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Around the Sabbath Table

May 9, 2009 | by Tamar Sofer

I rarely use my passport, yet every Saturday I meet people from around the world.

This week, I met a woman and her mother who are natives of Greece. They speak to each other in Greek when they disagree, and in English for everything else. From a Persian family, I learned how they freed their entire family from Iran by flying into Tehran a suitcase packed with false visas. The week before I chatted with a Moroccan architect who speaks eight languages. But I discovered that the language he shares best with his son is chess.

I live in southern California, but these people are right here -- around my Sabbath table. As Sabbath-observant Jews, we sit for most of the afternoon at a festive table, filled with food and drink. We use the fancy cloth napkins. We are not bothered by the hum of the dishwasher, and I do not need to remind my son to lower the radio. I have the time to truly meet someone, and understand what makes them . I find out what they are passionate about, whether a garden, a political movement, or a leader. I discover they miss someone who used to be close to them, or the difficult journeys their parents took a generation ago. They laugh and describe when they took the wrong flight and ended up in Hawaii.

Sabbath has taught me to take the time to listen, and this has helped me in every relationship I have.

By meal's end, I feel a fondness for them, because we have shared bread and wine. Perhaps I've told them a story I've only shared with a few people. Sabbath is the only day that I can truly enjoy a person, without the daily pulls of work, routines and noise. I rarely take the time for long conversations during the week, or to ask someone: Where were you born, how did you meet your wife? At the most, it's a quick, how-are-you, I have to pick up the kids, run to work. I once heard, "I divorced him because he stopped listening."

We are eager to share of ourselves when someone is listening. And when you are ready to listen to someone's story, they have so much to say. Sabbath has taught me to take the time to listen, and this has helped me in every relationship I have: with my husband, my child and my friends. Perhaps this is what Sabbath is also about: loving your fellow Jew, and by extension, all of humanity. I commiserate when I hear it took ten years for the couple to have children. I laugh when a woman describes standing on the wrong corner for a blind date, and nearly going home with someone else. People's quirks intrigue me, and I wonder how mine appear to them. I listen carefully to how softly they speak to their children, and wonder if I can change the way I speak. Their tales become part of my Sabbath memories.

Hearing their stories inevitably makes me care about strangers. Suddenly, I find humanity fascinating. I remember their stories, and wonder what tales the woman with her small child in front of me has to share. My heart opens to hope, compassion, and generosity. I wonder if I should go to that protest downtown, and stop fearing becoming involved. During the week, I allow that stranger to go before me in line, and remember to thank the cashier. After all, I may find them at my Sabbath table next week, and they will have a fantastic story.


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