The Welcome Table

Sharon December 13th, 2008

I’m going to sit at the Welcome Table – hallelujah!  I’ll sit at the Welcome Table one of these days.

I’m going to feast on milk and honey, hallelujah! I’ll feast on milk and honey one of these days.

All God’s children gonna sit together, hallelujah! All God’s children gonna sit together one of these days. -  Traditional Spiritual “River Jordan”

I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that a lot of us are feeling powerless right now.  Most of what’s going on in the world is not something we have power over.  Most of us rightly try not to let that stop us – that is, we try to claim what power we can as often as we can.  So even though we know it might not help, we talk to our representatives, we give money, we demonstrate.  But at some level, most of us are living through events that we are powerless to control, through a history that will sweep us along with it.  Frankly, this sucks.

All of us need to devote some energy to fighting battles that will probably be lost, simply because we have an obligation to fight the good fight.  But most of us can’t live on a steady diet of tilting at windmills – we also need to do work where we know we can accomplish something, and where we know we matter.  That’s why I talk about ordinary, simple things like dinner – which, of course, has already ceased to be simple for many people.  We need to win some, even as it seems like we are overwhelmingly losing much of what we value.

And here, I think is something that we can win, and desperately need - the recreation of the welcome table.  I think one of the things that most surprised me once I became an an adult with a table of her own and the capacity to put some food on it was how rarely most of us actually sit down and eat with our friends, our extended family, our community.  Heck, most of us don’t sit down together even as a whole family that often, much less invite guests.

I think part of the problem is that we are so terribly intimidated by the idea of “entertaining” in the Emily Post/HGTV sense.  All you have to do is to read the magazines in the supermarket check-out line around this time of year (the one month of the year we actually do have people over)  to realize that “entertaining” is one heck of a project – you have to have little bits of smoked salmon in cream puffs shells with lemon-thyme creme fraiche.  You are supposed to have fancy dishes and multiple courses and serve meals that cost enough that you have to take out another mortgage on your house.

Now there is a real place for the occasional lavish feast – it isn’t something we invented yesterday, the idea that you might save up the best foods for a celebratory display has a long history.  But so too does something other than “entertaining” – the sitting down together at a meal with others to whom you are tied. – just a plain and ordinary meal, which is celebratory not because of what’s in it, but because of who is at it.  And the more we watch famous people show off their homes, cleaned by underpaid minions and their elaborate buche de buttercreams (and yes, I think it is fun to make this stuff sometimes too), the harder it becomes for a lot of people to imagine eating a simple meal together.

They say that everyone has a mitzvah (Jewish good deed) that comes naturally to them – for me, hospitality is one of them.  I like nothing better than a crowd of people eating from my table.  But part of this is because I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to be fancy or complex – real hachnaset orchim (the mitzvah of hospitality) isn’t the creation of the most fabulous meals or the perfect environment – it is simply being welcoming.  The most perfect practitioner of this I know is my friend Joe, a synagogue friend.  I once joked that we were invading them, but at least we hadn’t all arrived at their home at 3 am, demanding food.  Joe knew I was joking, but looked at me with absolute seriousness, and said “If you did, we’d do our best to make you welcome.” 

All of us have different lives, and the creation of a welcoming table can take different forms.  Kathy Harrison uses “Another Place at the Table” as the title of her lovely book on foster parenting, on the project of welcoming children in need.  That’s one possibility.  And there’s a real place in the world for opening the welcome table in a world of need – I used to pack extra sandwiches when I worked in downtown Boston – it wasn’t much trouble for even a graduate student living on a pittance to make another peanut butter and jelly or hummus and pickle sandwich.  There were always homeless folks out, and it was a gift to be able to offer them a sandwich.  The park bench I used to sit on most often was transformed – it became a table at the moment that I was able to offer food to another person.

