Excerpted from Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum 2011)
There is a very funny scene in the 1983 Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life in which a man and a woman enter a restaurant and are handed menus that offer them not choices of food, but choices of possible conversational topics instead. As they gaze doubtfully at their menus, their pushy waiter harangues them, urging them to discuss various schools of philosophy. As they are offered ever more preposterous choices (Schopenhauer! The meaning of life!), the couple grows more and more uncomfortable, with less and less to say to one another.
I find that in many cases, trying to jump-start a good conversation is like that scene. Conversations either "click" or they don't. What makes for a good conversation is elusive: the product of everyone's individual moods and temperaments at a given moment.
Conversations either click or they don't.
Years ago, when my husband and I were first married, we received a striking lesson in how capricious good conversation can be. We had been introduced to a pleasant-seeming couple, and they generously invited us for Shabbat dinner. The entire evening was spent making small talk, and the atmosphere throughout was bland, even boring.
As soon as we left their house, the sky opened up and the biggest downpour I'd ever seen drenched us to the skin. Our host ran out after us and invited us to sleep over. We gratefully accepted his offer. The next morning, we joined our hosts for breakfast, and started chatting. And chatting and chatting. The conversation was so great, we never stopped! We went with them to shul, and chatted with them for hours during Kiddush afterwards. We had the greatest time.
Walking back to our apartment the next afternoon, my husband and I commented that our hosts (and maybe we, too) had obviously been tired from work on Friday evening, and that was why our conversation had been subdued. When we caught them refreshed on Saturday morning, we all hit it off beautifully. Today, nearly 10 years later, they remain two of our closest friends, and a lingering reminder that mere time and circumstance can almost randomly determine whether conversations are good or bad.
What if you're sitting around your Shabbat table and the conversation just is not flowing? We once invited over Shabbat guests who brought a cute hostess gift: a set of cards with conversational topics on each one, meant to stimulate discussions at the Shabbat table. I thought this was a great gift, but over the years, I've found it can be a little artificial-feeling to use (a bit like that Monty Python movie).
Yet when the conversation is stuck, it can help to play one of those ice-breaker games that some people use at work conferences or teachers sometimes assign on the first day of school. Each person takes turns answering a question, in an attempt to stimulate some more natural-feeling discussion. Here is a list of questions that I've seen used, first-hand, with great success. If you're looking for a way to spark a more interesting talk among your family or your guests, these questions can help.
• If you have time to plan ahead (and guests or family members who are willing to do the work), choose a section of that week's Torah portion, and ask each guest to read about it in a different book or website. There are so many books and Jewish websites geared toward children, it is easy for kids to be involved in this project, too. When you come together at the Shabbat table, take turns explaining what each person has learned about it, and what thoughts they have.
This doesn't have to be a big, heavy assignment. In fact, if you do a little planning, you can assemble a few books and print off some materials from websites. Give everyone a page to read, and 10 minutes to prepare before lunch or dinner, then once the meal begins – viola! – you'll all be parsha experts.
• The old Thanksgiving standby of going around the table and each person saying what they are thankful for often works to start a meaningful conversation. You can give this game a Jewish twist by trying a couple of variations: "What are you most thankful for about being Jewish?" Another, slightly heavier, version is: "What do you feel are the greatest blessings that God has given to you?"
Try the old Thanksgiving standby of having each person saying what they’re grateful for.
Going around the table answering this can encourage people to be introspective for a moment, and can elevate the feeling at your Shabbat table, as you and your guests are encouraged to reflect on the central Jewish belief that God is intimately involved with each of our lives.
• Have each person say three things about themselves. Two of these statements have to be false, and one has to be true. Everybody else has to try and guess which is the false statement. People need to get creative with their “true” choices, to have it fit in well with the lie. You might have no problem telling other people you're a tax attorney (yawn to anyone but another tax attorney), but how many people do you confide in that you once won a wine-tasting tournament, fought off a mugger in Japan, or were offered a job in corporate espionage?
