This piece was Rev. Samantha’s Thanksgiving reflection on November 19th, 2023. To watch a video of this reflection, scroll to the bottom of the page.
It takes several hours – and some blood, sweat, and tears – to prepare and cook the perfect pastelón: a signature dish in my family, also lovingly known as Puerto Rican kugel.
I’ll paraphrase the steps:
First, you fry the sofrito (the garlic, onion, pepper, etc.);
then you add the ground beef;
then you cut and place two layers of sweet plantains on a tray;
add some mozzarella cheese;
add the ground beef;
add some more spices;
and then you pop it into the oven to cook to the perfect temperature.
I remember years ago, my good church-going mother prepared this dish for the ladies’ club at my dad’s synagogue. My father was getting more involved in the temple, and my mom began attending with him. When she arrived at the ladies’ club potluck, the woman at the door named Barb welcomed her with open arms. My mother excitedly handed over her meat-cheese masterpiece. Barb thanked her profusely and then said, “I’m sorry, we can’t eat this. It’s not kosher.”
My mother, brokenhearted, responded, “But it’s really good.”
The next month, Mom, determined to get it right this time, decided to forget about bringing food – and just bring wine. You can imagine what happened next: at the door, she was greeted by that same friendly face saying, “Thank you, but we can’t drink this.”
My mother, now stunned, asked, “Wine has to be kosher too?”
Now, before you think any less of my amazing mother or the sacredness of kashrut, I imagine most of us here in this room have had our fair share of food faux pas.
We are an interfaith community after all; and I’ve heard some of your stories of Christmas ham clogging up the drain, burned brisket, oxidized gelt, Easter eggs getting stuck in the tailpipes of cars. That’s the beauty and messiness of family – especially interfaith families like ours.
Navigating food and table fellowship are not new struggles. Our biblical ancestors went through it too. Before there was the word “Christian,” there were Jesus-followers, who also identified as Jewish. These people were trying to discern if they should continue to keep kosher. Their decision would affect their ability to share meals with their literal Jewish siblings, as well as with their Jesus-following Gentile friends. It was a complicated turning point that left people wondering, “If we don’t agree on the same food laws, can we have a place at the same table?”
The struggles over meals were only a piece of a larger crisis. These interfaith loved ones were trying to figure out if and how they could do life together. Could they worship and live side-by-side across lines of difference? Their pain and worry were real. And there was no such place like IFFP for them to go.
I know many of us are feeling especially worried about our own tables this week. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many of us will soon welcome in (or travel to see) relatives and friends – some with whom we get along in every way, and some with whom we have deep disagreements. And with the world as fraught as it is, this may be the first year that some of us feel uncertain about where the dinner conversations could lead – or how we can gracefully change the subject.
Last Friday, our IFFP Board Chair, Jennifer Loukissas, was kind enough to offer us some valuable tips on how to navigate potentially difficult ‘table talk.’ Things like: remember to breathe, step away when needed, have a trusted wingman, and thank someone for their perspective – even if it differs from your own.
Our biblical ancestors could have used tips like these when navigating their own tables. Instead, they got a man named Paul.
Paul felt this table dilemma acutely. He too was one of those early Jesus-followers, who also identified as Jewish. His writings would eventually become foundational to Christian thought. He ultimately didn’t think Jesus-followers needed to keep kosher – but – he did not want that to undermine the kosher values his Jewish siblings held dear.
“Everything is indeed clean,” he writes, “but it is wrong to make someone stumble by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.” (Romans 14:20b-21)
This is profound. Paul has the power to say, “Go ahead, separate the tables! It’s too hard to move forward as a diverse community.” Instead, he says, “Push the tables together. Add some more chairs, even. Choose unity, choose fellowship, choose love. Put your individual needs aside to help each other never stumble.” Sometimes referred to as ‘the Original Vegetarian,’ here Paul insists, “It is better for us to steer clear of serving meat entirely than let a little pastelón divide us.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know it is easier to separate our tables. People do it all the time. We cancel engagements. We cancel each other. We shut people up. We shut people out.
But if we soak Paul’s message in, if we soak the heart of this place we come to in, we know that we are a community of tables pushed together. We are people who have chosen to do life side-by-side while honoring our differences, leaning on our faith traditions, and embracing all the messy and beautiful things that come with it. What we have signed up for (or been born into) is filled with great challenges and possibilities, faux pas, and a whole lot of grace and gratitude.
In a time of deep division, we have the capacity to respect and make space at our tables – and beyond – for differing choices, and identities, beliefs, and perspectives. Instead of building higher walls, we can build longer tables,
where everyone has a chance to be seen and heard,
to recount stories and to listen,
to share food and to share laughter,
to connect through prayer and acts of kindness,
to access some of the healing and hope we so hunger for – we so need.
The truth is that the table has never been a place where we all must agree. It’s a place where we all must belong.
So, pull up a chair and invite each other to take a seat. We have plenty to share and plenty of work to do.