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Why I Cook for Strangers

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It was late at night. The kids were finally asleep and I’d finished up my work for the day. All I wanted to do was fall into bed, but instead there I was in the kitchen, cooking a meal for someone I’d never met.

My own family had quesadillas for supper, quick and easy, but I was slaving away to make a beautiful dinner for strangers from our synagogue who’d just had a baby.

Because that’s What We Do.

It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, on the face of it. With our busy lives and our packed schedules and our sleep deprivation, why should we devote our precious time to making food for people we barely know, who we hear about through e-mails from the synagogue or the neighborhood? It’s ridiculous, right? And it feels silly sometimes when I’m dropping off a meal at someone’s house, and the newborn is fast asleep, and both parents are relaxing while the grandparents help out with laundry, or clean-up, or general support. And then I rush back to the chaos of my life, nursing a toddler while cooking dinner and folding laundry at the same time, with all the grandparents living countries and continents away.

READ: Helping the Needy When You Are the Needy

But that’s What We Do.

And I’m glad that we do it. I’m proud that we do it. Not just because of the months of meals I got from people when my own kids were born, though that, of course, is part of it. But I did this even before I had kids, and I will continue to do so well after they are out of the house. And I’ll teach them—am already teaching them—to do the same. And not just because it helps the new parents (or sick person, or family dealing with a loss, or whoever needs that extra care for whatever reason) feel supported and oriented in a time of new beginnings and new decisions and no roadmap, though that too, definitely. And not just because it’s a nice and decent and caring thing to do, though of course that’s true, and of course I want my kids to see and understand that.

But here’s the real reason that I spend those precious late night hours cooking meals for people in my community when I could be sleeping or reading or taking a bath or going to the gym or drinking or whatever. It’s because the world, as we know it now, is a broken place. It’s also a wonderful place, especially if you happen to be white, male, and Western. But if you aren’t one of those things (and even if you are, sometimes), it’s a hell of a place, and as a witness to the brokenness, my heart breaks.

I feel helpless sometimes. And I can’t always do something about that. I can’t make the police stop attacking black people, though I can rally and write about it and get really angry; I can’t stop violence against women and violence against women’s choices, though I can lobby and donate to Planned Parenthood and (just as soon as I get citizenship) vote; I can’t even come close to fixing everything going on in Israel.

READ: After Having Kids, I’m Not As Generous

The problems of structural oppression are really big, really overwhelming, and I struggle to see how I can make a difference on that scale, even though I really, really want to. But throwing my hands up in the air and declaring defeat (even if I promise, with all the sincerity of the guilty middle-class white liberal, to keep feeling genuinely guilty about it) is not what I want to model for my children. Nor do I want to pass this world down to them, not in its current form. Not without at least trying to build something stronger and better.

Making meals for those needing support is a thing I can do to begin to repair what is broken. To help, in a very small way, make a world that is the kind of place I want to live in, and that I want to pass down to my kids. I believe in community. I believe in shared responsibility and the support and love and care that it represents and engenders. I believe these things won’t happen without effort, sometimes a lot of it.

Making meals doesn’t take all that much work, really, and I don’t really think of it as something extra. It’s just what it means to be part of a community. That’s the point: It’s not something extra, something to be lauded for, some extraordinary act of generosity. It’s just What We Do. But that is itself kind of a big deal. A world where taking care of other people at a small (and sometimes not so small) cost to ourselves is just What We Do—that’s a world I want to be a part of. That’s a world I’m proud to hand down to my children.

READ: That Time I Almost Picked Up a Hitchhiker with the Kids in the Car

Frankly, it’s been hard to feel proud of this world lately, and it feels good—really good—to do something, even something small, that reminds me of all that is wonderful, kind, and just. To remind myself that I’m part of something bigger where What We Do is sometimes wonderful, kind, and just, and also no big deal.

It’s worth losing some sleep for.

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