It happens every Friday night. My family comes together to bring in the Shabbat with a festive, delicious meal. Shabbat, which literally means to quit or to stop in Hebrew, is the day of rest in the Jewish tradition. It begins at sundown, Friday and ends at sundown, Saturday. It is one of the Ten Commandments. After six days of external work, the seventh, Shabbat, was assigned as a day of internal work, a day of reflection.
Appreciating its sacredness, Shabbat is first welcomed with a prayer over lighting of the candles. My mom, wearing a scarf over her head, says the prayer as she lights the candles. Instantly, the room transforms into a holy place.
The dining table is set with glistening glasses and silverware and beautifully decorated place settings, over a white satin tablecloth. In the middle of the table sit two bowls. In one bowl is a common Yemenite spice called Chilbe, and in the other is another condiment. Both are very spicy, and are used sparingly to enrich the overall flavors of the other dishes.
We gather around the table as the wine is poured into a special silver cup. My father begins the prayer over the wine. The prayer, a song of gratitude to God, ends with all of us chanting Amen. My father sips from the glass, and it is then passed to each one of us, to partake from the fruit of the grape.
Before the meal begins, it is time for the bread to be broken. The warm round pita- like bread is placed inside a large white napkin. One of the grandchildren will hold the bread, as he says the prayer of gratitude to God for bringing bread from the earth. At the end of the prayer, the child will break a piece of the bread and will place it in front of each one of us. We pick up the piece and dip it into one or both of the spicy condiments, before eating it.
The feast will now commence. Mom, who is known the world over for being the best Yemenite chef, has labored over this meal for hours. She will go back and forth to the kitchen, several times, each time placing yet another dish on the table. We are not permitted to help her. The rice dish, white, flaky, full of pine nuts and exotic seasoning, arrives at the table, steaming hot. The vegetables, string beans steeped in garlic tomato sauce, and cauliflower fried in egg and flour, seasoned to perfection, are placed on the table in two separate, large serving platters.
The aromas instantly assault our olfactory senses. Unable to resist, we begin to serve each other, before the rest of the food is on the table. Mom returns with the next dish, Yemenite meatballs. There is no comparable dish in any other culture. These small, dark balls taste like nothing you can imagine. When biting into one, your palate is exposed to a full spectrum of flavors so delectably balanced that they create a taste bud party. In other words, your mouth does not know what just hit it. All it knows is that it is in celebration.
Now, mom appears with the grilled chicken dish. This is my favorite of all dishes. The mere sight of the deep brown legs, with crimson red highlights, is just enough to get those juices flowing in my mouth. I know that with the slightest poking gesture from the fork, the meat will fall off the bone, like autumn leaves from a branch. These scrumptious morsels, rich with Yemenite spices, bring untold pleasures to those fortunate enough to experience them.
The final dish to be placed on the table is the most sought after Yemenite staple, the lamb. Mom, the alchemist, manages to melt its fatty parts and seep them into the whole. That, coupled with the slow cooking and constant basting of her magical potion, love, results in the most flavorful, indescribably tender meat.
As we leisurely begin to experience the abundance of her creations, the conversation around the table unfolds. At first, we share our encounters and events from the past week. The discussion is light and joyous. We then raise the glasses and cheers of L’chaim, to life, as we clink our glasses together. As soon as we sip from our glasses the conversation shifts into an intense, passionate discussion about world events, religion and women’s rights. The heatedness of the discussion is matched by the spiciness of the food. For an outsider the experience may appear like a full-blown fight. To us, it is the spice of life.
The nourishment we receive transcends the physical. We are in the presence of family, in the presence of love.
It happens every Friday night…