The welcome table can be as simple as inviting an elderly neighbor to dinner, or making sure that you really sit down with your sister in law once in a while and drink tea and eat something.  It can be welcoming an army of neighborhood children in for milk and cookies, or setting the church table for an army of people in need.  It can be dropping that extra casserole or pie over at the family that just had a baby or lost their job.  It can be taking the risk and asking someone to come eat with you – that step in a casual friendship that opens you, perhaps frighteningly, up for more.

We’ve lost the habit of the welcome table.  I once taught a Hebrew School class of fifth graders about Passover, and I asked them how many of them, when the Haggadah commands them to cast open their doors and call out “let all who are hungry come and eat” actually do so?  What, I asked them, would they do if someone actually tried to come in and sit down?  Overwhelmingly, these children in a comfortable suburb told me that they would never really open their doors, and that if a stranger tried to enter and eat, the would be afraid.  And there are perhaps some legitimate reasons for fear – but some even greater reasons for overcoming it.  We are people who have learned to fear the idea of casting open our doors to others.

There are things we can only understand about one another by sitting together for a meal.  Seated together, we learn about each other’s food culture – in fact, we create a food culture.  Until we eat together, there are intimacies we cannot share.  Eating together is a powerful way of tying our lives together.  Building community depends upon it – and because so many of us are too busy, or too afraid or intimidated or simply not in the habit, we lose community and intimacy in precisely the measure that we do not share food.  It is a starting point for most human connections.

Every faith that I know of has elaborate laws of hospitality, and it is worth remembering that these faiths – and the secular moral identities (for example the anarchist movement _Food Not Bombs_ takes this as a basic principle)  that share their basic ground grew up not in worlds of wealth and privelege but in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, when we were far poorer than we are now.  These moral systems do not emphasize hospitality because they are concerned with minutia, but because these are not minutia – the welcome table is simply the basis of strong communities and humane society.  The welcome table is a source of power of which we have control.  It is time to invite someone – or someone new – in to sit and eat.

Sharon

17 Responses to “The Welcome Table”

  1. “the welcome table is simply the basis of strong communities and humane society”

    Right on the money there. It’s the basis of a strong world, when you get to really know people many who you thought were your enemies are found to be otherwise.

  2. grace says:

    Sharon ~ your relentlessly loving commitment to
    Tikkun Olam is ….. is ……breathtaking.
    In the little local paper I saw that the local
    DAV is having a community openhouse….every one invited and I smiled because they are often getting in trouble for under the table alcohol and sometimes gambling. At the end it said…
    beverages and fingerfood will be served.
    Fingerfood. I think I’ll go and take some
    fingerfood to share.
    Thank you for who you choose to be,
    grace
    NM

  3. Brad K. says:

    An old Jimmy Stewart movie comes to mind – “Pot ‘O Gold”. Set way-back-when with all-male boarding houses and big bands on a shoestring, one of the rousing musical numbers is set around the boarding house table – and extended “Welcome” song. About “Ma’s Irish Stew”. The table is set for all of Horace Heidt’s “Musical Knights” band.

    Those that remember back to farm life in the fifties and sixties, may recall the days you worked with neighbors. Get two or five men, maybe a son or three, added to the dinner table during a day of baling hay – basic farm food, prepared well. Vegetables, roasts, maybe hamburgers, maybe even a pie. Bread and butter. Hospitality can be warmer for a “working” occasion.

  4. Lance says:

    For those with an interest, and with an Internet capacity for streaming video, there is a nice PBS video on archaeology’s take on the collapse of societies, especially in connection to agriculture and overpopulation. One “fly in the ointment” for the increasing push to make us “a nation of farmers” is that that’s all well and good, but ultimately, soils can only take so much use without fallow periods, including backyard gardens, and petro-based fertilizers is not the answer. In addition, there is a problem of overuse and irrigation involving salinization of soils. Finally, the evidence is that while the elite groups at the top may experience a rapid collapse of a couple of years to a generation, the common folk retrench somewhat and survive in an attenuated manner of slow decline for a few hundred years until the soils can’t take anymore, and then comes the last gasp. Of course that was at a totally different scale of impact than we face today, when there isn’t any place to move where there aren’t already people also in trouble. See the streaming video, Episode #8 “Collapse,” in the “Out of the Past Series”, at:
    http://www.learner.org/resources/series45.html

