Salvaging Family Supper

When my sixth child was born, my very-traditional, Moroccan mother-in-law came to stay with us for a long spell. She was a good sport about putting up with the noise and tumult of a houseful of lively children. But one thing that clearly bothered her was our family suppers—or lack thereof.

My husband, like so many beleaguered Jewish husbands, never got home from work and shul early enough to eat with the kids. I was left to manage them alone while dealing with a newborn, and dinnertime was sometimes, uh, a little chaotic. This one didn’t want schnitzel, he’d had it for lunch. “Fleishigs again!” moaned another one. Another ate the schnitzel but refused to touch the rice or vegetables. Maybe the food wasn’t cordon bleu, but neither were their table manners. They had a perturbing tendency to wander away, permission unasked, when they deemed themselves finished.

This, according to my mother-in-law, was not how family dinners unfolded back in Morocco. Those were formal affairs where children were supposed to be seen and not heard, and were not to leave without permission. They were expected to finish everything on their plates, or oy va’voy. (My husband, who sometimes snuck unwanted food to the dog under the table, claims this was a slightly burnished image of his childhood mealtimes.) Come to think of it, my own suburban childhood suppers were also pretty civilized affairs: home-cooked meals that dutifully included a protein, starch and vegetable, followed by dessert and tea. It was a chance to fill each other in on our days, or discuss news about friends, family and the wider world.

Does anyone today have such family dinners? We have nice houses, but all too often nobody’s home. Dad is off to Daf Yomi or a simchah; older son has mishmar; high school daughter has play practice; and ten-year-old daughter is eating at a friend’s house.

It kind of discourages the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer from preparing the sort of nice family meals moms from an earlier generation (who typically didn’t work outside the home) used to slave over. If everyone’s going to bolt supper at different hours and run off, what’s the point? Might as well pick up a rotisserie chicken or a couple of pizza pies.

We take a lot of shortcuts these days, but the faster path isn’t always the better one in the long run. Fast food is full of scary, unpronounceable chemicals. Fast suppers don’t allow for meaningful connection between family members—all the more so if everyone keeps glancing at their phones.

There’s a spiritual price to pay for rushing through meals. Our meals have the potential to make us feel close not only to our family, but to our Father in Heaven. A table is compared to a mizbe’ach (altar), our meals to sacrificial offerings. But when we eat at ninety miles an hour and bentch twice as fast, our meals are spiritually vacuous. We may joke about amazing food being a “religious experience,” but it is important to appreciate food: that we have enough of it, that Hashem made it tasty for us and that we are able to make berachot over it.

The Covid lockdown forced many families to rediscover the pleasures of family dinner. My own children were already out of the house, but my friend Yael, who has school-age children, told me that family dinner suddenly became the highlight of their day. “The children helped with the cooking, learned to make more things, and our suppers became more elaborate,” she says. “We would sit for a long time schmoozing. Supper became our entertainment!”

Even now, with lockdowns behind us (forever, we hope), at least we have Shabbat to salvage a little family time. Finally, a day where we take two or three meals together as a family, with no gadgets to distract us! Finally, meals that are a social and gastronomic event, not a hasty refueling of our gas tanks! Chanukah is likewise a good opportunity for family time, since everybody comes home to light the menorahs, and families tend to follow with supper (hey, who wants to miss fresh latkes?).

As Jews keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath and holidays will keep the Jews. During these times, we are more mindful of the Source of our bounty; we consume food that’s a notch above the usual and is likely to be made at home with loving, conscious intention. Shabbat and yom tov keep us on track spiritually and ensure that we spend quality family time together.

But weekday family suppers are also important, and surely we should be making an effort to salvage them. In an age when it’s increasingly hard for families to stay together, we could start by staying together for supper.

A longtime Jewish Action contributor, Barbara Bensoussan is the author of The Well-Spiced Life(New Jersey, 2014) and Pride and Preference(New York, 2020).

This article was featured in the Winter 2021 issue of Jewish Action.