Saturday, May 29, 2010

With Apologies to the Caterer

By Susan Esther Barnes

A few years ago Rabbi Lezak was trying to convince me to read “A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey” by Merle Feld, and I was trying to tell him I wasn’t interested in reading a feminist book and I certainly wasn’t interested in reading poetry. So he pulled his copy off the bookshelf and read me a no-nonsense poem from it called, “Mazel Tov!” I loved it; I bought the book.

The poem “Mazel Tov!” is the story of Feld at a wedding reception, telling the band leader to play traditional Jewish dance music when the bride and groom come in so the guests can lift the two of them on chairs and dance, a core tradition at Jewish weddings. But the caterer interrupts and says, for a variety of reasons, they can’t dance until after the soup. Feld says they’re going to dance anyway. The last line of the poem is, “And screw the caterer.”

I love the message this poem communicates about what is important. The meal is there to help the guests celebrate with the bride and groom. But nothing is more important than the main event, which is the wedding itself and the traditional dancing with the chairs, without which it just wouldn’t feel like a proper Jewish wedding. The food is secondary.

Still, I feel for the caterer. He or she is trying to make a living, and to some extent has a reputation riding on whether or not the soup is cold or the main course is overcooked. As anyone who has put together a Thanksgiving or Passover dinner can tell you, when serving an elaborate meal, timing is key and an unexpected glitch can throw everything off.

Of course, on this day, the happiness of the bride and groom is paramount. The rabbis even tell us that if a wedding party and a funeral procession arrive at the same intersection at the same time, the funeral procession should pause and allow the wedding party to pass first. I agree with all this, but I still wish the caterer didn’t have to feel screwed.

On Shabbat morning this week there were two girls having their bat mitzvah. Near the front door of the synagogue is a long table. The top of the table opens, and inside are hearing devices, nametags, kippot (or yarmulkes, the skullcap men, in particular, commonly wear in synagogue), and some other items. Before services this particular morning the tabletop was down, because the family of the bar mitzvah girls had provided their own baskets of kippot for the guests.

It was an overflow crowd, so the partition at the back of the sanctuary was open, allowing us to set up extra chairs, extending the congregation into the social hall. Generally when this happens I stand near the back of the extra chairs, handing out prayer books to late arrivals and answering their questions. This allows me to see pretty much everything going on, including the service itself, the congregants, and the activities of the caterer in the social hall, setting up for the lunch that follows the service.

Part way through the service, I saw the caterer and one of her helpers carrying trays with cups of wine for the kiddush toward the front door. I didn’t know why they would take the wine out there, instead of keeping it in the social hall, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Moments later, a man who had just arrived asked me if we had a yarmulke he could wear. I replied, “Of course,” and went to get one from the table by the front door. When I got there, I found that on top of the table were four trays, with a sign on one side saying, “wine,” and a sign on the other which read, “grape juice.”

“Oh,” I thought, "the caterer just put these here so guests who aren’t staying for lunch can still get kiddush wine (or juice) on the way out.” The problem was, the baskets of kippot from the bar mitzvah family were empty, and the synagogue’s kippot were all trapped inside the table under the trays of wine and juice. I couldn’t lift up the tabletop even a little bit to reach inside for one without risking everything sliding off the back and spilling all over the floor.

I looked around hopefully, but the other table near the front door was full of other items, including what looked like food covered in foil, so I couldn’t put the wine trays there. Years ago I worked for a restaurant company; I know one of the ten commandments of the food service industry is, “You shall never put food or drinks on the floor.” Just then, in my head I heard Rabbi Lezak’s voice saying, “Screw the caterer,” and I knew the importance of the man being able to wear a kippah outweighed the matter of a temporary displacement of the wine, so I began to move the trays onto the floor.

That’s when the caterer came around the corner. Imagine the look of horror on her face as she saw her carefully poured and artfully arranged trays of wine strewn about the floor where no consumable should ever be. I was so busted.

Immediately I apologized to her, and explained that I needed to get a kippah from inside the table. She said, “It’s a little late, isn’t it?” and I nodded, and mumbled, “Yes, well, he just got here, and he asked for one.” She lifted the last tray of wine from the table for me, and wisely suggested I grab several kippot instead of just one, and put the extras in the empty basket, in case anyone else needed one. I did as she recommended, and helped her return the trays to the table before apologizing again and bringing the kippah to the man who had so innocently asked for it.

This is a caterer who often serves at functions at the synagogue, and I was a little concerned she would be upset with me, but later on she asked me whether it was the first girl still reading from the torah or the second one, in order to help her with the timing of the last lunch items she was preparing. She didn’t seem angry, so I suppose she must have taken it all in stride.

And frankly, although I still love Merle Feld’s poem, this is as it should be. We must do our best to honor what is important about the day, and yet, whenever possible, it is still best to make an attempt not to screw the caterer.


  1. Being flexible and having common sense is most important. Sometimes a band can ruin a wedding by refusing to play enough Jewish music. I was at a wedding like that. The crowd wanted more than a 3 minute hora.

  2. Yes, I agree common sense is important. A band is hired to play what the bride and groom want to hear. Why in the world wouldn't they play more Jewish music if that is what the couple wants? Sounds like a great way not to get hired for the next wedding.

  3. nice post susan! love the poem, the dilemma *and* the solution. ultimately, the wedding day should be exactly how the people getting married want it. and surely they'd want their guests to be happy! i think you handled it perfectly! it is too bad you got busted though! :)

  4. I emailed a copy of the post to the caterer, and she said no apologies necessary and she's looking forward to seeing me this coming weekend as she's catering the next bar mitzvah too. So all's well that ends well.