Last weekend, one of my kids and I decided to make bourekas. Made with filo dough, ours were stuffed with two fillings: spinach and cheese, and mushroom and cheese. They were such a success that the family ate all of them in a couple days.
We marveled at how hard it was to make the filo dough into the perfect triangles we remembered, as my sister-in-law’s family holiday events often feature these. Her family is part Turkish and no Jewish holiday would be complete without some of her specialities.
We won’t be eating Aunt Jenn’s bourekas any time soon, however. She lives (with the rest of our families) in the United States and the border’s closed. Even if it were open, it’s not a safe time to travel, due to the pandemic. But, my son and I really miss her and, in our recent cooking foray, we realized that she has a lot of filo dough skills!
If you’re like us, you may be reminiscing about birthday parties or neighbourhood block parties, a backyard barbeque with friends, or even a big family get together at a picnic shelter. It seems like a really crucial part of our Jewish identities is wrapped up in food and feeding others and making them feel welcome. It’s modeled first in Abraham and Sarah’s tent, as they welcome strangers, wash their feet and feed them, but most of us have friends and family who continue to show us how to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests.
Back in March, when our family realized that we would be home schooling for some time to come, we moved around the dining room furniture. We fit in two side tables as desks for the kids. We shifted the dining room table so that the four of us have ample room. It was the first time in my married life (22 years) that we didn’t have extra chairs at the table, “just in case” we had guests.
This definite lack of company sometimes feels sad and lonely. I’m not the only person struggling with this. However, some of the COVID-19 research seems to indicate that the virus isn’t spread via socially distanced street protests (with masks) but rather, at parties. That’s it – when we gather to eat and drink, when we forget to social distance or when we mingle with others for extended periods, we have a greater risk of getting sick.
Where does this leave us? A much less commonly known part of Jewish tradition is that of “giving people space.” Whether it’s the time that married couples spend apart each month, among those who observe the family purity laws, or the notions around tzinut (modesty) or treating your body with respect (as a temple, in fact), these aren’t the most commonly observed Jewish mitzvot these days. The notion of “space” as part of Jewish time is not very popular. However, this is precisely what I thought about as I took a long walk with my twins and one of our dogs.
It was hot. My kids know to hold hands when crossing a street and to stick close to me, but, on summer days in Winnipeg, we may stretch out a bit on the sidewalk. There’s one kid trying to catch a bug on the grassy boulevard, while another one wanders along beside me, chatting about dinosaurs. Our Gordon Setter mix, attached by a sturdy leash, doesn’t let that stop her when she sees a squirrel or bunny, and my arm shoots out across the walkway. You can imagine it – we take up room.
Our streets are wide. Most Winnipeggers aren’t wearing masks to take a walk because it’s rarely necessary to be anywhere near others unless they are relatives. When I see someone coming, I call everyone together. We gather closer to social distance from whomever is passing.
On this morning, the first adults who passed us, strangers who went by one at a time, made no effort to social distance, they didn’t greet or acknowledge us. I herded all four of us to the side, quickly. It is somehow always my job each time to create social distance. (I’ll note here that these adults were in the 60-and-up category. None of them was a young adult, the age group blamed in the media for being lax when it comes to taking care during a pandemic.)
By the time a third person came by, I was wary, already organizing kids and dog to swerve into someone’s front walk way. To my surprise, this person saw what I was doing. She smiled and walked in an arc onto the grass to give us room. I thanked her, we chatted briefly. We all smiled. I was so grateful.
Then something struck me. True hospitality is anticipating someone’s needs and graciously trying to meet those needs. Hospitality doesn’t have to be about feeding others or welcoming them in. Yes, we need to feed those who are less fortunate but, probably, we don’t need to insist on cooking for other gatherings personally in order to provide everybody food and drink.
Also, welcoming and greeting others, treating them graciously, doesn’t require bringing anyone into our houses (or, in Abraham’s case, a tent). It might mean ceding the sidewalk, smiling and saying hello to others as you pass – at a distance. It might include trimming your hedge so that there’s room on that sidewalk for a wheelchair or stroller to pass.
These are Jewish concepts: in protecting a life, treating bodies respectfully and giving others the right amount of space, we practise a kind of hospitality. This means caring about others and anticipating their needs.
So, please, when you see that mom with several kids, a person using a wheelchair, someone carrying a heavy load or someone pushing a double stroller on the sidewalk, give way and step aside. It’s the right – and the kind, hospitable – thing to do.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.