As the Jewish Sabbath approaches each week, my kids don't ask what I'm making for dinner. Instead, they ask, "Who's coming for dinner?" This is because they know that while I might choose some exotic Thai or Moroccan food, it's our guests who really spice up our Sabbath and holiday meals.
We often meet our guests for the first time when they walk through our front door. They have been matched with us as part of our synagogue's outreach efforts to offer a taste of Jewish tradition to those who are new to it and want to see what it's all about.
While our family is Orthodox, we know that our guests are not. Part of our job as good hosts is to be welcoming and nonjudgmental, learning about them during our dinner discussions. Since I also grew up in a fairly secular family, I know from experience how off-putting or intimidating it can be to meet someone stamped with the Orthodox label.
Frankly, I never imagined I could have anything in common with "those people" who didn't drive on Saturdays and were busy checking kosher symbols on food packages at the market. This background of mindless prejudice is now a plus for me, however, since I think it helps me understand where some of our guests are coming from.
My goal is to have them leave our table thinking, "You know, I could relate to those people!" A few weeks ago, I asked one of my guests if he used Twitter. He nearly reeled backward in shock, not expecting that someone as "Orthodox" as I would even know about some of the latest in social networking.
While most of our guests are just checking out Jewish tradition – no commitments, mind you – over the years, dozens of them have been deeply touched by the family closeness my husband and I have with our four children, a closeness increasingly elusive in today's society.
They are touched and inspired to learn that Friday night can become a true Sabbath, a respite from work and from the mundane, and a time filled with great food, lively conversation, and spiritual connection and warmth.
Living in Los Angeles, our guests reflect the diaspora of Jewish life. Over the years, we have hosted Jews from Morocco, Mexico, Bosnia, Ukraine, Egypt, Rhodes, England, France, Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Gibraltar, Iran, Syria, and Yemen. Some have related dramatic stories of escape from Iran, Yemen, and other countries where Jews have been oppressed.
Ironically, the freedom of America also holds a peculiar danger: The freedom to assimilate fully also means the freedom to lose a precious heritage. That's one reason we keep hosting – to offer what we hope is a sweet taste of tradition in the land of the multiplex and 24-hour gym.
If things go well, these "strangers" at our table won't remain strangers for long. During the 20 years that we have been hosting meals, my husband and I have watched many newcomers slowly grow in their religious connection. Friendships have blossomed. We have also been thrilled to watch some of these singles marry and begin families of their own. Then they pay it forward, hosting a new generation of "underaffiliated" Jews.
I admit that sometimes, while chopping vegetables for a salad or standing in the market for a few items I had forgotten to purchase earlier, I ask myself, "Why am I doing this again?" Each Sabbath meal entails careful menu planning, shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up. It's a lot of work.
But those moments of doubt are fleeting. Not long ago, I received two lovely thank-you notes and a beautiful handmade afghan in the mail – each an expression of gratitude from guests whom we had hosted. We are always touched to realize how much one dinner experience can mean to our brothers and sisters who feel adrift in secular society.