thing is, be good and you’ll be okay.”

Eventually, people take their seats. Booklets appear; inside are the prayers for the evening in both Hebrew and English. Alan opens a bottle of sweet, fizzy wine and fills a silver cup to the brim. He picks up the cup and says a blessing, wine dripping down over his fingers and into a silver saucer below. After the blessing, he drinks the wine, draining the cup in three goes. He pours more wine into a small silver pitcher, which is passed around the tables. Yehuda, Danny, and Larry have silver cups; the rest of us use the plastic Solo cups. The younger children pour grape juice for themselves. Everyone drinks and then goes inside to wash, filling a pitcher from the sink, then pouring it over their hands three times. Nobody speaks — silence will be maintained until after the blessing of the bread.

Last night, Sara told me about the blessing of the bread. “Usually, after the blessing, we dip it into salt to signify the sacrifices — in the times of the temple, they used salt on their sacrifices.”

“Why salt?” asked Elisheva.

“It brings out the flavor.”

“Why else?”

“What do you mean?”

“If I leave food on the table, what is going to happen?”

“So salt is a preservative. So?”

“So salt is permanent. It’s everlasting.”

“There are lots of reasons.”

“Okay, but there’s one.”

Tonight, we will not dip into salt.

During September, the month that sees the coming of the New Year, “We want everyone to have a sweet new year, so we try to use a lot of sweet things.” Tonight, we will dip our bread — challah, round instead of braided, to signify the cycling of the years — into honey. Round raisins in the bread also symbolize this cycle.

Alan says the blessing over the bread. The blessing is long. Laughter begins to bubble up in the surrounding silence. The children begin tapping one another on the opposite shoulder, playing “made you look.” The bubbles of laughter give way to tiny eruptions, Alan continues, paying no attention. After the blessing, he slices off a piece of the bread, dips it in the stainless steel honey bowl, and eats. “For the honor of the Sabbath” is etched in Hebrew characters on the knife blade. He cuts slices for everyone else; we dip, eat, and begin to talk again.

“Our challah is special, because it’s warm,” says Shira. “And it’s whole wheat. That’s not common.” The challah is warm because it has been sitting in the oven — run on a timer and kept at a gentle 200 degrees — wrapped in tinfoil alongside the brightly colored enamel pots and Pyrex pans that hold much of the dinner. The girls have fetched it out; during the meal, they do most of the fetching and clearing.

The bread is delicious; it is tempting to feast upon it. But then the procession of food begins. First, the green salad: avocados, tomatoes, diced cucumber, sliced cauliflower, red onion, and vinaigrette decorate the greens. Then, Sara’s cabbage salad, dotted with cranberries and golden raisins. The dressing is made from lemon juice, mayonnaise, and spices. Before either can be finished, out come the fish cakes, their deep-brown crusts softened now by the chunky tomato sauce. We eat; more challah is cut and heaped onto our table’s platter.

At various moments during the dinner, Alan calls on members of the dinner party to give a Dvar-Torah, a word of Torah. The children reply without hesitation or annoyance; they do not mind the interruption or the request, and they are ready for it. Shira goes first, commenting on the notion that, while some people regard Succos as a kind of afterthought to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is actually the climax of the three — the others lead up to it. Shaina, Shira’s visiting friend, comments on the four walls of sukkah, the way they surround us as God surrounds us with blessings.

“And in the desert,” adds Larry, “what surrounded the Jews? A cloud of glory.” The difference in tone between those two statements catches something of the difference between the two tables. At the “grownup” table, Larry asks Yehuda about reconciling the biblical age of the world (which is nearing 6000 years) with the presence of fossils thought to be millions of years old. At our table, which is populated by teenagers, Danny and me, the “four walls” reference brings up a story about the propped-up plywood rectangle that serves as the fourth wall of the sukkah. Esther remembers a time when Sara hid behind that tiny wall and scared Shira into dropping an armful of plates she was clearing — “even though Shira knew Sara was there.” I am the only one who drinks wine, a Baron Herzog White Zinfandel.

