Ode: Experiencing faith through food
On a sunny Saturday morning in California, my spouse Ryan and I arrived at the Chabad House of Oakland for Shabbat.
The website had promised that the 10 a.m. service would be “followed by a delicious Kiddush and Cholent.” It was my last year of seminary, and a class project sent me out to learn about another faith tradition through its food. I had heard of cholent—the slow-cooked stew started before the Sabbath. I wasn’t sure what “Kiddush” was. But I was interested in anything described as “delicious.”
The Chabad House was about 10 blocks from our house. We could have walked—as the Orthodox Jews observing the Sabbath would. But we’d taken too long to get ready and had no time to spare. So, down the hill we sped. Fifteen minutes late, we parked and walked up to an unassuming office building. The window read “Chabad of Oakland,” but the door was locked, and the lights were off.
Fearing my project was doomed, I hurriedly found another Orthodox Jewish congregation, Beth Jacob, and headed there. We walked in and a youngish man with curly hair and a beard greeted us. “They’re just finishing the Torah reading,” he said.
He gave Ryan a kipah to cover his head and offered him a tallit—a prayer shawl. He directed me to the entrance of the women’s side of the room. I sat toward the back. A young woman joined me.
“Do you read Hebrew?” she asked. “A little, but not very well anymore,” I said. She handed me a transliterated prayer book and guided me through the service. At the end, the rabbi announced, “Kiddush in the downstairs social hall. Shabbat Shalom!” Yes! Food.
Everyone rose to their feet, greeting one another. The division between the men and women all but disappeared as children zoomed around and couples rejoined one another.
I found Ryan, and Yossi found us. The silver-haired man, wearing a well-tailored suit, introduced us to Rabbi Davies, who couldn’t have been much older than 30. The rabbi offered to show us to the social hall.
We walked past the bookstore and children’s classrooms to a dining area with an adjacent Kosher kitchen. That’s when we saw it—a table littered with wine-stained Dixie cups and a crumb-covered cookie tray. An interesting set of decadent silver cups stood watch over the wasteland.
I assumed this was Kiddush.
While I poured two small cups of wine, Rabbi Dardik apologetically explained that they used to have a meal every Saturday, but the synagogue cut back to every other week. We would have to come back another time for food.
By now, Yossi had appeared with his daughter clinging to his leg, and he had heard our whole story about why we were there. He didn’t seem to mind that a couple Christians had infiltrated the synagogue.
Yossi was happy to answer my kosher questions. He compared the practice to putting gas in a car.
“If you have an engine that just takes premium gasoline, that’s what you should put in it,” he said. “God has given us the laws of kashrut to know what kind of fuel to put in our bodies. Kosher is what God says is good.”
Hungry for more, a few days later, I met Rabbi Davies for lunch at Amba, a new kosher restaurant in Oakland, named after a tangy mango pickle condiment popular in Iraqi and Israeli Jewish cuisine.
Walking in with the rabbi, I certainly got a sense of the Jewish community. A young man in his 20’s, wearing an Amba t-shirt and hat pulled down over a mass of brown curls, greeted us with a genuine, “Hey rabbi!” as he slid behind the cash register to take our order.
While we waited for our food, Rabbi Davies took me to the handwashing station. He said that observant Jews must ritually wash their hands prior to eating a meal.
I poured water from the two-handled washing cup, first on my right hand, then left, then right, then left. He fed me the lines of the prayer, which I repeated. Baruch atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam… At the table, we said the ha-motzi, a blessing over the bread in our pita sandwiches.
As I took a big bite out of my Sabich—a fried eggplant sandwich with hardboiled egg, Israeli salad, cabbage salad and tahini—I asked where folks from Beth Jacob usually shop for their holy food. He mentioned the local butcher and the baker but admitted that most people did the bulk of their shopping at Lucky Supermarket and Trader Joe’s, where they could get Empire Kosher chicken and Golden West Glatt beef products.