  5. Lisa Z says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this inspiring and “reminding” post. Some of my favorite Great Depression stories are about mom or grandma (not mine, just stories) feeding the “hoboes” that came looking for a day’s work and meal. We used to know how to do that in America! In fact, not just during the Depression but in the pioneer times and all other times, probably, before the last 50 or so years of “prosperity”.

    I myself am fairly shy and don’t like to cook very much so the idea of “dinner parties” gives me the willies. However, I’ve learned that potlucks are wonderful times of community and for several years we had one a month.

    Also, I can follow a recipe well especially when it comes to soups. So I have a few favorite soups I like to make and serve to guests, with simple bread and cheese and fruit or salad. Sometimes I feel “cheap” for serving soup, but you know it always tastes good and it IS what we can afford.

    My favorite homes to visit are the ones where simple meals are served and there is warmth in talking and playing games, sometimes even singing together. I’ve learned to try and emulate that in my own home, and not get so dang nervous about having guests.

  6. Mia says:

    I travelled through the country of Georgia about 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. People there have a strong tradition of hospitality and feasting. I was invited to many feasts and it was so amazing and moving how people who had so little brought everything out for their guests. Everyone is honored, through long poetic toasts, at these meals– the guests, the hosts, the women who cooked the meals, the children, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the dead ancestors, and the far away friends. They serve food on small dessert plates– which is a good trick for hard times– your plate gets filled over and over again, but you don’t actually eat a lot of food. I asked someone at a particularily lavish feast held on a hilltop how they could afford to do this when times were clearly so hard. They said, how can we afford not to? We have to do this. When times are hard, it is doubly important for us to feast, to be with our friends and family, to invite strangers (like me) to join us. We have to do this.

  7. grace says:

    mia “They serve food on small dessert plates”

    Thank you for this post, this image. It will
    stay with me and I will share it with others.
    grace
    NM

  8. Karen says:

    Your post reminds me of the time when my husband and I spent an afternoon visiting friends who both had been raised outside the US and at the time were struggling financially. They served us coffee along with American cheese on Ritz crackers. Now, at the time, I would never have thought to do something like that because I think our culture can be too focused on “what will people think?” But I tell you, we had a delightful afternoon and I am still struck by their willingness to be vulnerable in their hospitality. Sharing what little they had multipled into so much more and enriched us all. Because the bottom line is that being human is about being in need and I think that the only way we’ll all make it through the troubles to come is if we can connect with others at that level.

  9. Michelle says:

    Seems to me I did a lot more of this when I was young and newly married – we were all Navy pilots, and none of us had children yet. It wasn’t unusual at all just to get together for a Sunday dinner. Nothing fancy, just meat and potatoes and good company. Now my friend sometimes brings her three over and along with my four, we share pizza and good conversation.

    I have always subscribed to the ‘take dinner to new moms’ notion, and have been told over and over that “I didn’t think anybody did this anymore!” How distressing, especially since most new moms live away from their mothers/sisters/aunts, who might have cared for them if they’d been there.

    Thanks for posting on this. I must think about soup and bread with my friends more often!

  10. freeacre says:

    Sharon, you are so right. Hospitality and sharing food is the backbone of cultures that have survived harsh challenges. Sharing a table with people from the community creates friendships and trust and loyalty. It reduces fear and creates joy.

    I once let a homeless man live in a tent in my backyard for a couple of months. In return, he kept an eye out for my elderly mother who lived with me. He could have ripped us off while I was at work. But, he didn’t. Eventually, he got a caretakers job and moved on.

    Another time, a guy showed up at our door who was hurt with a severely twisted ankle. Somebody told him to come to our house because “we were nice.” He ended up sleeping in our garage and eating at our table for about a week while he got better. Now we have at least one friend from the “meth head” community, and I am less paranoid about them.

