June 4, 2009
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Aryeh Cohen

1. The first real furniture my partner and I bought after we moved into our house ten years ago was a beautiful cherrywood dining room table. The table came with dreams of Shabbat meals, sedarim, family gatherings, communal festivities, classes to be taught, and Torah to be studied. Most of this has come to pass around that table — the meals, conversations, Torah study, and family gatherings. Though much has happened to rock our world, our community, and our lives over these past ten years, on most Friday evenings, I still believe that I hear the good angel praying that it should be thus next week and the angel’s companion reluctantly saying amen.

2. Walpole State Prison: I visit K on Sundays — that is, when he’s not confined to solitary. When the weather is nice we sit at a rough wood picnic table in a grassy visiting area surrounded by families — children in their Sunday-going-to-prison clothes, wives and girlfriends dressed in the modest fashion regulated by the prison. In the field is a little carousel for the children; they push it around and then jump onto it and scream in joyous fright. Sometimes K and I eat; sometimes we talk. Sometimes he tells me about his fellow prisoners: rape, murder, armed robbery.

3. Center City, Philadelphia: Steam rising from the grates adds to pedestrian misery in the summer; it also provides a bit of warmth that blunts the edge of the bitter winter nights for those for whom the streets are home and the grates are bed. Every night on Walnut Street I see a man sitting on a milk crate. Tonight I invite him to dine with me in McDonald’s. Hesitant, he asks that I get him something and bring it back to him, outside. I insist that we both go indoors. He orders some kind of burger and fries; I order coffee, the universally kosher beverage. All the workers seem to know him from his usual perch outside the door. They look at him with surprise as we sit in the booth. He grows progressively more and more uncomfortable. Finally, he tells me he’d rather not stay here anymore. We leave and finish dining on the street.

4. “All who are hungry come and eat. All who need to partake of the Paschal sacrifice come and join with us,” so declaim 20 people around a beautifully set table. The door is locked. “All who are hungry come and eat” — but if they knocked on the door would we actually let them in? Would we go out and find “them” and bring “them” home?

5. The halakhic definition of “common space” is “people who eat at the same table.” This may be an abstract or potential “eat” symbolized by an unopened box of matzah. The matzah constitutes an eruv; it is a manufacturing of common space, a yachad, which consists of my home and yours, and every other Jew’s home.

What of those Jews who would not eat at my table? What of those Jews at whose table I do not eat? What of those Jews whose culinary customs are far removed from the Eastern European palate of my ancestry or the California palate of my contemporary life? Are they part of my yachad?

6. The first time my parents came to my home and told me they could not eat our cooking I had to make a choice.

The first time we went to my in-laws’ home and I told them I could not eat their cooking they had to make a choice.

I could have become offended and angry; I could have shattered the deep and loving relationship we have.

My in-laws could have been offended and angry; they could have nipped in the bud our relationship before it had a chance to blossom.

Fortunately, I chose to treat my parents’ decision as though it came from a different religious tradition, one that had no claim on me.

Fortunately, my in-laws made accommodations, now affectionately dubbed the “kosher box,” which includes kosher pots, plates, and cutlery, and they let us kasher a part of their stove.

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Aryeh Cohen, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, lives in Los Angeles with his partner Andrea and their children Shachar and Oryah. He teaches Talmud at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, davens at the Shtibl Minyan, and writes about Talmud, justice, Shabbat, and gender, among other topics. He is currently writing a book, Justice in the City: Thinking the Just City out of the Sources of Rabbinic Literature.

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