When the Navy moved us to Pensacola this past spring, we did not delay in lining up our families to visit us in sunny Florida. Sampson’s parents mentioned that they might like to join us for Rosh Hashanah, to which we said, “Great! We can’t wait to see you,” and promptly went back to taking care of little details like finding a house, unpacking our worldly possessions from a bewildering array of cardboard boxes and crumpled newsprint, and getting Sampson in the cockpit of a completely new airplane so he could start introducing impossibly young, bright-eyed, fresh-out-of-college Student Naval Flight Officers to the world of military aviation.
The High Holy Days seemed a long way off, and continued to seem so as spring turned into summer and we got to know the folks at our new synagogue — including a handful of other military Jews! Most of them were just starting flight school. Talking with them brought us right back to our own days as a newlywed military couple trying to balance Jewish life with the demands of the Navy. We remembered one of Sampson’s (very) few Jewish superior officers in Kingsville and his family, who welcomed us into their home when we were far from our own. We had always said that one day, we would do the same for other young Jewish servicemembers.
Never mind that in our six and a half years of marriage, not once had we hosted a major holiday dinner. Whether we took leave to visit relatives in Northern Virginia, accepted the gracious invitation of the Jewish Marine major in South Texas, or lit yom tov candles for a just-the-two-of-us meal before dashing to shul in Norfolk, we never found ourselves in the position of providing the warmth, hospitality, and especially the mouthwatering food that evokes holiday feeling almost by magic when its aroma fills the air and the first forkful hits the taste buds.
Inexperience was no object in my eagerness to shed the role of the perma-guest and finally don my best hostess-ing smile. Our opportunity to pay forward the hospitality of that Marine major and his family had arrived: after Shabbat services one evening, I blithely issued invitations to the Jewish servicemembers who didn’t have a place for the holiday dinner, and our Erev Rosh Hashanah guest list grew to include friends as well as in-laws.
Then I went home and looked at our table.
I’m all for feelings of holiday closeness, but not when they arise from inadvertent elbow-jabs courtesy of the neighbor with whom you’re perched on half a seat whilst attempting not to spill your soup. How cozy!
Our tiny table had been marvelous for the past six years and several PCSes, largely because it’s hard to get overly upset when the movers gouge, ding, and otherwise beat up something that came cheap, flat-packed, and bearing a quasi-Swedish name. Unless we wanted our Rosh Hashanah guests to eat their brisket standing up, however, it was clear that the time had come for a real, grown-up dining table. We found one we liked at a real, grown-up furniture store, and plunked down real, grown-up money to have it delivered just in time for the beginning of Elul — today, in fact.
At first glance, furniture might seem to have little to do with the coming days of reflection, prayer, and t’shuvah. When I look at our new table, though, I see a commitment to the mitzvah of hospitality. I see us welcoming family and friends to eat and be satisfied, and to taste together the sweetness of the New Year in crisp apples and golden honey. I see where we will bless the Creator of the fruit of the vine and the One who brings forth bread from the earth. I see the center of a Jewish home, of a Jewish life — the life toward which we strive through the less visible work of our hearts during this season.
Even with a full cycle of the moon’s waxing and waning — four whole weeks — I may not achieve that elusive feeling of complete preparedness for the intensity of the autumn holidays, but you can bet I’m going to try. If nothing else, at least I know that everyone will have a place to sit.
#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.