Memories of the Family Dinner
I had not gotten very far in the new issue of Klal Perspectives before being enveloped in warm, fuzzy memories of my childhood. The subject of the issue is changing gender roles in the Orthodox world and its impact on the family – not a subject by itself designed to arouse warm feelings.
In his lead article, Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Baltimore acknowledges that the social trends that have so dramatically changed the family dynamic from what it was fifty years ago are likely here with us for the indefinite future – whether it is women working to provide a second salary to help meet the expenses of a large Orthodox family or functioning as the principal breadwinner while the husband learns in kollel. But he argues that it is not only the family structure that has changed but also to some extent the centrality that family occupied in the lives of our parents. As a modest step to reverse the attitudinal shift, he offers the modest proposal of reemphasizing the family dinner.
I have often asked myself why my parents were successful in ways that few were in the upper-middle class Chicago suburb in which I grew up. Four out of their five sons became Torah-observant Jews. Among my parents’ friends, a handful of grandchildren is the norm; they were zocheh to more than thirty. The turbulent ’60s, and the self-destructive behaviors it glorified, largely passed over the Rosenblum family.
Yet the only thing I can point to that distinguished our home from those around us was our nightly family dinner. Dinner was a family affair, conducted around a table set with a table cloth and cloth napkins, with plenty of chores to be divided before, during, and after dinner. One needed parental permission to leave the table, and more often than not, it was denied. On leil Shabbos, required dress was semi-formal – we were expected to be freshly showered in pressed pants and button down shirts – and attendance was mandatory.
Even the families of my friends who did eat together usually did so in front of a TV set. But a TV was not part of the furniture in either the dining room or adjoining living room of our home. The only time a TV was ever allowed to invade the sanctum of the dining room was during the U.N. debates leading up to the Six-Day War, when we sat more or less in silence listening to Abba Eban defend Israel with supreme eloquence.
The conversation was not uniquely scintillating most of the time. And with five boys, the fate of Chicago’s usually hapless sports teams, was no doubt one of the prime topics of conversations. As the sole female at the table, my mother was frequently left to plea with my brothers and me to switch the conversation to one of “more general interest.”
But sitting together every night for seventeen years, before we went off to college, meant that we imbibed our parents’ opinions on almost every issue of relevance, even if largely by osmosis. Their values and keen sense of right and wrong were conveyed cumulatively in thousands of remarks over those years. We knew that they viewed being Jewish as the most important thing about us, even if they never articulated why.
And they knew us as well – our activities and friends. And our hour or so together every night insured that they had their finger on the pulse of our occasionally volcanic teenage emotions. Sitting around table created a bond and a sense of the family as a unit. I have little doubt that one of the things that attracted my brothers and me to the chareidi community was its family-centeredness.
Until I started practicing law myself, I did not realize what a sacrifice of his career my father, a”h, had made by leaving early enough to be home for dinner with the family every night. Baruch Hashem, he lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of that quite conscious decision to choose family over career.
Rabbi Hauer proposes that more families make similar decisions to put a priority on the family dinner. From the above, it is clear I think he is on to something. But whether or not the proposal catches on, I’m grateful to him for bringing back some happy childhood memories.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.