Celebrating Jewish Creativity Through Shabbat

When I visited Poland, I wasn’t expecting a society which had moved on, in many ways, from the days of Fiddler. I kept expecting the Jews I met there to be like my imagination of my great-grandparents — observant and “traditional.” But they weren’t — many of them dressed just like me and considered themselves secular. The story of Polish Jewry isn’t just a narrative that ends in Poland and picks up in America, like my family’s — it is its own story, equally Jewish in its own right.

Years later, I traveled with JDC Entwine to Morocco. It was a beautiful, moving experience, but a part of me kept expecting to find things that were familiar. I looked for art and architecture which reminded me of home. When we went to Shabbat services, I wanted so much to be able to participate that I didn’t appreciate by immersing myself in the experience. I spent the evening trying to follow along, leaning on my own knowledge of American services, and feeling frustrated when it didn’t translate. I kept seeking myself in these experiences.

This way of thinking sees myself and my own experience of American Judaism as default, and everything else as tweaks and adjustments. But Moroccan Judaism isn’t an exotic, interesting version of American Judaism. No Jewish community is a spicy version of any other Jewish community — but rather different ways of expressing Jewishness, informed by thousands of years of difference. I wasn’t collecting another piece of my own narrative — I was learning an entirely new narrative. 

Not only was the experience in front of me diminished, I was also missing what makes American Jewish experiences unique and beautiful contributors to the global Jewish story.

It’s important for us to see ourselves in each other, and to be able to identify with other cultures. But we shouldn’t lose the differences. If we feel connected to other Jews only when we see our own practice reflected in theirs, we cut the thin, invisible thread that ties us to other Jewish people elsewhere in the world. 

Moroccon religious room with gold Hebrew letters above dark green and gold detailed door with two white steps in front.

As a OneTable field manager, it’s tempting to say that the magic of Shabbat is that it’s something all Jews share and have shared for thousands of years. I do believe that Shabbat is an incredible tool, a philosophy, an innovation which Jewish people have access to. But of course we don’t do it all the same way!

When I started celebrating Shabbat with my partner in our apartment, all I could see were the ways in which our Fridays looked different from the dinners that I grew up with. I kept trying to make Shabbat with my partner feel like Shabbat with my parents. But those are two different experiences, and in trying to blend them I was missing the best of each. In the same way, when I am a guest at someone else’s Shabbat table, I remind myself that I am a guest in their Shabbat world, and I appreciate the experience on its own terms, not for its relative similarity to my own practice. 

At OneTable, we are all about empowering people to design their own Friday night experience. It may be informed and inspired by the practices of others, but each OneTable dinner is personal and different. The “story” is that everyone all over the world is doing Shabbat in the same way. But we don’t want the “story,” we want what’s real. And what’s real is even more beautiful.

Friday night magic is knowing that you are in community with others all over the world, who are ending their weeks with intention, gratitude, reflection, and joy. The ingredients for that magic include: 

  • Noticing how different Friday night can look in each living room and campsite and studio and park where it’s happening
  • Honoring those differences for the beautiful mosaic that they make
  • And appreciating your own Shabbat, whatever it looks like, however it feels, as wonderful in its own right. 

What’s real is that Jews look, practice, and believe differently all over the world — and there’s just as much diversity within each Jewish community as there is between them. That’s what’s so powerful about our global Jewish world. So we often see each other, and look for what we identify with — that’s great. We should do that. And, we should look for what’s different, and celebrate that, too.

Inspired? Click here to create a dinner or apply to become a host.

Annie is the OneTable DMV Field Manager who loves hosting people and has a passion for relationship-building and empowering folks to create their own vibrant expressions of modern Judaism.

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