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Shabbat Meals: At Home, Away From the War

When my boyfriend, Matt, was called back into the Army to spend a third year at war, I moved into a tiny Brooklyn apartment alone.

His recall had been a surprise. We were both working as journalists in New York at the time and had been together for almost two years. He had left active duty months before our first date and so I’d never seen him in uniform. I didn’t know a thing about the Individual Ready Reserve. Hell, I didn’t know a thing about the Army until the day he received a FedEx package with his orders in the mail.

When Matt left for Afghanistan, in 2009, I spent a lot of time cobbling together care packages filled with homemade cookies, magazines and books. Skype became our new best friend. The sudden solitude came as a shock, however, and the streets of New York City took on a new hue — a deep dark blue, one pulsating with fear.

My friends were concerned. My family hovered. And the dinner invitations began rolling in. Many of these, I found, were not typical dinners, even though they came from friends with whom I regularly ate. These invitations were from my Jewish friends for Friday nights — for Shabbat dinners.

I had never held much interest in celebrating Shabbat. I grew up in a home that treated Friday nights like any other night. Still, I was touched by the thought, and of course I went. I’ll admit that I expected these dinners to be like all dinners anywhere — eat, drink, go home. But there was the second surprise of that year: I was wrong.

Though I had my bat mitzvah when I was thirteen, I had never really self-identified as a Jew. Culturally Jewish, yes. My family celebrated the big holidays. My stepmother baked challah and my grandmother made gefilte fish from scratch every year. But my mother had converted to Judaism to marry my father, and even before they divorced she carried with her the traditions of her past. So I grew up with Santa Claus as well as the Haggadah, a jumbled set of beliefs and little understanding of what it meant to pick just one. No Shabbos there.

But when I began attending Shabbat dinners, listening to readings and singing prayers, I was struck by the sense of community surrounding the table. The tradition, the comfort, the gathering over food. It felt different to me. It felt good. Alongside friends, family, and even a former professors, I pulled apart challah, ate couscous and chicken, consuming squash soup, green salads and lots of wine. I felt moved by this community, these young people far from their childhood homes, making this tradition their own. And while I was there, surrounded by song and food and friends, my loneliness lifted. It felt like I was home.

One long year later, Matt returned safely to U.S. soil. When he decided to go to graduate school, we moved together to Boston, which is where I grew up. Matt isn’t Jewish, but here on Friday nights we’ve cobbled together rituals that feel right. This often involves going to my mother’s house for dinner. Together, we cook and eat, remembering the blessing of family and friends, of belief and safety, and most certainly of home. We’re lucky indeed.

This is a recipe for one of my mother’s favorite dishes, which she often uses to start off Friday night dinners in the summertime — tomato bruschetta. This past week we sat outside in her garden to eat this bruschetta alongside a plate of lemony grilled chicken, and fresh corn doused with salt, pepper, and olive oil before we twirled it on the grill. As the sun set, and the mosquitoes began to buzz around our ankles, we moved inside to eat fresh strawberries for dessert.

Tomato Bruschetta
Adapted from my Mom, Karen Roos

2 containers grape tomatoes, chopped
½ red onion, minced
2 medium cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch basil leaves, sliced

¼ cup olive oil
juice from one lemon
a big splash red wine vinegar
a smaller splash balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1 loaf ciabatta bread
olive oil

For the topping: In a medium bowl, mix together the chopped tomatoes, minced onion and garlic. Add the basil just before you serve.

For the dressing: Using a large measuring cup (my mother likes to use a 2-cup Pyrex glass measuring cup) pour in ¼ cup olive oil. Add the lemon juice. Add the red wine vinegar until the total volume of the dressing comes to just below ½ cup. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisk (or stir vigorously with a fork) until smooth. Pour over the topping, and stir to mix.

Now, light the grill. While it’s heating, cut the ciabatta in half horizontally. Brush the exposed sides with a healthy amount of olive oil. When the grill is a good medium-hot, place the bread, cut-side down, onto the grill and toast until golden, with a few crusty black grill-marks throughout. Turn over and grill the backside as well. Keep a careful watch; you don’t want it to totally burn.

Off the heat, sprinkle the bread with salt and pepper. Cut into slices easy to handle. For each serving, pile a few spoonfuls of the tomato topping on top of the hot, grilled bread. Enjoy.

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