• Go around the table and ask people what has inspired them most, Jewishly. People often credit relatives (especially grandparents), books, classes in college, or meetings with charismatic rabbis or rebbetzins as sources of Jewish inspiration. This question is simple, but it can spark some great conversations because it is so open-ended and personal.
• Another option to introduce Torah learning to your Shabbat meals is to examine a classic Jewish text, such as "Pirkei Avot" or a familiar story from the Bible. If your crowd already has a high level of Jewish literacy, you might even want to tackle something more advanced, such as a section of the Talmud. This whole process might sound very serious, but all it takes is a few minutes, and can become really engrossing when people get engaged. Plus, if you tackle a short section each week, in time you can progress through entire Jewish books, and gain a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Special Shabbos Talk
At your Shabbat table, try to establish a few "ground rules." In order to set this day apart from the ordinary work week, and to inspire it with some extra holiness, it helps to be mindful of what makes Shabbat special. Here are seven rules to try to follow when talking on Shabbat. See how many of them you can keep in the course of one day.
(1) No Loshon Hara (literally, "negative speech"). Do not gossip!
(2) See if you can avoid talking about work on Shabbat.
(3) Try not to talk about money on Shabbat.
(4) Attempt to include at least one "Torah" thought at each meal. (Keep some Jewish books handy to inspire you.)
(5) If you find yourself slipping, try to elevate the situation. A complaint-fest can be turned into a brainstorm about what is positive in your life; if you find yourself ranting about something, try to reframe it in your mind in a more positive way. ("My boss is so demanding" can be turned into "But at least I'm lucky enough to have a job I enjoy.”)
(6) Shabbat gives us an opportunity to remember that God is near to us. Use Shabbat to turn to Him, to speak with God, and to try to act in such a way that reflects our closeness with Him.
(7) Make an effort to listen to other people. Ask their views and really listen to their concerns.
How can you ensure that conversations will be sparkling around your Shabbat table? One secret is to invite guests. Families are often on their best behavior when there are guests present; it often prevents people from lapsing into old arguments or slinking off the second they finish eating.
Another secret my husband and I have discovered over the years is to cultivate "buffer guests." These are people who can talk to anyone; once one of our "buffer guests" (who didn't know that's how we regarded her) boasted to us that she and her husband could "talk to a wall." Indeed; that's why we invited them. Some people are sparkling conversationalists under every circumstance. Get to know them, and invite them often.
Among your ordinary (non-buffer) guests, try to think creatively about what they'll bring out in each other. I remember one surprising Shabbat dinner when we invited my parents, along with another couple their age whom we barely knew. As soon as the other couple walked through my door, I started panicking about the evening ahead. My dad's pretty traditional, and this other guy sported a pony tail. Then he mentioned some political views that were the exact opposite of my father's. Help!
His political views were the exact opposite of my father's.
Yet it turned out to be the biggest hit: my father and our other guest had grown up near each other, and they stayed at our house late into the night, reminiscing about what the North Side of Chicago used to be like, telling stories about the good old days, and trading anecdotes about colorful events and personalities from their childhoods. It was one of the most fun Shabbat dinners we'd ever had; I've never learned so much about Chicago history, and I've rarely seen my father so animated. (And I was reminded, once again, that people are complex and sometimes bring out surprising qualities in each other.)
Finally, if all else fails and the conversation at your Shabbat table remains listless, you can try to ask a few slightly controversial questions. You don't want to go overboard and ignite a shouting match. (For this reason, avoid politics.) But you might ask your guests to go around the table and each say a few words about what they think regarding issues on which people have a wide range of opinions:
(1) Have you ever personally seen a miracle?
(2) What do you think God expects or wants from you?
(3) What does it mean to be a “good Jew”?
(4) What do you think is the greatest accomplishment of the State of Israel?
(5) What do you think is the greatest threat to the Jewish people today?
(6) What can we do to safeguard Jewish continuity?
(7) Who do you think is the greatest Jewish figure alive today?
(8) Who do you think has been the greatest figure in Jewish history?
(9) What is the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora?
(10) When faced with need and want, should we help our fellow Jews first?
If you think you can ask these or other contentious questions without sparking World War III, go for it. They'll at least get people talking.