Innovation? Nah… Tradition

Split families are all the rage in Jewish Bay Area, California. It’s rare to meet anyone who is “born and bred” San Francisco/Oakland. Most of our friends grew up somewhere else in the United States: Cherry Hill, Los Angeles, Baltimore. We’re the token South Africans, but we feel at home because we’re all transplants. The Golden State tempted us all west with the lure of exciting opportunity, entrepreneurship and innovation. The white sailboats decorating the blue of the beautiful Bay, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the enticing hilly streets of San Francisco are an exquisite added bonus for those of us who have chosen to make our home here – even with the swirling fog that forces us to wear fleece hoodies and Patagonia jackets in June and July.

But maintaining communiy without family is challenging for breakaway entrepreneurs. Extended generational families bring history, stability and tradition to Jewish life. Grandma makes challah every Shabbat, this uncle’s homemade chopped liver is at every holiday meal, the cousins always do a play on Channukah.

Growing up, my family would have Shabbat every week with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Every week. For the first 24 years of my life, that’s where I would be on a Friday night. The location would rotate between my grandmother, mother and aunt. Sometimes friends would join, but the core remained the same – Family. My father would sing the Kiddush in his distinct gravelly voice, the melody as cozy to me as my favorite sweatshirt. Nobody else ever said Kiddush. My brother and cousin would say Hamotzi – sometimes engaging in an irreverent competition to either be in sync or see who could finish first. We would look forward to a different desert at my aunt’s house (marshmallow pudding or youngberry tart), or to my grandmother’s minestrone soup (we never had minestrone soup at home: my mother – ambassador of raw, firm vegetables – hates tomatoes stewed, souped or sauced).

We loved being together – talking, laughing, gossiping, arguing. It got better as I got older and could actively participate in conversation – when I went away to college that family Shabbat tradition of familiar togetherness was something I craved and longed for. And then I abandoned it completely when I moved to San Francisco, joining the many other transient Bay Area Jews who left their families and traditions behind.

We’ve become each other’s families in our community across the Bay – we spend Shabbat and holidays together, we shlep each other’s kids, picking up essentials for this one at the butcher and that one at Costco. And we are the innovators of new traditions.

My family has recreated the Shabbat from my life in South Africa – some weeks it’s just the six of us, but most often we have parts of our Bay Area Family over. And we always use our Kiddush Fountain. Made from plated silver, with intricate patterns of vines and grapes, it’s beautiful to look at. The Kiddush cup stands on an elevated piece in the center of a tray, and eight little cups form a perfect circle around it – a tight ring of tiny mouths waiting to swallow the blessed grape juice that is poured through. The best part is that you can see the eight little rivers of grape juice flowing through the silver riverbeds and into the waiting cups. It’s Shabbat entertainment. We feel a tiny thrill of pleasure as the rivers flow, and the guests murmur “oooh.”

In this new iteration of Shabbat tradition, my oldest son says the Kiddush. He doesn’t sing it like my father does, but he has his own unassuming rhythm that has made it as comfortingly familiar as my dad’s. He pours the grape juice into the Kiddush Fountain, making sure the cups are perfectly aligned under each riverbed, or else the dark purple juice will miss the cup and pool onto the tray.


The Fountain is made in Israel but doesn’t come to us from there. It’s from the Judaica store at the Jewish senior home in Pretoria, South Africa, and my parents gave it to us on one of their many visits to California – they always feel they need to bring more than themselves.

Because my biological family is scattered over the Earth – parents, brother and in-laws in South Africa, brothers-in-law in Miami and London – when the grandparents or uncles come to visit, it’s an event! It’s not for three days, or just for Rosh Hashana, or the last days of Sukkot. It’s to make up for all the time since we had Shabbat together a year ago, the last time my mother made her chicken soup and we heard my father sing the Kiddush. In addition to the Jelly Babies and Woolies pajamas, gifts include challah covers, handpainted matza boxes, the perfect white Shabbat tablecloth.

Of course, we use all of it every Shabbat and holiday – that’s why they shlep it. We think of them, and we miss them, and we wish we were celebrating all together with our historic traditions. And sometimes they are with us on Rosh Hashana or Pesach, and they see how seamlessly their gifts of Judaica have been incorporated into our lives and are part of our creative new traditions.

Shabbat in the East Bay two weeks ago was a family fiesta – three families plus ours. Nine adults, and millions of kids of all ages. It was loud and festive, there were tacos and chicken soup, beer and guacamole, lemonade spilled on the carpet, and we finished a gigantic bottle of gin. We didn’t know it at the time, but we lost one of the tiny cups from the Kiddush Fountain. I’m pretty sure it was inadvertently thrown into the recycling.

No more fountain from the Fountain. No more flowing rivers. If we pour the grape juice through it now, one river will pool onto the tray in an unsightly, dismal purple puddle. So this past Shabbat, Daniel individually poured the Kiddush juice into each tiny cup… he doesn’t have the steadiest hand. There were no rivers and no “ooohs.”

Yet, we had a wonderful dinner. Instead of chicken soup and tacos we had brisket and kale salad. It would be easy to let our traditional sentimentality puddle in a stagnant pool of frustration over the dysfunctional Kiddush Fountain. But I prefer to harness the opportunity – we will find another way to use it. Daniel’s hand will get steadier as he gets older, his brothers will start to say Kiddush. Maybe we’ll find a replacement eighth cup on eBay or even in the shuk in Jerusalem. It’s possible we’ll lose even more cups, and at some point the tightly-knit ring of waiting mouths will be completely mismatched. Opportunity, innovation… tradition.

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