    On the whole, bringing muffins to a neighbor or a pot of soup to someone just out of the hospital, or giving a dozen homegrown eggs to assorted neighbors has brought us more benefits than we could have ever expected. People return plates and pans filled with things that they have made. We find ourselves invited to pot lucks and parties and holiday celebrations all the time. We have lived in this area only four years, but I have more friends here than I have ever had before. Growing up in the Midwest suburbs, I didn’t even know our neighbors names. They were a source of endless anxiety. “What will the neighbors think?” was the operative theme. Really sad.

    A sense of abundance is not based on great money, but generosity of spirit. It enriches us all.

  11. Ani says:

    The community I live in has a tradition of neighborhood pot-lucks. Someone calls a pot-luck at their house and sends out invites via e-mail to most, or a phone call or note to those who don’t have e-mail. We just had 38 of us at my place last weekend- and no my house is not big or fancy- it is a simple off-grid smallish place but somehow, by magic I suppose, it is always big enough for those who come here.

    We all have a great time, all the little rug-rats crawl and run and play and eat and we adults hang out and talk. I have lots of misc. flatware, and this time I did use paper plates, cups and napkins as I wanted to spare my power supply the need to wash all those dishes. I don’t think I would have had enough real dishes either probably- definitely not enough chairs but mostly people stand around by the food anyway:).

    Everyone just brings a dish or two to share and it is great fun. The next one will be xmas eve at anothr house and then it is up to whomever feels drawn to host the next one. I wish every area did this- it is easy and fun and brings people together. We haven’t made any particular headway in my area in terms of energy or whatever- but at least we all know eachother and are used to getting together so that is a start.

  12. Boysmom says:

    Our little town has a weekly dinner–I think the food is paid for through a grant–that our church hosts. We usually have between a tenth and an eighth of the town’s population present. It’s a wonderful thing, and has let us get to know not our immediate neighbors, but those who live further away. (We know everyone whose lot borders ours, it’s that sort of town, where people come over and introduce themselves when you’re mowing your lawn or whatever.)

  13. Emily R says:

    I just put up a long series of posts about how our community reacted to a recent crisis. We have three children and the baby needed to be hospitalized for a week. Our entire synagogue and extended community stepped up to help while I stayed at the hospital with the baby.

    I was moved beyond anything I have felt before to have the welcome table set places for my family. You are just so right in this post.

  14. Kati says:

    Last year I had the habit of making a big meal on Friday evenings, and my dad would come over, and every couple of weeks we’d have another family come over as well…. Sometimes it’d be fried chicken and mashed potatoes, sometimes it’d be a pot of homemade clam chowder or split pea & ham soup (either one, with good bread), sometimes I’d be a roast. Always really SIMPLE food, but food that I actually had the time to cook (instead of just heating up). And it’s not unusual for our next-door-neighbours on the one side of us to come over for supper or an impromptu barbeque, and we go over to theirs on occasion for the same. When I had my tubal ligation (and a huge ovarian cyst removed) a couple of years ago, I went to their place for dinner the night I got out of the hospital, and my hubby and daughter were at a baseball game they couldn’t miss (Hubby was coach). The neighbours made sure I ate a little something, and kept an eye on me for the evening till the hubby could be home to take care of me. The neighbours across the street are also, both families, becoming that kind of company. The son of one family is my daughter’s age, and when he was locked out of the house recently (his older sister got stuck at school in a lock-down due to a bomb threat, and she has the house keys), he came over to hang out with my daughter till his parents got home. We’ve also got a new family on another side that we’re hoping we can form that kind of friendship with. We’re already making an effort by lending them our snow shovels, and lent them our screw-gun the day they moved in when they killed the batteries on all their own. *grin*

    Unfortunately, I’ve gotten out of the habit of making big weekend meals. I need to get back to that again. Thanks for the reminder!

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