If my kids remember anything about their childhood once they’re grown, I hope they remember the pizza. In our family, Friday night is pizza night — and it’s our non-traditional version of Shabbat dinner.
Every Friday, as the week winds down and we attempt to exhale and regroup, my husband, my 7- and 10-year-old daughters and I pile into the car and drive three minutes through our small slice of suburbia to the local pizza joint. (Yes, it seems inescapably cliché to use the word “joint,” but there is no other word to describe this small, bustling, crowded pizzeria.) It’s overflowing with kids, car seats, and chairs pulled up around tables every-which-way. It smells of melted cheese, beer, and the assurance of the coming weekend.
I don’t quite remember how we came to frequent this particular restaurant, but I do know why we always go there Friday evening: Friday is both the end and the beginning. It straddles the end of the workweek and the beginning of the weekend, one foot on each side.
As Jews around the world begin their day of rest, we shake off the grime of the week, clean up, dress up, and head out to reconnect. Friday evening always holds promise – the promise of an unblemished two days stretching out ahead; the promise of starting fresh, of doing something memorable, of unplugging from the world and plugging into each other. In other words: Shabbat.
My kids love Friday night pizza — and that’s not just because a questionable amount of junk passes for dinner that evening. There’s also tradition: as we wait for the reliably slow wait staff to bring our food, we play games. In our rotation are games like charades and 20 questions – things we can play without any supplies, buzzing with excitement from on-the-spot, instant gratification. My daughters become deeply engaged in play. I see their minds working, analyzing information, searching for solutions, processing.
We are all intensely entrenched in the game, when, after having lost all hope of ever eating, our food finally arrives. Our table suddenly feels crowded with platters heaping with overstuffed stromboli, heavily sauced chicken wings, and Greek salad with too many olives and not enough feta cheese. We immediately begin the familiar shuffle of moving things around, trying to accommodate for the much awaited food, saying things like, “please move your jacket off the table,” “the phone doesn’t belong there,” and “that’s your sister’s fork.”
Eventually, we settle in. Quiet ensues as we emerge ourselves in our dinner. Our togetherness in that moment is palpable — it’s so dense, I can sense it. I see it on my kids’ mildly dirty faces, pizza sauce crowding in the corners of their mouths. I see it in my husband’s eye as they slowly relax after an intense workweek. He smiles as he sips his beer and listens to our younger child tell a too-long story of school misadventures. As he eats the onions out of the Greek salad — no one else likes them — he gives me a look that says, “We made this.” There is togetherness in that look, too.
Once most of the food is consumed (and some dropped on the floor), the kids beg for a few coins for the arcade games in the back of the restaurant. Two quarters buy them five minutes of pleasure as they attempt to grab an unneeded plastic ball with the large silver claw. Those same two quarters also buy my husband and me five minutes alone, with the mess of the plates between us, and the mess of our years together all around us.
Sometimes we talk, quickly and urgently, ready to be interrupted at any moment. Sometimes we eat, silently, comfortably. Sometimes we squeeze hands and just look, playing out our own charade, portraying meaning without speaking, on our own little island amidst other diners, amidst the noise and the bustle of this busy pizza joint.
Such is our Shabbat dinner. Granted, it’s not typical — it lacks prayers, candles, and all the other traditional accoutrements. However, for us, Shabbat means togetherness. It means family and closeness; it emphasizes connection. Whatever Jewish paths my daughters choose to take when they’re grown, I hope they’ll remember these Friday night dinners: the mess, the noise, the games, the pizza, the Greek salad, the quarters, the love — all of it.