Psychologists have long linked practising family rituals to a variety of positive benefits in children, including reduced anxiety and increased emotional wellbeing, higher academic success, and a greater sense of identity. It’s like an anchor; an invisible umbilical cord that draws you to the people to whom you are connected by blood. A powerful force, beneath which lies layers of tradition and subtexts of history, which don't need to be spoken to be understood.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept Friday night free for Shabbat dinner with my somewhat-dysfunctional-but-utterly-lovable family. We’re Jewish, not religious, though we relish the culture and the food.
We start by saying prayers (in Hebrew) as we light candles to welcome the Sabbath, followed by prayers over the challah (a traditional plaited loaf) and the sacramental wine.
At the head of the table is my dad, Paul, a spiritually enlightened Jewish-Buddhist Esotericist and vegetarian (as well as an author, artist, graphic designer, violinist and professionally-trained opera singer who does an especially rousing rendition of If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof).
My dad espouses his spiritual philosophies to deafening opposition from my mother.
At the other end of the table is my mother, Tutti, our formidable matriarch. Effortlessly stylish and irrepressibly creative, her high-decibel speech is endearingly peppered with expletives.
Of course I’m there, and my one-year-old daughter and my English, barely-Catholic husband. Then there are guests; a diverse multicultural melting pot. There’s something particularly special about sharing our traditions with friends from other cultures and learning from each other.
My dad invariably spills wine on the tablecloth. Someone smashes a glass. Tiggy the dog lays her head on as many laps as possible in a desperate bid for treats, but has impossibly discerning tastes. My dad espouses his spiritual philosophies to deafening opposition from my mother. “For f*cks sake, darling,” she shrieks with all the indignation of a long-suffering wife. “You talk so much crap.”
It doesn't matter if there are five people at the table or ten. Tutti cooks for two dozen. “Better to have too much than too little,” is her usual refrain, as the heaving fridge creaks in agreement.
If there’s one thing I know about being Jewish, it's that life revolves around food. I’ve seen wedding buffets demolished by stampedes of hungry Jews: plates aloft, all elbows and serving spoons, with a one-track mind for the ruggelach.
Our table is not so different. No one stands on ceremony. First there’s challah and dips: hummus and babaganoush, gehakte (chopped) liver and gefilte fish. Then comes the lamb shoulder, maybe a whole salmon, various salads, crispy potatoes and baked pumpkin, a mountain of greens glistening with olive oil. Feeling full? There’s dessert, still. Eton mess, maybe. Dark chocolate cherry cake. Strawberries and cream. Tea. Chocolates. By the end of the night, you’re a Lindt ball away from spontaneously combusting. It’s glorious, happiness-inducing and the sense of belonging is palpable.
The beauty of family rituals is they’re personal, unique, and not necessarily dictated by religion. A quick sweep of my friends reveals a surprising diversity of experience.
“It's a tradition in many parts of Papua New Guinea to have hair cutting ceremonies, when a child has their first haircut. Everyone comes together and there’s a big feast afterwards,” says Konara Gena, originally from PNG. “It's a rite of passage. What I love about this tradition is that it celebrates the child's development and cements their importance to the family.”
It's a tradition in many parts of Papua New Guinea to have hair cutting ceremonies, when a child has their first haircut. Everyone comes together and there’s a big feast afterwards
For Jan Mikkelsen, the way of life in Norway formed the basis for family bonding. “I have relatives who are professional fishermen, and once, after 36 hours of travel from working in Hong Kong, I was taken out fishing straight from the airport. I was jet-lagged but I remember killing a cod I had just caught from the shore with a lure on Kåfjord, just a few hours after getting off the last plane,” he says. “My father and I used to go out on the lake fishing before school in the morning.”
“My family has always said grace before a meal and when we’re all sitting down, my son Samson puts out both hands so that my dad and his dad can hold them. Watching him squeeze his little eyes tight is very sweet,” says Rosie McKay. “It's a raucous affair as I’m one of four, from an Italian background. No topic is off-limits and there’s always a good drop of red wine to enjoy.”
As for Beck Cattermole, it’s all about the love of the game. “I go to the footy every week with my mum, dad and brother – we have reserved seats together. I love it, my original family still together, sharing what is a religion to us.”
For me, it’s the celebration of family and friends that means so much. Friday night is a time to unwind, reconnect, and only eat as much as you want.
Actually, that last one’s a lie.
The easiest way to enrage a Jewish mother is to refuse a second helping.