The Sabbath Meal
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My Own True Voice

The Sabbath Meal

I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. During the week my brother and sister and I ate dinner at 5 o’clock. My mother sipped on a martini during our dinner. She and my father ate dinner alone later, with the kids banned from the dining room.

The two main Sabbath meals were dinner on Friday evening and lunch on Saturday after synagogue. We ate together as a family. We were all dressed up in our Sabbath clothes, clean and pressed. The table was always covered with a heavily starched white tablecloth. We were a "perfect" family sitting around a beautiful table. My mother always prided herself on our beauty and cleanliness. Shoes were polished. Hair was combed to perfection.

Prayers and blessings always accompanied these meals. The meals were filled with religious rituals. We had permanent seats at the table. We were never to sit in my father’s seat at the head of the table. His seat was holy and was never even to be touched. My mother sat at the other side of the rectangular glass table designed to seat six. I sat next to my father on one side of him. My older brother sat on the other side.

The younger twins, a boy and a girl, sat on either side of my mother. The Sabbath meals usually lasted about two hours. It began with Kiddush, the blessing over the sacred wine, followed by the ritual of hand washing, and followed by more prayers and blessings. The meal started out with challah, the traditional braided Sabbath bread. At the center of the table were the sacred candlesticks. They were handed down from my grandmother to my mother. They would be handed down to me in the future, as the oldest daughter.

Between each of the courses, we sang traditional hymns praising G-d and the sanctity of the Sabbath. No one was ever allowed to leave the table until the meals were over and the final blessings chanted. And none of us children ever dared to leave the table. The only one who left was my mother. After the main course, my mother always left the table. The meal was incomplete. Dessert had not been served yet, and we were required to sit silently until my mother returned to the table to serve the final course.

Although my parents’ bathroom was down the hall, the noises that came from there were so loud, that it was impossible not to hear my mother retching. We silently remained in our assigned seats gazing at my mother’s empty chair. No one ever spoke. We sat listening to the sounds of my mother throwing up her food. We were told that she had a very sensitive stomach and that "aggravation" precipitated these bouts of vomiting. I remember feeling very guilty.

I was not very well behaved. I had what was called a "big mouth" and was always being fresh and talking back to my mother. I felt sure that I was the main cause of my mother’s "sensitive stomach." A few minutes after the excruciating retching noises died down, my mother would return to her seat. She then gave out dessert, which was usually a small portion of red Jello (Kojel—kosher gelatin), with a piece of a canned peach artfully placed inside the Jello. We would silently eat this final course. My mother just sat in her chair gazing at us. She didn’t complete the meal with us. My father would say to her, "Aren’t you having any?" And she’d say, "No. I’ve already had my dessert."

I never knew that my mother was bulimic until two weeks before her death from cancer at age 69. I walked into her sickroom to find her making herself vomit. "What are you doing, Mom??? What the hell are you doing?" I cried in horror. She said, "It doesn’t matter anymore. It just doesn’t matter anymore."

My mother died two weeks after she told me about her lifelong eating disorder and struggles with her weight and her body and her incessant desire to be "thin and beautiful." I wasn’t present at the moment of her death, but I was told that at the end she vomited profusely and then died.

All four of us children got something that was hers after her death. I got the candlesticks and the bulimia.

Malkah Leah, 50


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