Sally Quinn's The Party: The Shabbat dinner

(Craig Herndon)
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By Sally Quinn
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Last week I was invited to a Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner, which observant Jews hold every Friday night. After three enlightening years of moderating The Post's online feature "On Faith," you would think, I should be totally comfortable going to any religious event. But to tell the truth, I was nervous.

I never want to go to another person's home and do something that might be inappropriate or offensive to them -- worst of all, on a night when they're sharing what they hold sacred. I had read enough to understand the basics of Shabbat dinners -- the women lighting the candles on Friday night, often covering their heads, breaking the bread, etc. But this Shabbat invitation was for the first night of Hanukkah, a celebration during which candles in a menorah are lighted for eight nights. Though I had been to Passover Seders and the breaking of the fast after Yom Kippur, I had never been to a Shabbat dinner or a Hanukkah party.

My hostess will laugh to learn this, but I used my phone-a-friend lifeline. Should I bring something to cover my head? "Not necessary," he said. Would a nice set of lavender soap be an appropriate gift? "Of course," he said. "They're not going to eat it." (In one of my novels, "Happy Endings," my gentile protagonist goes to a Seder with a box of cookies as a gift. Jews do not eat anything that leavens at Passover, and some ritually clean their houses to rid themselves of all crumbs, called chametz. And it's a total no-no.)

I knew enough not to wear red and green. I wore a black suit with a blue and black top and a dark blue scarf. My friend advised me to say "Shabbat shalom" as I entered, which I already had down. I was also told by another Jewish friend not to expect any wine. "Drink before you go," he advised.

The dinner turned out to be delightful. My hosts did everything to make me, the only non-Jew, feel at home and comfortable, explaining the rituals as they went along. There was plenty of delicious California kosher wine, red and white (the growing of the grapes had been overseen and blessed by a rabbi). The food was spectacular -- the best matzoh-ball soup I ever ate. And the conversation was lively and spirited, to say the least: We debated whether this was a Christian nation!

The evening worked because both parties -- the guest and the hosts -- had done everything they could to make the other feel comfortable.

Last week a Jewish woman from New York wrote me to explain that she was going to visit her new Christian in-laws in the Midwest for Christmas. She had been told they wear skirts for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. She, on the other hand, didn't wear skirts, didn't even own one that was not a mini. I told her to go buy one.

So the question this week is how to behave in a party setting where the rituals and culture may be different from your own, and how to behave if you have a guest from a different culture.

Remember the old saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans?" It's hardly a cliche for no reason. The whole idea of entertaining or being entertained is to make the other person feel good. If you're the guest and you're not sure how to behave, you do a little research. If you're the host, you do everything you can to make certain the guest does not feel out of place. If I don't want to do what they do or don't want to participate in their rituals, then I don't go. If you're going to have people to your house, then don't impose anything on them that they wouldn't like or be able to handle.

Make sure you know something about your guests. My parents, who moved a lot because they were in the military, were once given a party in their honor when we arrived in a new neighborhood. The hosts passed around bubble gum and asked everyone to chew it, and to make little animal figures out of the chewed gum! And then they gave prizes for the best one. Some advice: Do not ever do this.

During these year-end holidays, there are a lot of rituals and practices deserving respect and adherence. I don't go anyplace where I am not prepared to participate. Which means I go everywhere. It's a great way to learn about other people and other cultures. The more you throw yourself into these experiences, the more open-minded, understanding and informed you are.

I used to date a guy whose parents were strict Southern Baptists. When we visited his parents we went to church with them on Sunday, then came home and had a formal Sunday dinner during which the father, a deacon in a morning coat, said grace, then carved the ham with great ceremony. I wore little black dresses and pearls and called his parents "ma'am" and "sir." This was in the late '60s. When his father railed on about the hippies and how righteous the war in Vietnam was, we both smiled and nodded.

After Sunday dinner, we would go back to our apartment, put on our bell-bottom jeans and leather-fringed vests and go out to an antiwar protest. But guess what? His parents felt good about us being there. They adored him and liked me, and it didn't kill us to live a few hours of our day their way -- to keep the peace.

So that's why I advised the Jewish woman visiting her Christian in-laws for Christmas to get a skirt. After all, isn't this a season, for everyone, of peace?

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