Sunday, July 27, 2008

How Not to Be a Jerk 2

. . . or, Katrina's Quik 'n E-Z Guide to Being a Shabbat Guest and Host

The Jewish community in which I live has a big Hakhnasat Orchim (welcoming-of-guests) problem. Maybe I'm noticing it more now because it's the summer, and I have less to do, or perhaps the problem is getting worse, but I feel I have to say (or at least blog) something.

My Shomer Shabbat community has many graduate students. Many of these are single, and also, because they're graduate students, poor and car-less. This makes it harder for them to obtain kosher meat, or at least kosher chicken, and, let's face it, it's a lot more fun to cook when you're cooking with at least one other person. (Because TC has a job, when he visits for a weekend, he doesn't get here until Friday, late-afternoon, so I still have to cook meals alone, and it's lonely). Of course, there is also clique-y-ness, so within each social group, even fewer people cook on a regular basis. Some people, of course, enjoy cooking more than others, and some like to dictate the guest lists at their meals, but, in general, there are not a lot of conditions here that are conducive to these single graduate students cooking.


I say this because most of the cooking, especially for Friday-night dinner, is falling on a disproportionately small number of people (often married couples) in the community. Singles who don't have anywhere to go tend to find out where the dinners are and invite themselves. This is the wrong attitude. It's rude, and it's not mentschlich. Just because a married couple is making dinner every week does not mean that the members of said couple always want to make dinner. Our community is sufficiently young and informal that virtually no one, pre-kids, cooks every week. It just means that they have to eat, and no one else has invited them over. If people invite themselves over, then that means more cooking for said already busy couple (or single, or collection of roommates--I realize there is more than one model here).

Now, I'm not saying that if you are moving, and your dog died, and your oven broke, that you shouldn't call a good friend and ask to be included in a Shabbat meal. I'm saying that: 1) you shouldn't do so consistently without reciprocating; and 2) you shouldn't think that you are the only person who is busy and stressed out; everyone is.

My parents were very strict about manners when I was growing up. When we went to Temple, and they introduced my sibling and me to new people, we had to shake their hands, look them in the eye, smile, and then answer the obvious adult questions (How old are you? What grade are you in now?). Letting the adult know we were grievously annoyed and would rather be home reading The Babysitters' Club was not an option. When we had guests over, we were not allowed to take food until all the guests had been served. AND, when someone invited my parents or the family over for dinner, my parents always invited them back. This had nothing to do with being frum, of course. We were not frum. I first head about Hakhnasat Orchim (or Hochnosos Orchim) on an Uncle Moishe cassette tape in someone else's car. So the fact that many Shomer Shabbat people around here did not grow up that way is not an excuse either. It has to do with being a decent, polite, well-brought-up human being.

In case you have read this far and are still not sure what I'm getting at, or in case you're saying, Well, Katrina, of course I would like to reciprocate as a decent, polite, human being, but I just don't have time, here are my quik 'n e-z tips for being a mentschlich Shabbat guest:

1. Make at least 1 meal for every month (or so) that you are in town and eating at someone else's house for at least one Shabbat meal per week. Try to invite as many of your hosts as possible to your meal. It's very unlikely that they will all be able to make it, and I would suggest inviting a few at a time if you're nervous about numbers. You can always get 'em the following month. Don't worry about not competing with the regular Shabbat dinner makers. It's the thought that counts, and everyone knows there's a learning curve

2. Consider making lunch if dinner overwhelms you; it's summer, and you can get away with a bunch of cold salads.

3. If you honestly feel that you cannot, for whatever reason (and there are a very small number of people out there with good reasons), host a meal and reciprocate, I would suggest one or more of the following:

A. Going to Chabad. That's what they are there for. They don't care if you reciprocate, since they always have a place to eat. They don't care if you don't RSVP, if you're late, if you're early. If you're Jewish, they will take you, and they have already cooked.

B. Going up to the Hospitality Person at your minyan, admitting you don't have meal plans, and letting that person match you with someone offering a meal. Yes, it can be uncomfortable for you, but you're asking for free, no-work-for-you food; uncomfortable is not the end of the world.

C. Organizing a potluck. People who cook a lot (or even a little) will tell you that it is MUCH easier to make only one dish, even if they have to host the potluck, then it is to plan out, buy the ingredients for, and make, an entire meal. The annoying thing is not the cooking, but the organizing. If you can't contribute more than a side dish, donate your time to making the potluck happen. Donating time is how some poor people pay their shul dues, and this, IMHO, is similar. And it's summer! There's an eruv! You don't even need a host; have a picnic in the park instead.

D. Cooking with your friends and/or roommates. This is similar to a potluck, I guess, but maybe all of you have been invited over for Shabbat by the same three couples for the last few months, and neither feels up to reciprocating individually. It's so much friendlier with 2 (or 3, or 4).

Katrina has sometimes been guilty of breaches of etiquette where Shabbat meals are concerned, but she's working on it.

Next time you're thinking of mooching, please consider my advice. Shavua Tov!


elf said...

All good advice. One point:

Going up to the Hospitality Person at your minyan, admitting you don't have meal plans, and letting that person match you with someone offering a meal.

The Orthodox minyan here does have a system that allows people to accept or extend invitations on Friday night, but for the most part, it's much better to ask for hospitality in advance if at all possible. "In advance," by the way, does not mean Friday afternoon. If you find yourself unexpectedly without dinner plans on Friday afternoon (say, your refrigerator died and all the meat went bad), it's fine to ask for hospitality -- that's what these programs are for -- but you should apologize for the inconvenience.

frum single female said...

where i was brought up i was always taught not to invite myself over to anyone's house. now that i live in ny its a different story. people are hospitable, but they would prefer people invite themselves over for shabbas meals instead of inviting guests. it took me a long time to get used to this.
my friends and i have organized many potluck shabbas meals. these work out very well. sometimes some people may have small apts that may not fit many guests, but a potluck meal helps them recipracate.
another idea is perhaps offering to bring a dish for the meal even if it isnt a potluck.

js said...

Hmm. This post and discussion has taught me some good techniques for developing my mooching skills. I never thought of asking around to find out who is having a meal and then inviting myself. What a fabulous idea! Does it work as well here as it does in NY? After several year of being a hospitality coordinator, maybe I am ready for a solo mooching career.

sp said...

as a frum male phd student, I think being in grad school makes it significantly easier to prepare meals. My schedule is very flexible, so designing time around when I'm going to cook makes it easy to find time (at least when I want to find time).

For instance, baking challah takes time (4 hours start to finish for me), but there's only about an hour or so of real work in that period. So I can get a lot of work done in the middle as well.

Woodrow/Conservadox said...

Interesting- though I'm not sure how much of it applies outside a young, student-heavy community.

For example, I'm not sure I want to invite a middle-aged family of five or six to my apartment, with three possibly-bored kids of various ages running around.

And I'm not sure I want to put them in the position of having to decide whether to eat in my house, since I know they are way more frum than I. (On the other hand, I didn't invite myself to these people's houses- I think if I did I might feel morally bound to be more hospitable, for the very reasons you enumerate).

katrina said...

Woodrow: You're right that this really doesn't apply to non-student-heavy communities. In many "grown-up" communities, families (often meaning "women") will cook every Shabbat, regardless of whether they are having guests. Families will sometimes encourage singles to invite themselves over, "since we're cooking anyway." But in student communities, people don't necessarily cook every week and can get out of cooking dinner if they get invitations.

rebecca said...
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