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Home Is Where the Challah Is

By Jacqui Shine '05

My favorite part of the week starts on Thursday night, when four or five of us pile into a borrowed car and head to the grocery store, usually at an hour when the only other shoppers are the ones who are buying eight cases of Diet Coke and a cart of frozen dinners. Armed with canvas shopping bags and a detailed list of the produce and groceries that we need to prepare a kosher dairy dinner for anywhere from 30 to 80 people, we prowl the aisles of Super Stop-n-Shop, scrutinizing can labels for kosher symbols and yelling across the store that we only need three pounds of chocolate chips, but definitely more than 10 packages of tofu.

The late-night trip to the store is only the beginning. We put the groceries away in the kitchen and head for our respective homes only a few hours before we’ll see each other again; preparations for Shabbat will begin the next morning at 6 a.m., when we descend upon an otherwise-quiet local diner for the pancakes, eggs and coffee that will get us through a long day of cooking. We’re back in the kitchen by 7 a.m., where we throw on aprons, turn up the radio and get to work so that we can be ready to open the doors for dinner twelve hours later (and maybe attend class, too). When I stagger home around 11 p.m., covered in flour and unidentified sauce smears, I’ll be exhausted but deeply satisfied; this day of cooking and laughter forms the center of my Jewish community here at Smith.

As the business manager for the Smith College Kosher Kitchen, a student-run kosher co-op that prepares a weekly Shabbat dinner for the Jewish community, I’m part of a group of committed students who work tirelessly all week, but especially on Fridays, to provide not just a home-cooked meal, but a Jewish home, for Smith students. The K., as we fondly call it, is the center of Jewish life. Students gather in the K. on Wednesday nights to study religious texts with Rabbi Bruce Seltzer; on Thursday afternoons for the Hillel@Noon speaker series; and on Friday nights for a Shabbat meal that runs the gamut from old Jewish standards like matzah ball soup to a kosher (and vegan) Thai coconut soup. I spend about 20 hours a week working in or for the Kosher Kitchen, and it’s the place at Smith where I feel the most comfortable, the most myself.

But it wasn’t always this way. During much of my first year, the Kosher Kitchen was the last place you’d find me. When I arrived on campus that August, I was eager to find a place in the Jewish community. My six years of Catholic school had been both a challenge and a pleasure, but I wanted to find my way in Judaism, the tradition I was raised in. So I threw myself into Jewish life at Smith, attending services and Hillel meetings and looking for a role that challenged me to grow as a Jew but took into account what I already knew about myself and the world.

Much to my disappointment, that role was pretty elusive. The harder I tried, it seemed, the more out of place I felt in the Jewish community. I was unprepared to have my identity challenged -- my mom isn’t Jewish, and I had spent six years learning about Catholic social teaching and the Sermon on the Mount -- and was uncomfortable at services that drew from Jewish traditions I was unfamiliar with. I felt disconnected and isolated, not just from the Jewish community, but from Judaism. I avoided Friday night services and tried to pretend that I didn’t miss lighting candles with friends at Hanukkah. I worried that I would have to put my Jewish self on hold for four years, until I could find a community that felt more comfortable.

Fortunately, my way home was just across the hall. My housemate Aryn Bowman was (and still is) a cook in the kitchen and made sure to invite me to dinner each week, even though I invariably declined, too afraid of being disappointed again. Finally, after several months of these invitations, I relented -- but I was only staying for dinner, not for the recitation of grace after meals or the sing-along that followed. And then I was only staying to help wash dishes, and only to wash pots, and only to sing a couple songs. The next thing I knew I was coming early to help set up, waking up early on Friday mornings to come in and chop vegetables and knead dough, staying up later on Thursday evenings to help shop for groceries and plan the following day’s menu. I had fallen in love with the warmth and light of the K., the friendliness of the cooks, the uniquely Jewish experience of inviting strangers into your home and sharing food with them -- food prepared with love transmitted by the work of your hands.

Since my first hesitant step through the door of the kitchen last year, I’ve found abundant blessings in the routines of running the kitchen. The clarity of stars in the frozen morning sky; the scent of dough rising and the grit of flour under my shoes; the joy of laughter and loud music and 8 a.m. Shirley Temples; the moment of silent anticipation between the striking of a match and the lighting of the Shabbat candles. These familiar moments quiet that sense of restless searching for my Jewish self that dominated my first few months at Smith; I am part of a Jewish tradition that extends in all directions, and, in the words of modern Israel’s first rabbi, “the old becomes new and the new becomes holy.”

Each Shabbat in the Kosher Kitchen both restores me and reminds me of the person I want to become. Each week I look forward to the moments where I can find myself in pots and pans, fresh vegetables, the faces of people I love. Each week I walk through the door and remember what it feels like to finally come home to Judaism, to myself. I am so lucky.

 
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