Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Divine Parties

The Amidah, our main prayer, begins with the words “Elokei Avrohom, Elokei Yitz’chok, v’Elokei Ya’akov…” (“G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob”). The obvious question presenting itself here is, why is the text so repetitive; why not just “G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”? The phraseology teaches us that since we are all unique individuals, everyone must develop his own relationship to G-d, and must find his own personal way to serve Him, each with his own specific set of traits and talents, each person walking on his own path towards the Heavenly Throne, utilizing one’s shortcomings as well as one’s assets in Divine service.

Therefore, aside from the obligations that G-d has laid down for all of us, a person must also ask herself, “how can I do something special for Hashem?”. Thus, some perform their special, individual service of G-d through prayer, some through fasting, some through a particular type of good deed, and so on. I make parties.

It used to be even more explicitly so while I still lived in Europe; in my city I was one of a very small minority that kept mitzvos at all, much less made Shabbos and Yom Tov meals in His honor. There is a quote by Harav Aharon Kotler who said that religious outreach [to not-yet-religious fellow Jews] begins with “a glass of tea”. (In our own days, presumably, it begins with a slice of pizza – or some sushi!) The pleasures of the table, even very modest ones, are truly the way to the heart for many – don’t most of us have a childhood memory of something very delicious, the remembrance of which evokes love and longing and nostalgia? (Every wife certainly knows that her mother-in-law’s cooking is the best in the world; “almost as good as my mother’s” is the finest praise a husband can offer!) And from there, a spiritual longing is not so very far away.

Obviously, on another level, what Reb Aharon was perhaps primarily referring to, is the spirit in which the tea is offered, the warm and accepting atmosphere, and the conversation that takes place at the table. My guests, both the partially observant, and the not-yet, all knew that however much effort I put into the cooking and the table setting, my real goal was to show them the beauty of the Torah life. Indeed, it was one of these guests, a “regular”, who helped me understand my calling. One year, at the Seder table, she turned to a newcomer and said, “You see, our hostess has this mission in life to teach us unaffiliated Jews about our religion”. As she smiled fondly at me, I was hit right in the kishkes, my guts, with the truth – this was truly my mission, and right there I knew I wanted to be a Rabbi (but that is another story altogether…), or at least a Rebbetzin.

There, in Europe, I was at the center of religious outreach; here, in my new American home, I have been given a different role to play, but I still like to use my G-d-given aesthetical talents in His service. And I am not really talking about hachnossas orchim, hospitality per se, but about the artistic arrangement of the table and the premises. Thus, every Yom Tov has the added dimension for me of opportunities for – should we call it Divine Party Planning?

I have already written something about what Sukkos means to me, and now let us see what Chanukah brings. First though, a gripe: Who in the world came up with the notion that the “Chanukah colors” are blue and white, with some silver thrown in by the daring for a bit of glamour? Blue and white are the colors of the Israeli flag – and there it ends. There is no such thing (and there never has been such a thing) as Chanukah colors – not even in our over-commercialized universe. And if there were, why would they be blue and white? So un-party-like.

The challenge lies in decorating beautifully and festively, yet without accidentally making it look as if you are decorating for another holiday, lehavdil! So many of the commercially available decorations are balancing on a knife’s edge in this respect – and besides, see my gripe above about the blue-white color scheme. And we don’t want to be like the innocent children who went shopping for Sukkah decorations – which are notoriously borrowed from this other holiday – and came home with a picture of “Der Roite Rebbe”, very pretty with his red kapote, and a long, white beard! Or is that an urban myth?

I arranged my Divine Party this year in shocking pink and gold – gold really being a much more Chanukah-compatible metallic accent color than silver, since it recalls the gold of the Menorah itself, as well as many of the other Temple accoutrements; the Chanukah “gelt” (money, but literally meaning gold) that is traditionally given out during the holiday; and maybe even the golden sheen of the olive oil that we burn. Shocking pink is an obvious choice that should not need any further explanation – at least not for anyone who knows me!

Here are a few pictures for fun and inspiration…

The centerpiece with roses and candles. The gold-sprayed pumpkins were a small acknowledgement of this year's unusual combination of Chanukah and Thanksgiving.

A place setting, with the ubiquitous gold coins tied in a mesh pouch... Believe it or not, but I "invented" the use of chocolate gold coins for Chanukah thirty years ago, long before anyone else had thought of doing so - at least in Europe.

 The table at night, with all the candles lit...

Finally, just a hint of atmosphere...

And yes, I find that this added beauty of roses, pretty plates, and some extra frills enhances my overall enjoyment of Chanukah. 

Additionally, I make a point of arranging a little treat for myself every day of the holiday, whether it be some extra-delicious chocolates, a new book, or a very pink lipstick - and I advise all you over-worked wives and mothers, and women of all stripes out there, to do the same! "Ein simcha ela b'basar v'yayin" - there is no joy without meat and wine - is a Talmudic dictum that clearly acknowledges that spiritual joy is enhanced by physical pleasure. So whatever your "meat and wine" might be, do not forgo it. It doesn't have to be expensive or outrageous, but it has to be enjoyable. You are the backbone of Am Yisrael, and you need to cultivate the joy in your life.

When I sit and gaze at the golden flames with a cup of peppermint tea, or a glass of wine, and the aforementioned chocolates at hand, I find it even easier to contemplate the gratitude for Hashem's miracles that is the great message of these eight beautiful days.

Shalom Uv'racha!

PS: If you enjoyed this post you might want to explore my companion blog Rosebud's Castle, where I write about things like interior decorating, party planning, and the occasional recipe...

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