More wine is consumed at the other table. Alan — who admits that his children, brought up in the tradition as they were, may know the law better than he does — tells a story.“You say a blessing over the wine, and then, if there’s a better wine introduced, you say another blessing over that.” Once, such a bottle was introduced during a dinner with one of his absent sons,“who is a connoisseur. He said that we should say a second blessing. But I had been studying the law, and it says to say the second blessing only if two or more people are going to be drinking the wine.” Alan, who is not much of a drinker, had no plans to consume, “and so we didn’t need to say it.”

“What about Scotch?” jokes Larry.

“An 18-year-old Scotch is better than a 12-year-old Scotch.”

“Do you say a blessing over Scotch?” I ask.

“You say a blessing over everything,” he answers.

“If you stopped into a bar, you’d say a blessing over your drink?”

“You’d say a blessing over the whole bar.” He is smiling as he says this.

“Everything I’m going to drink tonight,” adds Alan, also smiling. The girls clear the fish/salad plates — fish and meat may not be mixed. Next comes the soup. It’s a pea soup, but it is named for the little rounds of hot dog that float on its surface. “That’s the way Mom used to get us to eat it when we were kids,” explains Shira. Apparently, it took.

More challah. I am slowing down, but the food procession is not. Time for Mom’s chicken with potatoes and onions, Shira’s spinach puff, Sara’s carrot kugel. The brisket holds off making an appearance — it will wait for another day. Esther is spared the cranberries.

The evening is getting older; Esther is getting sleepy.

One of the guests, a young man, slips off to the study to sleep, leaving word that he wishes to be roused for the final blessing at the end of the meal. Esther takes his place at the grownup table, slumps against Yehuda, and drops off. Dessert arrives — plates piled high with cookies, some of which I sampled last night. Also, bowls of fruit — grapes, pears, peaches, apples, and mounds of ripe raspberries — equipped with pairs of sharp silver knives for slicing.“After doing this every Friday night, you’d think I’d learn,” moans Shira, putting a hand to her stomach.

Over dessert, Elisheva offers the evening’s final Dvar-Torah. “This week, we finish reading the Torah. Now the Rabbi Lubavitch says that things should end on a positive note.” This makes theological sense — the promised land after a time of suffering — “and also, it’s just good common sense. When you leave here tonight, you’re not going to say negative things. You’re going to say, ‘Thank you; everything was good.’ ”

“Fishing for compliments, are you?” jokes Larry.

Elisheva continues.“So, things should end on a positive note. And how does the Torah end? With Moses breaking the Ten Commandments” — the actual stone tablets inscribed by God — “and the Jews dancing around the golden calf — just 40 days after they received the Torah. So how is that a positive note, Moses throwing down the Ten Commandments and the Jews worshipping idols? That’s not a positive note.

“But the Rabbi says it is a positive thing. How can it be a positive thing? He tells a parable. ‘Once, there was a king, and he fell in love with a beautiful maiden. They were engaged to be married, and he had the marriage contract written up. Then the king went away, and while he was away, he heard from his messengers that the maiden’s servants were not behaving as they should. And he heard that the maiden was involved in some of this behavior as well.

“‘The king was furious. So what happened? A very close friend of the king and the maiden tore up the marriage contract. That way, since there was no longer any relationship between the king and the maiden, she was not subject to the penalty of death.’“

So, who’s the king? God. Who are the maidservants? Those who had followed the Jews out of Egypt. They had been impressed with the miracles and started to believe, but as soon as things got difficult, they went back to their old ways, worshipping idols. And who is the maiden? The Jews, who joined them. Who is the friend? Moses. By breaking the Ten Commandments, which were his whole life, he was showing mercy to the Jews. Because without the Commandments, they were no longer under the penalty of death.”

“If there’s no contract, there’s no penalty,” says Alan.

“Another loophole!”

“So it is a positive note,” concludes Elisheva.

“He’s showing mercy to the Jews.”

“That’s different from what I was taught,” says Larry.

“I was taught he broke the Commandments in anger.”

“Well, he wasn’t happy,” grants Alan.

“There are many valid interpretations,” offers Elisheva.

Cookies remain on the platters, defiant and triumphant. They will not suffer eating; there is no room for them in the collective belly. Booklets are passed again; again, a long blessing is read. Again, there is laughter among the young; everyone is tired and well-fed. It is hard to resist.

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