“What’s glatt?” I asked.
In between bites of falafel, Rabbi Davies warned me this wasn’t good table talk. He said, “When the supervising rabbi looks inside a slaughtered animal, if the lining of the lung is smooth, with no abrasions, then the meat is ‘glatt.’”
Borrowing from Yossi’s metaphor, I took that to mean “glatt” is like super premium fuel.
Since Ryan and I had accidentally gone to Beth Jacob on a cookie-Kiddush week, we went back in hopes of getting the full experience. This time, after the rabbi announced the Kiddush in the downstairs hall, we tried to get there earlier. But the curious congregants really wanted to get to know us better, and eventually, I had to reveal my true intentions of experiencing faith through food.
Once they knew we were not Jewish, most were markedly less interested, and some were a bit suspicious. One woman asked, “So, you’re studying us?”
“Well, learning about you,” I said, “as a participant.” It would take me years to learn all that is necessary to fully participate in the worship services.
After a slight delay, we made our way to the social hall to find a great buffet of food from none other than Amba. But, once again, we had missed the Kiddush blessing.
Undeterred, I returned to the synagogue on a Friday morning to explore more.The Gan Mah Tov Preschoolers had just finished making challah. I could smell it baking as I walked through the synagogue with Rabbi Davies. He showed me the large upstairs social hall with its separate dairy and meat kitchens, a handwashing station and a wet bar.
I snapped a photo of the different double-handled washing cups as well as the fancy silver Kiddush cups, which I had yet to see in use.
In the front entryway, I met Sid, a retired man in a baseball cap. He asked me where I’m from, and when I said, “Here in Oakland, just over by the Grand Lake Theatre,” he said, “Oh, you’re by the butcher and the baker…”
He seemed to be waiting for confirmation. “Yes, I’ve been to the Grand Bakery,” I said. “I love their cookies. I haven’t been to the butcher yet.” He seemed satisfied that I knew the cultural landmarks. “Ech, the butcher’s too expensive,” he said. “We get most of our meat from Trader Joe’s. It’s a good deli though.”
I had learned a lot about Jewish traditions and customs, but I still had not seen the Kiddush.
So, I went back again on another Saturday. I slipped in the back at 11 a.m. for the last part of the prayers. I listened to Rabbi Dardik’s drash and waited for my cue to leave.
“Kiddush in the downstairs social hall,” the rabbi said. “Shabbat Shalom!”
This time, I was one of the first to arrive. Rabbi Dardik took his place at the pristine table and prepared the wine. In my direction, he said, “Some people just come for the food!”
Then, he sang the Kiddush blessing and poured the vino into the top silver cup and then into the fountain that flowed into the surrounding smaller silver cups. He drank from one of them, then handed a couple cups to the other men standing nearby.
The people, who had gathered around, said, “Amen,” and drank.
A fraction of the congregation was there for the Kiddush blessing. Many of them were still wandering in, deep in conversation, enjoying each other’s company, moving at a leisurely pace—actually celebrating Shabbat.
A couple days later, driving on my normal route between Oakland and Berkeley, I saw two large sculptures, spelling out “Here” and “There,” each angled so cars from opposite directions would see one or the other. It was my first time seeing either of them, but Ryan assured me that the sculptures had always been there.
Always rushing here and there, I never slowed down enough to notice.
I learned something deeper than I expected from the Orthodox Jewish community of Oakland. They moved at a different pace. At least on Saturdays, they made space to do less and just be.
I had been waiting to see the Kiddush, but I had been experienced it all along—a day and time set aside and made holy. I have such a deep need for that kind of intentionality in the busy rhythm of my life. After all those weeks, I finally tasted that delicious blessing, savoring a day of enjoyment of God and community through hummus and a little red wine.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
We’re hosting Ode’s 2nd Anniversary Show on Friday, February 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Shawn Blomberg, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Risk.”
Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.