I met Ralph for the first time about a month ago, when a mutual friend connected us on a work matter. At some point during our conversation, he told me about the New Sabbath Project. It sounded interesting, so I asked how I might become involved. “We’re hoping people will hold their own dinners and invite people from their circle,” he said, “but you’re welcome to have dinner at our home any time.” Then he gave me the date of their next dinner, with the proviso that he’d confirm the invite after first checking with his wife Cortney about guest numbers and so
He did confirm, and that is how, a few weeks later, I found myself knocking on the door of the Benmergui-Pasternak home
in mid-town Toronto with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a container of ginger candied carrots in hand. (The only pre-dinner request was that I bring a bottle of wine and, if possible, “a side dish that goes with chicken”.) Bear in mind that when I stood on the porch of the B-P home that evening, I’d only known Ralph for about an hour and had never actually met Cortney. As it turned out, when I showed up at the door, she didn’t appear to have been expecting me. (For the record, Ralph insists he told her.)
I bring this up not to embarrass anybody or get in the middle of a divergence of marital opinion (or what may or may not have
been a breakdown in marital communications). We are, after all, talking about a couple who somehow manage to put together
regular Friday night dinners (to which they apparently invite complete strangers), despite holding two full-time jobs (and then some), parenting two little kids, and dealing with whatever else they have to deal with in their no doubt over-scheduled lives. (Ralph also has two big kids from a previous marriage so you can factor in that as well.)
Anyway, in spite of the glitch, Cortney graciously welcomed me, offered me wine, ushered me into the living room, sat me down in front of a plate of appetizers, which I immediately began inhaling, and made me feel totally at home.
Home is the operative word, because everything about Ralph and Cortney’s home and the evening that followed was immeasurably homey—or, as we Jews like to say—haimishe.
From the aromas that greeted me at the door and immediately transported me, madeleine-like, back to the Friday night dinners of my childhood, to the casual kid clutter and family photographs everywhere, to an actual real live kid named Emmanuel who was running around and greeting everybody, the ambience evoked a homey feeling at every turn.Soon the other guests arrived and the Proseco and conversation began to flow. Then we moved on to dinner, which began with blessings over the candles, wine and bread—the bread being Cortney’s home-made challah, and about which all I will say
IS this: once you tear off a chunk (and tearing off a chunk is the only way to eat it), you are willing to become a challah whore to get your hands on another.Next, Ralph went around the table and asked each of us to offer a blessing for someone or something we felt moved to offer one for.
The blessings were simple and eloquent. Besides providing an insight about the person delivering it, each one
engendered a lovely sense of connection with that person. The food was plentiful, the meal amazing, the conversation
thoughtful and engaging and the atmosphere utterly unpretentious.After the meal, Ralph asked each of us to express thanks for something for which we felt grateful that week, and so we went around the table once again. At this point, I feel I should mention that I am basically a heathen. What I mean by that is that while Jewish cultural traditions were a big part of my growing up years, unlike virtually all of my relatives and friends, my family didn’t belong to a synagogue, or attend one, even on the High Holidays. Nor did my siblings and I attend Hebrew school—unlike everyone else we knew. While I did grow up with Friday night dinners, by the time my own generation came of age, that ritual had mostly become a thing of the past, and I haven’t actually been to a Friday night dinner since, well, last century.
But there I was, sitting at a table and offering blessings in front of people I’d only just met (none of whom were Jewish, by the way, besides the hosts and me), and doing so seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to be doing. The naturalness of the experience, the feeling of being present in it, and the sense of connection and community it engendered in me, are something I really want to stress, because although I am deeply interested in the idea of connection—with myself, with those I love, with work that engages and inspires me, with larger social, cultural and political matters—I am not, by any means, a let’s-make-a-blessing sort of person. I actually recoil at anything with even the slightest whiff of formal religion or New Agey-ness or groupthink, and if I sense anyone trying to shove that sort of thing down my throat, or make me participate in a ritual that feels like a kumbaya moment, I basically start looking for the exits. Which is why the way I felt at Ralph and Cortney’s table is so significant.
The evening felt authentic in the best sense of that word. Not only did it serve as a truly pleasurable oasis at the end of a week of mostly just trying to get through (sound familiar?); the experience inspired me to think about how I might pay it forward. On a more selfish note, I’ve already had a coffee with a writer I met at the dinner who happens to live in my ‘hood and with whom it was helpful and fun to share writerly tips and preoccupations.
So I’m a fan of the New Sabbath Project. I think Ralph and Cortney are onto a pretty cool idea here, and heathen that I am, I’m delighted to have been asked to share in it.
Wendy Dennis is an award-winning journalist and author who writes for many leading publications, including The Walrus, Toronto Life, where she’s a contributing editor, and House and Home, where she writes a regular column about lifestyle trends.
She has also been a high school English teacher, instructor of magazine writing at Ryerson University, and editor at Toronto Life and Fashion magazines.