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R&B / Shabbat: All In the Family

The following appeared in the Tevet – Nisan 5767 edition of The New Shul Newsletter (January – March 2007)

Gruel is our Shabbat mainstay. The core ingredients are beans, something rice like, random spices, a guest ingredient (or a few), and cheese. All of that goes into a pot in varying proportions and is cooked until we’re ready to welcome Shabbat. Its sort of an oral tradition that’s one generation old.

We decided to call it gruel because it tends to be colorful in taste, but bland in presentation. It started with my fiancé , Rachel’s stories of Friday nights at her family table with Spanish rice. Since I am a creative cook (I have no idea what I’m doing in the kitchen), I decided to forgo a recipe and toss everything in a pot and boil it (because I know the recipe for boil-in-a-bag).

So gruel was born from an attempt to be respectful of tradition and was something we thought would be fun for one night, but it turned into something we look forward to each week. Which is also how Friday night Shabbat started in our home.

About three years ago, when Rachel and I were first dating, we spent many Friday nights in a pub in Hoboken listening to one of our singer / songwriter / friends performing. But one Friday night we decided to stay in. At the time I was curious about Judaism, but knew little. Maybe I knew something of the richness of Shabbat or maybe on that first night I only knew some of the ingredients: wine, bread, and a meal at home away from the crazy day-to-day world. The next week I was lost in dreams and I thought that Rachel observed Shabbat every Friday night. Had I stopped to think I would have realized that no, Rachel was out with me most Friday nights.

In the same way I confused myself about the wine. I heard that we should have whole challah each week, so I thought we should also start with a whole bottle of wine. After months of opening a new bottle each week, Rachel realized my mistake and we had a laugh. We decided the practice was in the spirit of the holiday, so we kept our personal minchag (custom). (Lucky for our livers we decided that one bottle is enough and we don’t need one for each challah.)

Another minchag started from a similar idea. We decided that the whole family should participate. So one night we gave our cat, Thumper, a drop of wine on his paw. For days Thumper walked around with a pink paw, but after a few times he figured out that fresh wine is better.

He also learned that candles (two for Shabbat and one for him) mean it is a special night. The click of candles coming out of the box is like the whir of the can opener and from then on, Thumper sits by our feet watching us until his two bits of mana fall from the sky.

For a long time, the blessing was just the simple one liner for us and honestly three lines of Hebrew in one night was all I could handle. But after a couple years and an introductory course I was over-confident in my skills and I began to read the whole blessing.

Thumper was not so confident. Like any Shabbat, he was by our feet when we blessed the candles. His head rose as we raised the Kiddush cup. Then I started reading the blessing. Slowly. Thumper wandered into the other room, checked in now and then, and finally returned to receive his drop of wine.

Over time my reading has improved and so has his patience. He’ll usually stick around for the whole blessing, but on some nights neither of us has the energy, so we recite the one liner. And just as a whole challah is more filling than a bite, we find it is the same with the prayer. I find part of me is empty (not whole) all week if we miss a part of Shabbat. But we do what we can, thankful to honor Shabbat with the ingredients and proportions we have.

For me ritual always begins with concentration on the nuts and bolts, little emotion, and often feeling overwhelmed. But with practice we have learned how to make this food that nourishes our hearts. That is when you mix in the right ingredients. Which, did I mention gruel consists of baked beans, carrots, couscous, cayenne, and cheese … tonight. And Shabbat is always candles, wine, bread, family, and love — in whatever forms you find them.

- Bill Rood

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