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In Charge at the Shabbos Table

Tzivia E. Adler

The system of tying “sitting next to Mommy or Tatty” to “serving and clearing up for Mommy and Tatty” taught my children that privilege is tied to responsibility, and while fighting over the right to the best seat didn’t go away entirely, it was dramatically reduced

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

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When you’re not quite old enough to cross all the streets on your own, informing a grown-up that you’re In Charge of them is irresistible

T wo children were great, three children were more than a handful — literally. If I held one child’s hand in each of mine, there was still someone left out. This turned into a similar problem on Shabbos: Who’s going to sit next to Mommy and Tatty? Someone was always left out, and since I couldn’t write anything down, the claims that, “I didn’t sit there last week,” grew louder and louder.

Make a list, I was advised. Sure, we have a list. Lots of lists. Whose turn it is, who traded a turn for permission to play with a toy, who fell asleep during their turn so it doesn’t count. Which list is most recent, and which important trades were left off the list? The list of excuses and complaints grew longer than any list of who sat where and when.

Finally, I decided to solve one problem with another problem at the Shabbos table. As my family grew, it just took too long for one person to haul everything from the kitchen counter to the dining room table, and then back out again at the end of each course. My neighbors, a young couple with one toddler, once left their curtains open on a spring Shabbos. I couldn’t help notice that the young wife served the gefilte fish, they ate, and she cleared — all in the time it took for me to bring out all of the fish dishes and dips and sit down. They finished their chicken soup before I finished clearing the fish.

On that momentous Shabbos, I didn’t clear the fish, at least not by myself. I informed the children that from now on, whoever sat near Mommy and Tatty was In Charge of their grown-up. Note: When speaking to children, it is important to intone In Charge in a suitably dramatic tone. Well, that set little ears perking right up. How could kids be In Charge of anything?

I explained that since they were all big kids, everyone would clear one serving dish from the middle of the table, their own dish, and also “their” grown-up’s dish. So the kid lucky enough to have a turn to sit next to Mommy would clear his own dish and Mommy’s dish, while the kid sitting next to Tatty would clear her own dish and Tatty’s dish. This seemed eminently fair, even to the people at my table who were amazingly talented at detecting a larger slice of kugel on someone else’s plate.

Right away, my junior lawyer asked, “What about when Grandma and Grandpa and their kids come over?” Before I could open my mouth, another child declared, “Grandma and Grandpa are grown-ups, but not all the kids are!”

After a quick argument, it was agreed that young aunts or uncles could clear their own dishes, but whoever had graduated high school was clearly a grown-up and should be waited on by the child In Charge of him or her. I stood with my mouth open as my children laid out rules for when they have classmates visiting for Shabbos, for when grown guests that no kid likes is visiting, for when cousins are visiting — being “In Charge” of someone else was just too glamorous to ignore, even when it meant more work.

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