Be My Guest. Always.

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Photo by Leba Dinovitz

Some people love to host. Some people love to be guests. I don’t think that anyone wants to stand on the receiving line for the rest of their lives. I think that there are times in our lives when we take and times in our lives when we give. But hosting and guesting can become somewhat tricky.

When I was a young girl and becoming frum, my house was not kosher on Shabbos in many ways. Once I knew how much kedusha could be felt on this holy day, my apartment started feeling so foreign. The TV was on, the phone was spoken on, the lights were turned on and off. There was nothing to eat, unless I was interested in having a can of tuna or some cereal. And so, every Shabbos, I would trek out for the 25- minute walk to the Reich’s*. The Reich family welcomed me with open arms, and there were always enough sisters there to talk to and to spend Shabbos with. Napping was for amateurs. We were the real deal. We sang, learned, and went to visit the Jewish residents of the nursing home.

I loved sitting around the table on Shabbos, but I always felt a little tug in the back of my mind. Was I too much for them? Did they want just family? Was I infringing? I would continue to have these nagging thoughts throughout my teens and into my 20s. They would catch me suddenly and make me feel like a beggar with an open hand. Without you, I would not have a Shabbos. You are giving me everything, and I have nothing to give you back. And even bringing over the most beautiful bouquet of flowers would never be enough to make me feel better.

When I got married, things really did turn around. We lived near my husband’s yeshiva and had bachurim and kollel couples over constantly. I turned into a chef overnight, and my small apartment was almost always open to anyone who needed a meal. I have to admit, I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to have company. The shopping, the cooking (my least favorite job), the setting of the table, the washing of the dishes.

I remember when I was a new mother, and there was a three-day yontiv coming up. It was looming ahead of me, and it felt like it was just too much. Six meals to prepare for, a child who could not be put down for a minute, my full-time job which kept me away from all the prep for hours at a time. I put up the zucchini soup, which for some reason yielded much less than I had anticipated, and sat down on my bed. In the quiet of my apartment, I looked around me and started to cry. Why was this so hard? Why was I all alone? Why didn’t anyone invite me over for yontiv? I was too embarrassed to call my old friends’ families to get an invitation. I think people assumed that once a girl was married, she didn’t need the invitations any longer. As I wiped away my tears, I trudged on, and my yontiv turned out pretty well, compared to the mess that I had been on the erev of it.

A few years later, we bought a house. It was a huge blessing, and I was thrilled to have a guest room so people could sleep over for Shabbos and yontiv. Now, I thought, I could really become the giver. I could have my friends over. I could give back what I was given so many years ago. I bought beds and linen, snacks and drinks, and I cleaned up the room to perfection. I sat down on the couch, and with a heady smile upon my face, I called one of the Reich girls.

“Hey! Would you like to come for Shabbos this week?” I asked, keeping my voice casual, my back straight.

“Ummm. Thank you so much. I will get back to you,” she replied.

Hmmm. That didn’t sound too promising. Why didn’t she say yes right away like I always did upon her invitation?

Well, she never got back to me. When I called her on Thursday to remind her that I was still waiting, she casually said that she was having her sister-in-law over that week, and oh boy, she was so sorry that she had forgotten to call me back.

“Rain check!” she said cheerfully, as she hung up.

My heart broke. I had so badly wanted to have a friend over. I had so badly wanted to share everything with my guests. But somehow, it seemed so upside down. My friend didn’t need me to make her Shabbos a Shabbos. My friend had her own family and liked sleeping in her own bed. My friend said that it’s better if we come to her.

The bachurim and kollel couples had become a thing of the past once we moved into a new neighborhood. We made new friends, but it was always some sort of confusing game of chess having friends over for Shabbos meals. Pesach and Sukkos became long stretches of fend-for-yourself and stare-at-the-walls marathons. Shabbos was long. Shabbos was hard. Shabbos was lonely.

Finally, I had had enough. When my second child was born, I started inviting myself over to the Reich’s again. There was a small voice inside my head wondering the same things my teenaged-self had wondered, but I ignored it and went to be a guest once again.

It continued on like this for a while, until one day, in a moment of self-reflection, the dam broke. Why wouldn’t my friends accept my invitations? Why did I feel so pathetic asking them to come over for a Shabbos? Why did I feel so needy, even in my moment of giving?

“You never come to me for Shabbos. You think this is a one way street. I could never give back to you what you gave to me. It’s much easier to be a giver, isn’t it?! This way, you can choose to stop whenever you want.”  I held the phone tightly to my ear, arguing with my friend. The anger in me had boiled over into a life of disappointment. The fact that I didn’t have my own extended frum family hung over me like a ton of bricks. The fact that I was still the needy little girl who I had been so many years ago stung and hurt me to the point of insanity. Was I forever going to be a taker? Would I ever get a chance to give back?

The Reichs still invite me for Shabbos. But now, I am older and wiser, and I happen to like my bed very much. I’m not as overwhelmed as I used to be about making Shabbos and yontiv, and I have come to a point where I will reject an invitation once in a while. When I see a three-day yontiv on the horizon, I still get a little scared of being too lonely and working too hard, but I pick and choose to spend it where it will be best for my family. I have a twinge of an understanding of why people might prefer Shabbos plans that better suit their needs.

However, I still get hurt when someone rejects my invitation, and the Reichs still never come over. I have to accept the fact that I will never pay them back for all those wonderful Shabbosim. It’s sad, but I have learned to look at it like having a child. Giving birth and being a mother to my children is something that my children will never be able to give me back. It’s a gift that has been thrust into their hands with a “no returns accepted” stamped on it.

I have become a great guest to have, because now I bring the best gifts. Being a hostess has taught me what a hostess will need. I come with an understanding that this Shabbos or yontiv is a non-refundable gift. I take the gift, I appreciate it, and I choose to accept it.

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*Names and events have been changed.