Letters, newspapers, books have no place at a dinner table. Reading at table is allowable at breakfast and when eating alone, but a man and his wife should no more read at lunch or dinner before each other or their children than they should allow their children to read before them.
Emily Post, Everyday Manners at Home
However I remember that we always read at the dinner table, whether or not there were any guests present.
Stephen Hawking interview
Growing up, we had informal meals during the week and very formal meals for the Orthodox Jewish Shabbos starting with Friday dinner after synagogue services, which included my father’s persistent initiation of fervent Jewish songs we were all supposed to sing, thereby reminding my parents of their former lives in Eastern Europe.
The family custom dating back well before the Holocaust, was to invite strangers in town who were in shul services or single people with no families to our Shabbos meals. We tended to have two regulars, Mr. Bieber, a rumpled elderly gentleman who didn’t talk at all, smelled bad and ate ravenously with no manners. The other was a single man around thirty with an oddly shaped head, quite flat in the back and balding, who was a psychologist. I was an adolescent at the time, and he took special delight in tormenting me by constantly commenting on everything I said and did with. “I wonder what Freud would have said about that,” especially following any communication with my father. I blushed my way through the meals, developed stomach aches, and excused myself early. I got his incest references and hated him. Still, his lone puppy act with my father always got him invited back. My parents were completely oblivious to Freud and were clueless about the subtext of our meals and felt sorry for him.
When there were no guests, I mostly read at the table, to escape family discussion and singing. We were pretty much a family in our own worlds. Or, rather, my parents were in their own post-Holocaust trauma worlds throwing themselves into the goings-on of the Orthodox Jewish community around them while we kids had to row hard not to get sucked into the current.
I’ll never forget the time my father came home from shul with a story from one of his concentration camp comrades he conversed with between prayers, one of the most solid citizens and wealthy but generous philanthropists in the community who was also from Poland and had also done time in Auschwitz. I tried not to pay attention. I sensed another horror story about to engulf me. But I distinctly remember trying to concentrate on my mother’s delicious chicken soup I was spooning rapidly as my father described the man’s experience of yet another episode of Nazis killing Jews and this time the Jews taking revenge by somehow managing to get hold of one of the Nazi’s small children and literally ripping him apart.
“It wasn’t right, but you can understand,” said my father.
I would like to say that story sent me reeling and nauseated from the table but no, I kept shoveling my soup without missing a beat and reading the TIME magazine folded next to my plate.
Reading was my main escape growing up, despite my parents constantly telling me to stop reading at the table. I’d zip through TIME magazine at Friday night dinners and read my novels at lunch. Whenever possible, I’d feign illness to get out of morning services to read. I’d do the same thing in school during my half-day Torah classes in a Jewish parochial school, a yeshiva, which means sitting and learning Torah. I would prop my Torah text on the desk and the novel open on my lap and pretend to have my nose in the Torah while immersed in the novels instead, blocking as much religious brainwashing as possible. I was frequently caught, the books temporarily confiscated, but it didn’t faze me. The pull of atheism and secularity in my claustrophobic world of religiosity and the Holocaust was too strong. I had to confirm to myself that there were other good people out there with different beliefs. Not everyone who wasn’t Jewish was an anti-Semite. I couldn’t live in a world like that. Reading was my lifeline.
The only time I didn’t read at the Shabbos table was when we had friends over for the weekend. The friends had to be very funny, so that, instead of reading, we could distract ourselves from my parents’ Holocaust aura of missing their lost families on Shabbos with endless jokes and laughter.
So when I had kids, there were no rules about reading at the table. We all read at the table and sometimes there was silence and sometimes we read aloud and sometimes we all ate at different times. From the time they were little and immersed in their complete collections of Garfield comics and Tin-Tin through Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Kurt Vonnegut, we adults browsed Scientific American and The New Yorker, all sharing aloud delightful passages and wordplays. We were a family of rude readers and funny, cynical but minimal conversationalists, though when we talked we talked really fast so we could get back to reading as soon as possible.
It was no accident, then, that all of us were excellent writers, friendly when necessary, kind and wise, but not the most polite people in the world. And we were all very excited when we heard that Stephen Hawkings’ family did the same thing. Somehow, he had more credibility with us than Emily Post and my extended family.
published 5 October 2013