Being – and Hosting – a Guest (Guests!!)

Two rolled up sleeping bagsWe were invited to be guests in someone else’s home this past Shabbat. That’s right, 8 out of the 9 of us picked up and moved in with another family for Shabbat. This very brave, gracious family has twelve – yes twelve – children.  Don’t worry; only ten of them were home.

We don’t go away very often, especially for Shabbat. We rarely go out for Shabbat meals locally in our own community. It is truly a lot of work, and usually easier to stay home. Not only is it invariably someone’s bed or nap time during a meal, but my picky eaters will usually come home from a meal telling me they are starving, so I have to make food anyway.

This last week was an intense work week for me, and my thinking was that with 10 children home (ages 22-3) there would be mess, chaos, noise and lots of food without my having to worry that it was all caused by my family. I also brought sleeping bags and pillows for my kids. The thought of anyone having to do double the amount of laundry I do just makes me woozy.

We had a fabulous, fabulous time. Two things struck me: 1. There was far more unanimous happiness and joy than there ever is at any “family outing”, which usually take more money and a lot more effort. 2. Being a host is good for a person, but so is being a guest.

We spent our Shabbat away in Lakewood, NJ, a black hat (or haredi) community, if not THE haredi community in the US. (Forgive me, Monsey).  The community as a whole observes Judaism in a lot of subtle little ways that are sharply different from our family.

One great thing about coming outside of our home, our neighborhood, our comfort zone, was to have a different role. In this case, mine was blissfully passive! Another was to get a new perspective. We didn’t just glimpse a different Judaism, we discussed it. We asked, we compared. We got a taste of something else.

When I was younger and single I encountered so many different Jews with different views on Torah and halacha. I saw and experienced such a wonderful range of minhagim (family traditions) and opinions. Then I settled down, had a family, and wanted to build a wonderful consistency for them. The break from that consistency was wonderful, and allowed us to understand a piece of Klal Yisrael just a little better.

Another wonderful thing about being a guest is seeing different styles in parenting. It is obviously clearer during a 26 hour visit than a two hour one. It is wonderful to digest what one can learn from others and to break the routine to the point where things aren’t happening by rote so that maybe you can “see” them.

There are some who claim that communities like Lakewood are insular, judgmental, close-minded, etc. Perhaps I am not looking for such negativity so I am not finding it. But I must say that the warmth and kindness from everyone I met was just amazing.  It is obvious to anyone there that I am an outsider who does things differently. I was greeted much more warmly than I have been in some other places. (As I always have been whenever in Lakewood.) By being there, I could ask questions, as so many people ask me, about why things are done the way they are. And as with so many other things in the Torah, the answers are often simple and beautiful, just with a perspective I didn’t previously have.

The informal and extensive hospitality is one of the many things I miss about Israel. I was recently told that travelling to another’s home routinely means bringing one’s own linens.  I bet that helps a lot.

I also enjoy being a host(ess) for many of the same reasons. I love hearing a different person’s story, their point of view, their Jewish journey. (I think this particular part I owe to many meals at Alan and Bonnie Cohen’s home opposite the Old City of Jerusalem. One of the many things I owe them…) I like the new “flavors” that different people bring to our meals. It isn’t always easy to be the host, especially if you feel compelled to make a certain kind of impression. (Of course I have never felt that way.) It is often easier to keep things routine, just family; simple. I have never been known for preferring easier for its own sake.

It isn’t always easy to invite a whole family into your home, especially overnight. Nor is it ever easy, I think, to travel somewhere with six of your own. But the experience was so very worth it, and I feel invigorated not only by the rest of letting someone else “make shabbos”, but by the fresh perspective and the watching and listening.

….. I will just have to hope that someone else, at some point in time, is crazy enough to once again invite all of us to be guests.

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