When I lived in Katamon, the Upper West Side of Jerusalem (home to the eternal singles of the Jewish world), Shabbat was the main event around which my life was organized. As soon as one meal was done, the next was always in the planning. God forbid you found yourself eating alone. I needed to have a place to go on Shabbat, frankly because 25 hours of solitude (unless of course you ventured out to synagogue) with no electricity (save the lights you’d left on in advance) are horrifically boring and second, because how the hell else was I supposed to meet someone?
Some meals were meticulously planned affairs, while many others were ad-hoc events thrown together by both stragglers and hevre (friends) alike. Potluck, however, was always the theme.
Let’s get one thing straight before I go on. There was a time when I liked these communal meals, for all the same characteristics I came to “hate.” Being young and new and alone in Jerusalem and fancying myself somewhat Bohemian, this was the perfect way not only to meet people, and in fact spend my days. But people change.
Flower children become yuppies. Communists become capitalists. Husbands become homosexuals. More on the nostalgia later. In the meantime:
While it’s never nice to appear at a host’s empty-handed, the specificity of the requests never ceased to astonish (really annoy me).
“Would you like to come to Shabbat lunch?”
“Great. Can you make a pashtida?”
“No. I don’t cook.”
Well that’s not entirely true, but note if you don’t cook, your limits of what you can bring (and all guests must contribute an edible to the meal), are limited to purchased variants like wine, bread, hummus, drinks.
I mean, I never really got that entirely. We rotated and circulated between one another’s homes on a weekly basis, so why not go all out and buy all that you need for the meal when you did your shop and leave me alone?
“Ya, I bought everything except the halla. Do you mind bringing halla?”
Yes. I kind of do mind bring the halla. I mean you couldn’t spring another NIS 12 and buy your own damn bread?
The same thing with the aforementioned drinks. No one likes schlepping drinks of course. They’re big, and heavy and awkward. So if you’re already making the meal, then order a delivery from the supermarket and be done with it. And next time I see you I’ll give you NIS 20 to make up for my contribution!
THE WORST, however, were the picnics. If it wasn’t bad enough being stuck eating lunch in someone’s underfurnished, white-paint-peeling, dust-bunnied, dim and grim apartment eating chicken off the bone with pliable plastic knives and equally fragile forks, seated on a plastic stool in my Shabbes finery, with no A/C under the “light” of a single exposed light bulb, picnics meant similar indignities without the convenience of a bathroom nearby.
Generally speaking, these horrid affairs would be held in the excruciating heat of July-August in a municipal park some 4 km. away. Remember, you cannot travel by any vehicle other than foot on Shabbat.
Inevitably, all the people requested to bring a side dish would bring pasta in one bland, inexpensive variant or another so that the grand total of this outdoor dining experience would be eight pasta salads, two hallot for the 14 guests, two bottles of banana-strawberry flavored soft drink, and the requisite pashtida.
Because I don’t cook I was requested to bring watermelon for dessert.
“Jody, can you bring a watermelon?”
“No, I cannot carry a watermelon for 4 km. in the summer heat,” or ever really for that matter.
For starters, there is no way to carry a watermelon such distances with dignity. Put it in a plastic bag, even double-bagged, and it’s more than likely to rip through. It also hurts when it bangs repeatedly against your leg as your stride along in the summer sun. Step. Whack. Step. Whack.
You could carry it baby-style, melon to chest, both arms closely wrapped around. Slightly unseemly but more importantly, somewhat physically implausible for a girl my size. Perhaps if I did more arm curls at the gym I’d have been better equipped for the task at hand, but alas.
The potluck nature of these singles Shabbat dining affairs were so thoroughly egalitarian (in terms of contributions to the meal alone, let’s not get ahead of ourselves), that I often wondered if the host didn’t in fact profit in the end.
