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The Shabbat Primer

The Mitzva Of Hospitality: Being A Host

Guidelines For Hosts And Hostesses

In the section on hosting uninformed guests earlier in this chapter, we offered several guidelines which apply especially to that type of guest. In brief, we suggested that you explain the basic "ground rules" of your home, but in a natural way, that you be yourself, that you try to be a good teacher and not close off the discussion by acting shocked or critical, that you handle unintentional transgressions of mitzvot tactfully, and that you not worry about their effects on your children. These guidelines also have relevance here, and we refer you back to them.

In this section we will discuss some guidelines applicable to the more general host-guest situation. They were suggested by our resource women who have been frequent guests in observant homes. Many of these guidelines, you'll notice, have the ring of unhappy experience about them. Our hope is to alert hosts and hostesses to mistakes which their guests frequently encounter.

First some conversational pointers. Most important among them, our respondents agree, is to be sensitive with your questions. Many hostesses, in their eagerness to help a guest feel at home - or in their fear of awkward silences - deluge their guests with questions, barely letting them come up for air. "Be slow and simple in your approach," says Ruth. "Don't rush over and overwhelm a newcomer." Nechoma agrees. "Don't ply your guest with questions. If you're trying to break the ice, a better way is to ask about one or two general things and then request the person's help in chopping the salad."

There's another reason for caution. Sometimes even the most innocuous-sounding questions can backfire. "Tell me about your family," seems safe enough, but it could prove painful. A person may be recently divorced or estranged from his parents. A mother may not have a husband. A child may have just died. Sounds over-dramatic? Our resource women report encountering just such cases. The "family" is not so "normal" anymore.

Ruth warns about a certain nosiness among some of the life-long observant when it comes to recent baalei teshuva which she hopes our readers will avoid. "There's a tendency to ask you everything about yourself. I was a vegetarian for many years. But I got so tired of being asked why I was a vegetarian and being told 'it isn't Shabbatdik' or even Jewish, that I gave it up whenever I was a Shabbat guest." Ruth urges observant hostesses not to push their baalei teshuva guests to "tell all," and, by the same token, she reminds the newcomers that they're not obligated to spill out their whole life story. "It's important to realize the gulf between the two cultures, one which prizes 'openness,' and one which may look down upon such outpourings," says Ruth. A lonely young woman, for example, overcome by what she perceived as her ultra-Orthodox hosts' love and acceptance of her, finally admitted how hard it was for her after she became religious to break up with her black lover. Her hosts were appalled, as much by her verbal as by her actual indiscretion.

Rivka advises hostesses, "Don't preach about observance levels and 'what you should be doing now.' It isn't necessary to speak about Torah topics all the time. And it becomes really annoying for the baal teshuva to be constantly advised as to which yeshiva or teacher he should be studying with now."

Well, then, after all these conversational "don'ts," what kinds of questions should one ask? Nechoma suggests asking a few general questions ("Where are you from?" "What are you doing now in Jerusalem?"), depending on the guest. Then be sensitive and let the guest lead. "A student may not want to talk about his studies; a new mother may not want to talk about her baby. I like to create a warm, neutral environment and pick up on what the guest says."

The good questions for a hostess to ask, says Ruth, are the now questions. "Is there something special you're looking for in Jerusalem? Do you feel you're finding it? Are you surprised by anything?" The way is then open for an involving, but not overly personal conversation.

Besides those conversational pointers, our single resource women raise other matters they feel observant hostesses should be alert to. The first is the conflict these women say they feel between wanting to help and wanting to learn. On one hand, they like to be "one of the family" by assisting the hostess in preparing, serving, and clearing away the meal. "I feel more comfortable if I help," says Ilana, "and frankly, there's also a feeling of guilt if I don't." On the other hand, though, the assisting may cause them to lose out on what they came for. "I feel so frustrated," says Ruth, "if I miss the dvar Torah, for example. I come as a guest because I need to see how people make Shabbat on a level I want to reach. So if the fish plates are being carried off at the time of the singing or the dvar Torah, I feel torn. I want to take it all in. I think a guest should be able to tell her hostess that she's new to keeping Shabbat and wants to be able to watch and learn as much as possible. Even better, I think the hostess should coordinate her clearing, serving, etc. with her husband's teaching, It's not courteous to the Torah or to her guests if she doesn't. Very often people who have been observant for years are blase about this."

Rivka adds, "I like to help out and be part of things. But I do feel that guests need to be entertained as guests, too, and not just viewed as the fulfillment of a mitzva. Guests need to feel that they are interesting and wanted for themselves. Otherwise, I can make my own chicken, thank you!"

Rivka also reminds hosts to be sensitive to the position of the uninformed guest. "I've been pushed to make a bracha and urged to learn at 'X' Yeshiva. I've even been asked, politely, to change into longer sleeves, though what I was wearing seemed quite modest to me. The woman was nice about it, but I felt too mortified ever to come back. I can't tell you how important it is to be sensitive to the newcomer."

Finally, asked for their advice to beginning Shabbat hosts and hostesses, our resource women stressed a joyful attitude. "I want my guest to come away with "that's lovely - and I can do it, too," says Esther. "Be as cheerful as possible," agrees Devorah. "Don't be serious or perfectionist. Being a saint won't help the situation or make people like you more. Have a good time." "Internalize the idea that you have something wonderful to share," says Batya. "If you feel nervous, remember the guest probably feels just the same. Hachnasat orchim is such a wonderful mitzva. Do it, and know that Hashem is helping you."

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