Results just in from the Jewish Commission for Research and Planning [JCRAP] confirm my hunch. 93% of Orthodox women in London’s religious neighborhoods of Hendon and Golders Green no longer want to host guests for Shabbat lunch. ‘Corona has killed my inner domestic goddess,’ said one respondent. While the full impact of COVID-19 on Jewish life is still unfolding, preliminary conclusions from the research suggest that Shabbat lunch, in its current 3-hour, 5-course, 12-guest format, is never coming back.
To understand this pending paradigm shift, one must first understand the role of Shabbat morning kiddush – the blessing over wine accompanied by some light refreshments – after the synagogue service. Let’s start with Friday night – the Talmud explains that the purpose of kiddush in the synagogue is to fulfill the obligations of the guests who eat and drink and sleep in the synagogue. Since these visitors are staying in the synagogue for Shabbat, they must hear kiddush there. [Pesachim 101a] The rabbis instituted that Kiddush should also be recited before the Shabbat daytime meal. This morphed into the contemporary Kiddush that is the social engine of Shabbat morning in the synagogue. In modern times, it may have been a way of ensuring that those who would be going to work after synagogue services would at least hear the Kiddush blessings. Arguably, the Kiddush conclave is the most enjoyable part of the prayer service, so much so, that an increasing number of women refer to themselves as JFK shul-goers. That is, they come Just For Kiddush.
COVID-19 has upended this. As synagogues in London begin to open for Shabbat services [as opposed to illicit minyanim that been gathering throughout] a slew of necessary changes have been implemented. Face masks, socially distant seating and a ban on singing are now de rigueur. However, most devastatingly, there’s no Kiddush. There’s not a piece of chopped herring to be seen. No grape juice, crackers, egg dip or chocolate rugelach in sight. For some people, this is not just a few extra unnecessary calories, but rather, a dignified way of receiving food because their cupboards are bare at home. Some synagogues offer much more than a light snack; there’s cholent, kugel, vegetables and fruit, so some families encourage their children to eat heartily at the Kiddush because food is served sparingly at home.
Food insecurity is an ugly secret in the Jewish community, but COVID-19 has revealed its devastating effects. There are organizations that discretely drop food at the doorsteps of families every week. They have all reported an increase in demand in the last three months, as people have lost their jobs and/or their small businesses have closed. With no large weddings or bar mitzvah celebrations, not only have local caterers lost business, but the families who would have regularly received leftover food have also lost out.
The UK has a system of ‘free school meals’ providing lunch at school for children from the most disadvantaged families, according to strict criteria. Jewish children are also receiving ‘free school meals’ and as schools have been closed, and parents need to provide that extra meal, finances are stretched even further. A scheme for food vouchers during the school holidays is in place, and although welcome, it certainly will not meet the higher price of kosher food. Of course, it is a much wider problem than just the Jewish community: one member of my synagogue has been collecting tinned food and dried goods to redistribute to shelters for homeless people and there are many other similar initiatives. Scores of volunteers at JW3, London’s Jewish community centre, have prepared over 20,000 meals for distribution to residents in need in the surrounding area.
Leket, the Israeli food distribution service, says on its website that since the outbreak of COVID-19, it has distributed 60% more fruit and vegetables and 50% more hot meals. From mid-March until the end of April, it distributed 2,263 tons of fresh produce, 35% more than the amount distributed during the same time the previous year, and purchased and distributed more than 700,000 hot meals that were delivered directly to the homes of those in need.
COVID-19 forced us to pare down family gatherings and large-scale celebrations. Shabbat lunch is a case in point. It’s the proverbial Christmas dinner every week – inviting, planning, shopping, cooking, table-setting, witty conversation, serving, clearing up, restoring calm. I did it for years, particularly when the children were younger, but it’s a merciless social pressure, and at 6,000 calories a pop, no wonder the rate of disordered eating is high among Orthodox women.
COVID-19 has forced us to shift this model of hospitality – and therefore, I am now officially launching the ‘Kiddush Is the New Lunch’ campaign. Since government guidelines recently permitted small groups of people to meet outside, we’ve been hosted by friends for Kiddush on Shabbat morning, and we’ve had friends to our garden. The Kiddush was lovely – nice wine, hummous and crackers, a few crisps, some fruit and fancy store-bought biscuits. The fare could even have been simpler, yet the effect would have been exactly the same: a welcome opportunity to share Shabbat with friends, an update on the well-being of the family, an attempt at solving world problems and the ability to create a sense of communal belonging. A little while later, when we arrived home, we just had the requisite challah and a bit of salad.
It’s going to be a while before Kiddush returns to the synagogue. Hence, this is the perfect time to create micro-communities among shul-goers to ensure that those who rely on Kiddush for food, or those who are lonely and come to shul primarily for company, are not overlooked. Invite them to your garden, or if you’re short on space, arrange a small meet-up in the park. If possible, make it even easier and ask everyone to bring one item of food. It may be more challenging as the winter approaches, and communities will need to consider alternatives, but let’s listen to the research, and liberate ourselves from the tyranny of Shabbat lunch.
Published July 17, 2020