Growing up, if we sat down to dinner as a family, the discussion ran something like this:
Me: Pass the taco shells?
Big Brother (not ever picking his eyes up from his book): No.
Me: MOM! He won’t give me the shells!
Mom (yelling from kitchen): BE PATIENT!
Enter Sisters, giggling.
Sister 1: EWWW! Someone farted!
Mom (jumping in from kitchen): We don’t use THAT WORD at the dinner table!
End scene. On Shabbat, the dinner dialogue was similar, but it included my dad and some of his 60 cousins, plus an added meltdown by some child or other before Motzi was even completed.
Cut to nowadays. I promised when I had my own family we would have civilized family dinners as nightly as possible. In fact, Friday nights were practically the only time we couldn’t dine together at our little table—casualty of being married to a rabbi.
Speaking of having a rabbi in the family… our family’s dinner conversations are slightly different I think, like this recent example:
Me: Just because it’s healthy doesn’t mean it’s not yummy.
Almost 11-Year-Old Daughter (bringing the cups for water): How was everyone’s day?
15-Year-Old Daughter: Well good, but my teachers don’t know ANYTHING.
Youngest Daughter: Mine does. But math is hard.
Husband: Someone died today.
This used to bring our conversation to a grinding halt. The youngest did not like this topic. She was terrified of the mere mention of the word. I figured there was no reason to push her too early to confront her fears, so I begged my rabbi husband to keep this topic out of the house.
Meanwhile, the eldest shares my own fascination for with death. Casualty of being an artist I suppose.
Death is, crass as it may sound, a common occurrence in a large congregation, so I wondered why felt the need to mention this one to our dinner table. Looking at his face, it was clear he was heavy with pain. No matter how many years in the rabbinate, funerals never get easier, for how does one synthesize or truly summarize the life of another? But it wasn’t just the mystery of how to communicate this person’s life to others that I saw in my husband’s face that night.
“It was just so hard. This woman truly asked me to tell her the meaning of life in the aftermath of her sister dying.”
We listened. An older woman, in her 80s, lost her life in a rather appropriate, natural causes sort of way. After spending some two hours with her family—time for a clergy member to get to know all the details about the deceased so as to plan a eulogy and give the family some time to vent—our sweet rabbi drove home for dinner with his own family. The sister called him on his way. Her voice, he said, had a degree of determination. She was adamant in her mission to try to understand the order of the universe from my husband, her rabbi, and she wanted answers. NOW.
We talked about this. How scary it is to be in this murky ship of life with only the anchors we build for ourselves. We talked about God as a possible concept toward solace, but for the academics and teenagers at my table, that felt too generic an answer to give. We talked about what this woman might really want—did she really believe that the guy we joke with, the one they call Daddy—had the real and only answers to the kingdom? We talked about what he might be able to offer her.
I was proud of my girls. I was proud that they didn’t run away from this one and its non-concrete answers. Our older one is very invested in her own teen version of this search for meaning, as are her other actor friends, and I was grateful that she was confronted by an older person’s quest. From this less attached place, I felt her dip more deeply into compassion.
The truth is, I am happy that such a discussion goes on at my dinner table. When I was younger, I ran away to summer camp every year for these explorations, and was only fed pocket answers of gratitude and religion at home. I married a man who became a rabbi, and amongst the things I love about being the clergy’s family is that we have the honor of exploring topics that are often avoided or talked about insensitively, gossipy.
My children claim that it is very difficult being RKs (rabbi’s kids) and I know it truly can be, but when such challenges persist, these unique opportunities for growth abound.