We are sitting at a small, round, fold-up table in the corner of a modest social hall. There are handfuls of saltines and pastries, and a scoop of oily canned tuna before us, displayed unassumingly on paper plates. We are a group of women, mostly mothers, and one Abuela, grandmother (or Savta, as she prefers). Little Sara, with her dark hair in a twirly ponytail with a red ribbon, with her bushy eyebrows and animated expressions, migrates from one lap to the next, this village’s mothers and sisters holding her close, playing with her hair, as she bounces on their knees. This zone, where we have swiftly added three more chairs into the tight space, to accommodate additional women, is a small cove of a suburb of the larger, more central men’s table. Their spread is the same, but their table resembles a boardroom more than a card table. We don’t really notice, or at least we do not really care. This unofficial sisterhood sits content.
A few older men stand up and share Torah messages, explanations from the weekly portion, words of guidance, one after the next. Most of the Spanish I know comes from Pitbull songs or Dora the Explorer, so I do not understand 98% of these speeches. But at a certain point, between the bearded man’s gesticulations and intonation, I nod my head, connecting to the basic gist of his words, not that I could reiterate the particulars of his interpretations of the Torah’s word choices, or comprehend the final message of his speech; but it becomes clear to me that despite the Spanish, there is a sort of universality to these small-shul gatherings, whether in Detroit or Madrid or Jerusalem. The basic ebb and flow of this scene translates more or less consistently from place to place. The speaker moves his hands energetically, punctuating and illustrating his rhetorical questions. The Torah uses the word ______, but couldn’t it have said ______? G-d commands ______, but what is the meaning of it? Why does Moshe tell the people to _____? The back-and-forth monologue flows with the kind of Talmudic sing-song that transcends translation, and I feel welcome at this small table in the corner, while reflecting on the family table that was central to this Shabbat until this point.
The two Shabbat meals before this one demonstrate the universality of family life, and I bask in its energy. The hostess urges us to take second and third helpings, and heaps more potatoes on our plates without even asking first. She keeps an eye on her son and daughter, chuckling at their antics, and keeping their playful roughhousing under control. Children are children, vying for attention in any language, hamming it up the way I used to. Sara shows off her new dance for the dinner guests, while her brother, David, tries to upstage her, sticking out his tongue and hiding her doll behind his back. Later, they both hide behind the couch and their parents go along with the charade, asking in a feigned panic, Oh no! Where are Sara and David?! The children reemerge suddenly, coincidentally at the same time as the chocolate mousse is presented to the table. After lunch the next day, we play a version of “monkey in the middle”, where the four of us kick and throw the ball to each other, withholding it from the “monkey,” or the “mono,” as I learn to say. We shuffle back and forth on our bare feet, to mitigate the burning cement of the wrap-around balcony. We find words to communicate, but mainly chase each other playfully, until we are worn out and ready for our Shabbos nap.
This Shabbat gave me rest, and brought me peace. I ate, played, prayed, and laughed with my people. I relished in the familiarity of their giggles and drew energy from the comfort of their brotherly bickering. Greying men around the larger table interrupt the rabbi, inserting their own questions, proposing their own resolutions, and disputing the rabbi’s explanations of Rashi’s commentary. This feels familiar. The voices layer over each other, creating a white noise of cacophonous harmony. Through this buzzing, I reflect on the Shabbat I have lived this week, culminating in this third meal, which transitions into evening prayers. The words of the siddur are comfortingly familiar. ’ויהי נעם אדני אלהינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננהו׳,’ may G-d’s pleasantness be upon us, and establish upon us the work of our hands, the work of our hands establish”. I feel an intense love of the Hebrew language, for the way some things connect us, for the way some things never change.