This past Shabbat, the Cap’n undertook all the menu planning, shopping (which he usually does), and cooking. (He also loaded the dishes in the dishwasher, but he usually does that, too.) This is the second, maybe the third time he has done this in the nine years of our marriage.
This was a particular relief for me because I’ve been wearing a little thin lately. I’ve found that in Israel, people don’t invite Shabbat guests (or eat out at someone else’s house) every week, as people did in our community in the US. Families here are bigger, dining rooms smaller, food just as expensive, salaries invariably lower, and with children in school and activities and field trips until all hours, Shabbat is the only time during the week in which families can sit down to a leisurely meal together. So while we’ve been hosting guests in our home nearly every week, we find that our invitations out are sparser.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love being a homemaker right now, and I thoroughly enjoy planning, cooking, and entertaining. I’m a fairly accomplished self-taught cook, and I also enjoy tasting what other people like to make in their homes. But there are times when I feel as though my brand of Judaism was invented by Martha Stewart. When the autumn holidays add up to 19 festive meals in less than three weeks (add four more meals if you’re in the Diaspora), that stretches one’s creativity, patience, enthusiasm, and pocketbook. Rosh Hashanah involves eating symbolic foods and saying special prayers for the coming year. (Some people plan a meal where the dishes have the simanim built in, which saves some effort.) For Sukkot, one makes fancy meals, then shleps them outside to eat in the sukkah. Passover involves overhauling the kitchen, buying 10 dozen eggs, preparing a seder plate, and making a series of meals with a limited number of very expensive ingredients. Shavuot, for those who can eat dairy, is a relief: make a lasagna, buy a cheesecake, BOOM. Done.
But in addition to all of these meals, there is still Shabbat to prepare every week. One can cut corners, of course: use paper plates instead of china, have the guest bring a dish or two, buy some of the food already prepared, make simple food that can be cooked in a short amount of time. But for people like me who don’t have a set Shabbat menu and who like to experiment making new things, simplicity and time-saving measures can sometimes be elusive. When that happens, I find myself in the kitchen for half of Thursday and all of Friday.
I freely admit that I bear most of the blame for my own frustration. Deservedly or not, I am more than a little vain about my cooking. I enjoy ethnic foods, and after living in the Boston area with only a handful of kosher restaurants, I’ve been forced to learn to cook the kinds of foods I like to eat (e.g. Indian, authentic Mexican, Italian). I like a table to look beautiful when people sit down to it, and that is much more easily achieved with my English china, silver flatware, and cloth napkins than with the plain sort of paper goods one buys in the grocery stores here. (It also saves the guests bendy knives and broken forks.) And I find most prepared food, even here in Israel where there is so much to choose from, much greasier and less fresh-tasting than homemade food. For the sake of health and my enjoyment of the meal, I generally avoid buying prepared food.
So I’m trapped. Between my vanity, fussiness, health-consciousness, and obligation to observe kashrut and Shabbat, there seems to be no way out. I sometimes try to imagine leaping off the derech and becoming secular, but I know I would be miserable. I would miss the social contact, the ritual, and the incentive to cook the best food I cook all week. Shabbat is a slave-driver, but without it, I would become lethargic and indolent.