Russian Shabbat Dinner

Katya says everyone is welcome here!

I’m part of this awesome local group called RuJew, short for Russian Jewish Columbus. It is what it sounds like–a space for Russian Jewish folks, mostly ages 21-40-ish, to hang out and celebrate our culture.

If you’re wondering why there needs to be a separate group for Russian Jews–well, there almost never needs to be a separate group for anything, but it’s fun–our backgrounds and histories tend to differ a lot from that of American Jews, whose families mostly immigrated to the United States a century or more ago.

For starters, most Jewish people in the former Soviet Union were raised secular, because the practice of religion was outlawed in the Soviet Union and Jews were especially discriminated against. Even teaching Hebrew eventually became illegal, disconnecting us almost entirely from our heritage.

Anyway, all of that is way too long and historical for this particular blog (for my main one, maybe not!), but the point is that it can be difficult for Russian Jews to connect with Jewish communities given that we tend to be pretty secular (even those of us who believe in god are rarely as observant as our American counterparts, because we just didn’t grow up with those traditions) and lack a lot of cultural context. I remember going on a Jewish summer program when I was in high school and feeling pretty alienated when everyone else sang camp songs and recited prayers that I’d literally never heard before.

So having a space to connect with Jewish culture and observance without the pressure of being seen as Real Jews can be nice.

Most of our events aren’t super focused on Judaism per se; we do lots of parties and happy hours, plus some awesome cultural events (last fall we had an awesome musical collaboration called The Stranniki and hosted a standup comedian whose main material is our wacky Russian Jewish culture). We have an annual Passover seder, which was actually the first RuJew event I attended, over a year ago in 2016.

Occasionally we host a Shabbat dinner. Last Friday it was my turn to host it, and although I had to limit the number of people who could come because my apartment is small, it was great fun.

In addition to the catered food paid for by our group’s funds, we all brought our own alcohol and/or home-cooked dishes and naturally ended up with wayyyy too much:

For Jews who are more observant than we are, Shabbat dinners consist of a ton of different prayers and rituals, but we’re pretty minimalistic about that stuff and stick to the two main blessings: Kiddush (the blessing over wine) and HaMotzi (the blessing over bread, in this case challah).

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My friend reads the blessing over wine.

Religiously speaking, the purpose of these prayers is to thank god for stuff. And since it’s Judaism, we don’t just say “thanks for the wine, dude”; we say, “Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine” and some other stuff. And instead of “sweet breb, thanks” we say, “Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” (The whole “Praise to You” thing is pretty standard.)  Also, it’s pretty neat to think of bread as coming from the earth–which one the one hand is like, duh, but on the other hand, it’s hard to remember that it’s not just some sort of self-inflating magic, it’s actually just plants, air, time, and heat.

Since I haven’t believed in god since who-the-fuck-even-knows-anymore, I obviously don’t get any actual religious significance out of saying these prayers. For me the point is

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I bless some bread.

twofold: 1) it’s cool to do a ritual that my people have been doing for millennia and to feel connected to that history, and 2) blessings are a great tool for mindfulness and, in fact, that’s their actual purpose according even to people who actually believe in god. Making yourself pause before taking part in an experience and doing it intentionally tends to make it more meaningful and enjoyable. Pouring out wine and cutting slices of bread are otherwise pretty rote actions (as is washing your hands, which is another traditional Shabbat blessing), but taking a moment to reflect on what you’re actually doing keeps you from going on autopilot. And Shabbat in particular is all about getting outside of time for a bit and enjoying the shit out of everything.

On the other hand, Jews also like getting super unnecessarily (but awesomely) philosophical about shit, so there’s also this. Apparently, when the Messiah comes, we will no longer have to sit around for hours waiting for dough to rise and then knead it until our arms are sore. I’ll take it.

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This bread represents breads of past, present, and future. I think.

The highlight of the evening was an activity I facilitated to help folks think about their values and goals, sort of a spring cleaning for the mind. (The theme of our dinner was spring, so there’s a very tangential sort of connection there.) I can’t really describe it accurately in a blog post, but the purpose is basically to guide folks towards identifying what’s important to them in life, what negative thoughts and feelings come up that keep them from making those things happen, what they do to try to escape those thoughts and feelings rather than dealing with them, and what they could do instead to bring themselves closer to what’s really important. That’s a very oversimplified explanation of something I do with therapy clients a lot.

Since Shabbat is meant to be a time of reflection, contemplation, and focusing on what really matters, the activity seemed like a great fit. Of course, if we were actually observant, it would be a no-go–it requires writing, and that’s definitely one of the prohibited actions on Shabbat. 😛

While I loved the casual and very Russian way we did things, I also really appreciate any opportunity I get to attend a Shabbat dinner at the home of a rabbi or other intensely observant person. The ritual is so beautiful and the atmosphere is so calming. But, of course, taking photos is prohibited there too, so I’ll never be able to describe that beauty except in words.

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