Bruce Sallan: The family dinner
I had a discussion with some other dads the other day about “the family dinner.” To my surprise, many of these men described their family eating adventures as just that, an adventure. Or, more specifically: a circus, trial, ordeal, and other pejoratives.
My immediate thought was about the classic image of Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Freedom From Want” with the image of “mom” or “grandma” presenting the turkey at what is likely a Thanksgiving dinner, with the whole family eager, excited, and present. “Dad” or “grandpa” is looking on, with the expectation that he will carve the bird. How quaint; how lovely; how sadly antiquated, I fear.
What was evident in our discussion, as is so often the case, was that each man’s personal background and family experience, informed their own family experience. And, of course, their wife’s background also contributed to the ritual or lack thereof in the family.
I believe that the “family dinner” is an essential, valuable, and powerful ritual for every family unit, whatever it may be. It is even more important in our currently hectic times when each family member can pursue their own interests separately, alone, and with multiple technological tools at their disposal.
One wonders what happened to the whole family sitting around the one television in the home and watching, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Leave It To Beaver,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “The Bill Cosby Show,” as well as more contemporary examples. What happened to the shared experience of watching current events as I painfully remember watching Walter Cronkite cry on air when he announced JFK’s death (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2K8Q3cqGs7I) or when the whole family watched in wonder when Neil Armstrong landed and walked on the moon (www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMINSD7MmT4) and said those immortal words, “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Let’s face it; those times are long past, at least in the shared television experience. But, they don’t have to be in the family-time arena nor should they be. Another thing shared by the men in the original discussion that motivated this column was the fact that their own best memories often took place around the family dinner table. I know that was so true for my childhood and I’ve worked very hard to create a similar experience for my sons, during the hard time and now, the happier ones.
Our ritual is Friday Night Shabbat dinner. Shabbat is the day of rest for both Jews and Christians however it is “celebrated” differently in each faith. As a Jew, we observe the Sabbath on Friday nights. I helped create our family Shabbat tradition and it’s been, truly, special and memorable for my boys, myself, my lovely new wife, and equally for friends. The boys are eager to invite their friends over for our Friday night dinners.
Why? Because, it is sadly unique among their contemporaries. Any family dinner seems unique to many of my boy’s friends. Ours is extra special because of not only the good meal, but also the rituals we observe each Friday night. They’re simple, they’re easy, they’re short, but they’re meaningful. This sticks with people and is one of my main reasons I’m advocating the family dinner. My recommendation is to start with a family dinner one night a week that is designated as sacrosanct and special.
What do you do that is different and special? First, I bake fresh challah each week. The smell of the bread baking in the oven fills the house and announces that this day is different from all the others during the week. My wife, who is a talented cook, makes an extra effort and we have a very lovely meal. But, it all starts with the simple lighting of candles and a blessings. It is followed by three other short blessings; one for the wine; one for the challah (bread); and one for the children present, boys and/or girls.
Our special Sallan family tradition goes one step further as we take turns going around the table with each person sharing the best and worst things that happened for them during that week. Only one “worst” is allowed to prevent excessive whining and complaining but there’s no limit on the “bests.” For new friends and guests, this is a wonderful way to share things about them we might not otherwise learn or know. For us, it’s an opportunity to be grateful, share the good news and also the bad news, and basically just get closer.
I look forward to our Friday night dinner with great anticipation each week. We also try to eat together other nights as well, but life and our individual schedules do intrude, yet I would estimate that we sit down to eat as a family at least four times per week. I heartily encourage you to do the same.
Column by Bruce Sallan. Bruce is online at http://brucesallan.com.