At many a meal I attended, all 17 guests were requested to bring a bottle of wine, 16 of which inevitably remained unopened, leaving the host with a stocked wine cellar, or contributions to a full season’s worth of meals he was to inevitably attend.
Besides providing the space and perhaps sending out a flurry of text messages in advance of the event, some hosts contributed little else.
It was not unheard of for an inviter to turn to a last-minute invitee (let’s say me for simplicity’s sake) and say something along the lines of:
“I’m having a meal, would you like to come?”
“Great. Can you bring the chicken?”
“The chicken? No. I cannot bring the chicken. If I wanted to make a chicken I’d stay home and make a meal myself.” The unsaid part being, “The point of going to your house is so I don’t have to cook.”
It wasn’t only food offerings that you were requested to bring. Sometimes on top of the hummus, pickles and drinks, you were also requested to bring your own chair.
By the way, as an aside, hummus, halla and pickles do not constitute a first course. Please do not serve me these three in combo and make me sit and sing Shabbat zmirot (songs) and talk to the 16 others crammed around the table for two hours, while waiting for the next “course.” Eating hummus makes me fat and pickles give me indigestion on an empty stomach. And by the way, a six-hour meal does not necessarily mean your meal was successful. It just means you think that bread and salt alone qualify for a full course and you have successfully tortured me entirely unnecessarily, by making me wait for the “good stuff,” which sadly in this case might just be the pashtida. I need to know in advance if there’s a pashtida on the horizon.
Anyhow, back to the furniture.
“Hi Jody. Want to come for Shabbat?”
“Great. Can you bring a bottle of white organic grape juice and three chairs?”
I could bring three chairs if I had three chairs that weren’t part of my landlord’s dining set, of course. And I wouldn’t entirely mind carrying them up three flights in your darkened stairwell, except that will be rather hard to do with the organic juice in my other hand.
For those who haven’t lived in Jerusalem, one of the big differentiators between Katamon and the Upper West side is that buildings in New York have lights on in the hallways at all times. In Jerusalem, you need to press a button to turn lights on in the communal spaces (stairwell/halls), which lasts with each press somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds. On Shabbat the hall lights are always left off, which makes navigating three flights of stairs in heels pretty hard.
While the requests were often absurd, especially in retrospect, it was all quaint and fun in its day.
While I’ve long ago tired of Shabbat meals (the nature of being over 30 and single) and moved from the Holy City to the other Less-Holy City (a.k.a. Tel Aviv) my (anti-) pashtida revolution only took full form after the series premier of Srugim, an Israeli television show that perfectly captures the spirit and nuances of single modern-Orthodox life in Katamon.
In the first episode, Re’ut has just broken off with a well-suited match because, frankly, she doesn’t really like him. He doesn’t take well to this, and turns it around on her – making it seem like she’s the one who wasn’t good enough (when a moment before he was all but ready to propose).
Being single is not easy. Being single in Katamon fairly sucks. The next day, in the episode, it’s Shabbat and Re’ut is seen walking through the cold stone streets of Jerusalem on her own to her Friday-night meal, pashtida in hand, when she runs into the ex – who makes fun of her and how this will be her; alone, forever carrying a pashtida from meal to eternal meal.
I don’t hate Shabbat, and there’s even a part of me that misses loving such simple socializing. It just grew stale, or I grew up, or at least changed somehow.
Either way, I’m thankful for the memories and the invites.
In fact, I am guilty as charged. I hosted some of these Shabbat shindigs myself in my earlier days in Katamon and even asked my guests to bring the most random of fare. Vegetarian chopped liver, whole-wheat hand-braided halla, spelt cookies from the nature store, even spearmint-flavored chewing gum when I’d run out of things to request.
The one thing I never asked anyone to bring, however, was a pashtida. Even before my revolution took place, I never did take a liking to the pashtida. ■
The writer, now a married mother of two, lives in Holon – where she does not make pashtidot. Ironically, she remembers those Katamon days as some of the best of her life.