Shavuot Lunch

For me, an empty extra room in Madame’s means dinner alone.

The extra room has been vacant for the past three weeks—ever since the last Brazillian homestay boy moved out after slight (to say the least) differences between him and my host mother. Over the course of these four months, a range of students have flown in and out, typically staying for a month at a time. It’s good practice for French conversation when we eat dinners together and nice company to have around after Madame turns in for the night.

Nathaniel, a 20- year old orthodox, Jewish boy from New Jersey, moved in last Friday. Having spent his Fall semester abroad in Paris (and living in the room I’ve spent these past four months in), he returns, this time, on a college grant to research the Jewish, orthodox community within the city.

While I enjoy finally having company during dinner, it’s also nice to have another Jewish boy to converse with. Judaism defines so much of who I am, and by sharing both my religion and culture in common, I share a significant part of myself. Hence, the ever flowing topics to feed conversation.

I had agreed to accompany Nathaniel for Shavuot services Monday morning. In turn, he had us invited over for lunch with a family from the temple's congregation.

We set out early Monday morning—a 15 minute walk from our apartment building to the hole in the wall (as they always are) Sephardic synagogue.

Paris doesn't believe in air conditioning. (Or bathroom breaks mid class, gym clothes in public, flip flops as shoes.) And so after the walk to services, we entered—I already slightly dripping from the heat that, after a month of rain and cold, had finally decided to pay visit.

Not that stifling heat simmers any Jewish enthusiasm. Because within the space—a small shul with a wooden, simple d├ęcor and Middle Eastern style, gold light fixtures illuminating the room— the force behind the prayers were strong, the energy among those praying, evident. The Hebrew I recognized, although the tunes, as a result of the Sephardic customs, differed. The sermons were in French and while I understand French fluently, topics outside of my usual realm of vocabulary require full focus.

Which seeing as my concentration remained stuck on needing water given my schvitzing had caused some level of dehydration, my focus on the rabbi's words of wisdom was not at its best.

The congregation mixed between Moroccans and Algerians. Traditions between the two vary, Nathanial had told me. And a testiness among both absolutely exists. At one point, four men (of either Moroccan or Algerian custom) began singing a traditional hymn. The rabbi spun around (he, of the other custom), cutting the men off. How dare they start singing without warning? It was throwing him off. 

Nathanial and I joined his family friend after services. We walked to his home, taking our time given the timer to unlock their electric gate would open at 1:15. (In celebration of Shavuot, observant Jews do not use electricity—same rules as Shabbat.)  We had fifteen minutes to pass—and pass we did as Nathaniel and Joseph caught up—four months away left the two with at least some words of exchange.

Once inside the apartment, Nathaniel and I seated ourselves onto the couch. Joined by Robert, the family’s 22- year old son, Galit, their daughter (26 or 27) and her husband, Yoni, we spent the next half hour conversing—in French, for the most part. I broke once in a while to use an English word or two given an afternoon of conversation in French leaves me with an unbelievable headache. Joseph and his wife, Shirley, eventually joined in and the seven of us moved to the dining room.

Five courses and three hours later; Not once did the afternoon feel awkward. Not once did I, nor Nathaniel, feel uncomfortable joining the family for their meal. I entered as a stranger, yet for the three hours spent in their home, we were a part of their family.

I sat next to Shirley. And true to Jewish mother tendencies, she fussed over whether or not Nathaniel and I ate enough.

I found the manner the family interacted beautiful, the love they have for each other and their comfort when together, just gorgeous. As Nathaniel and I left later that afternoon, I squeezed Shirley’s hand, telling her this reminded me of home, of my family and our traditions. And how grateful I was for the reminder.

Nathaniel and I walked home to Madame’s that afternoon. And in line with the Yom Tov requirements (no electricity) and in respect for Nathaniel who keeps the holiday, we climbed the stairs to the fifth floor in the pitch black—I gripping the railings with my life, he, used to the darkness given he keeps Shabbat too (no using electricity then either), guiding our way.

Away from home, it’s remarkable the people and the experiences that instill you that sense of comfort with a familiar. Judaism seems to always provide me with that base—be it the prayers I know during services, or the culture and mannerisms of a Jewish family that I, too, have in mine. And no matter the physical distance from home in the states, it's nice to know that home in Paris is never too far away. 

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