"May the Schwartz be with you", my father always says. Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, known to all as "Schwartzee," is not your typical Rabbi. And my mother Olivia, a health food guru, is not your typical Rebbetzin. Together they run the Chai Center, an outreach organization that is decidedly, deliciously and divinely disorganized. They teach classes, offer free (yes, free) High Holiday services, and prepare Shabbat dinners in their home for "thirty strangers". And, in their spare time, they raise their twelve children.
As their child, I was most affected by our free Friday night Shabbat dinners.
Coming from a family of twelve with this as a weekly routine, you may imagine that budgeting became more than a small consideration.
That's why I have always marveled at my parents good will and trust in G-d. My father likes to say, "We're with the Chai Center, a VERY non-profit organization". Financially, we always lived on a tight budget, but no matter what, Friday night was "Dinner for 30 Strangers", and somehow, G-d would provide. Our Shabbat dinner settings were a true reflection of my parents non-materialistic mentality. We had no china, crystal, or matching flatware. So, out came the plastic cups and paper plates . . . tripling the plates so as not to have any salad dressing-leakage. Even plastic-laden, our table was fit for a king or, as in the case of Shabbat, a queen.
At 7:30 an eclectic mix of men and women would arrive. My sisters and I would greet the women and light the traditional Shabbat candle, while my brothers brought the men upstairs to our porch, overlooking L.A., where my father was entertaining. Then the women would join the men upstairs and we kids used to giggle as we watched the guests schmooze and flirt with one another. Meanwhile, mom would be in the kitchen finishing last minute preparations with her garlicky hummus, tofu stir fry, or her trademark homemade whole-wheat challah.
We drank the Kiddush, washed for the Challah, and my father would humorously share a few words on the weekly Torah portion. Then came the singing. My family would sing "Nigunim"- wordless melodies so powerfully uplifting, they transcend you to another spiritual realm. Our guests would begin to chime in, and our voices became so harmonious even the three tenors would be proud. Then, as if by the blink of your eye, you could suddenly see clearer. You were able to see Shabbat as not just something that religious people observed but rather as how G-d had intended the world to be, with warmth and joy. And as much as you managed to ignore it during the week, it was there for the taking on our seventh day of rest.
Now that I'm grown up, I live in Israel with my husband and child. Since I am a Schwartz at heart, every week 15-20 guests arrive, regardless of the week we've had or the fact that my husband has not sold his dot.com company yet. Amazingly, somehow we're always prepared, with a little help from above, for our own little paper plate miracle.
Hindel Swerdlov lives in Jerusalem and writes for hotels4cheap.com, a travel internet company.