Strangers Among Us

Shabbat. Even in South Carolina we observed the Talmudic instructions that no stranger shall be turned away from the door hungry. This lesson is one I learned well and was encouraged to practice by my selectively generous parents. If that hospitality was acceptable to them, it was supported.

While we did not observe every Sabbath evening with a fine dinner and a full table of guests, there were many evenings at which my mother, with the assistance of our housekeeper of many years, Rosa, prepared a fine dinner. At those times, particularly as I was heading into the dangerous days of being without a husband or even a fiancé, I was encouraged to invite a guest—meaning a man—to dinner.

The preparations for those Shabbat dinners were great fun. My mother was an excellent cook who enjoyed taking on the latest Gourmet magazine recipes. Rosa was her capable sous chef as well as an all-around good kitchen manager. However, neither of them would be seen on the Food Network today. They were basic good cooks without sexy clothing or their own made-up descriptive words. I learned a great deal from them because they were competent and confident of the dinners that came out of their kitchen.

The meals that were served on a daily basis were balanced but rather pedestrian. There were even disasters that I remember much too clearly. My mother knew how to make excellent soups—she was, after all, a product of the extreme hardships of the Depression of the 1930's. She was committed to using everything and only tossed the leftover when it was clear the mold could not be scraped off. Scraping the burnt surface of the toast was a regular ritual at breakfast until she got a new toaster.

But there were those vegetable soups: a marvelous melange of fresh seasonal vegetables that was sometimes topped with croutons—the advantages of having stale bread—or grated cheese. That was the day the soup first came out of the pot. The next day, remembering the wonder of that soup from the previous night, I innocently put soup into a pot, waited as it began to simmer, then scooped a serving into my waiting bowl and… blah! What had happened to that elixir of vegetables?! In her compulsion to waste nothing, my mother had added left over canned asparagus.

Some leftovers actually improve with age. Tomato based dishes are frequently much tastier after they have had an overnight in the fridge. Other dishes were created in larger proportions so that you have the benefit of a whole other dish after the first serving. Think roast chicken or a meat-based pasta sauce.

Then there are the food items that just don't work the second time around. Sliced tomatoes that were so good when they were served a room temperature with that fresh mozzarella, basil and olive oil is pretty tasteless when served cold the next day—they will work well in a cooked sauce or soup. And finally some the items that just shouldn't be served. Falling into that category are those canned asparagus that my mother served so proudly to my father. He had very particular tastes which were a challenge my mother took as hers to conquer.

At that time the closest thing we had to a gourmet food shop in Columbia, South Carolina was a Jewish-style deli. It was not until I came to California that I learned how wonderful just-picked asparagus or fresh strawberries can be. With my father as the chief executive (he influenced the menu choices) and my mother as manager, I was exposed to some exotic and excellent dishes. The typical midday meal may have been pretty pedestrian - tuna salad or left over spaghetti. However the evening meals, especially those dinners at which my mother had non-family members in her audience, were outstanding.

There were some memorable Shabbat meals. One late spring dinner was especially noteworthy. All week long my mother and Rosa were planning a Sabbath dinner that coincided with the blooming of some of her favorite roses (she was also a gardener) and they were both interested in my bringing the young man I was currently seeing to dinner. While they were both concerned that I was not meeting and/or seeing the right potential mates, they did not often see the males with whom I went to the movies or out to the lake. The less they knew about my social life the better it was for everyone.

After a week of nagging and prodding I agreed to invite my friend and reminded them that just because he wasn't "from around here" they could still be nice to him. I was very much in mind of the teachings that we should open our doors to strangers, and to do so on Shabbat was a mitzvah—a good deed.

They asked the questions that are expected: where is he from? What does he do? And how did you meet him? I was somewhat evasive reminding my mother and Rosa that he and I met "up at the University (of South Carolina)". He was a stranger and I was doing a good deed, I reminded them. Finally my mother broke down and asked the big question: Is he Jewish? She actually displayed great equanimity when I told her I didn't think he was.

The table was, as always on these occasions, beautiful: An embroidered tablecloth with matching napkins, the flowered dinner plates from my father's grandmother with the polished silver and the Sabbath candles in their gleaming silver holders. My mother had even baked challah that was next to the candles, covered with the cloth given to my mother by her mother. The challah was truly something special. Raised in a family where the income was based on the fortunes of her father's bakery, my mother had learned to bake early and well. And she didn't do it often, now that she could afford to go to someone else's bakery.

There were six places around the table, my mother, my younger sister, my father, Unca' Bob, a family friend without whom it was not an official Shabbat, my place and the last place was for my guest. While my mother and Rosa put the finishing touches on the roast chicken and I made the salad, my father and Unca Bob had drinks as they pretended not to be eager to meet my guest. Finally, it really wasn't late, my father did his usual pronouncement "Let's get this show on the road" and I was instructed to call my sister so that we could all sit.

We each took our assigned places, my sister and "Unca Bob" on one side of the table, my mother at one end of the table with my father facing her at the other end. I was seated beside my guest's empty seat. My mother stood before the unlit candles and covered eyes, my sister and I stood next to her. Just as she struck the match the doorbell rang.

They heard me as I led my guest into the dining room and were all watching as this stranger entered the dining room. Unca Bob's mouth dropped. He quickly recovered as reached across the table to shake my guest's hand. My father stood and shook his hand as I said, "Id like you to meet Yuki Nakagawa. Yuki is stationed at Ft. Jackson. I met him at the poetry circle up at school."

Politeness reigned. Although it was a warm spring evening the temperature in that room dropped to a frosty level after I introduced my Japanese American friend. The conversation followed every guideline in Miss Manners' book of etiquette and nothing of interest was said. Yuki talked about his plans to continue studying poetry at the New School in New York City. My mother interrupted my father's question of what sort of career does a poet have? with the offer of more potatoes.

Because he was sensitive enough to recognize the limits of my father's patience, Yuki graciously thanked my mother after coffee (with non-diary creamer, of course) and desert and excused himself. When I walked him to the door, I reminded him that we would meet the next day for the screening of a Kurosawa film at the student union.

When I returned to the dining room, my father gave his assessment of this evening. "You cannot see this person again."

"I thought you wanted me to bring strangers into this house. You mean only the strangers you deem worthy to share the Sabbath."

"You are confusing the practice of the Sabbath with the facts."

"Oh, I get it. You're sure I'm going to marry anyone I bring for Shabbat. Guess what?! Just 'cause he's interesting doesn't mean I'm marrying him."

My mother asked, "Bob, can I get you some more coffee?"

"Daddy, you've got to understand eating Shabbat dinner together is not the same as getting married. It's the night we bring the stranger into our house and share our Sabbath blessings with our guests."


Copyright © 2016 Susan T. Lindau