How many gaffes can a reformed conservative gal make at an orthodox rabbi’s Shabbat table?

My title sounds like the opening of a bad joke. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

It’s merely the start of my embarrassing behavior at the table of our new friends, a lovely Hasidic family who invited us to share Shabbat with them on a Friday night last month. My family and I arrived with the best bottle of kosher Cabernet I could find in this secular Pacific Northwest mecca. (I only went to five wine shops before giving up and hitting Total Wine, which had a whopping selection of three Kosher varietals, two of which were Concord grape versions of that sophisticated, sweet stuff we all grew up on.)

As we gathered around the table, the rabbi suggested the boys don their kippot, which of course their mother had forgotten to bring. Awkward. They were given kippot by the rabbi’s young twin sons and glared at me with humiliation as they placed them on their heads. Gaffe #1.

We couldn’t keep up with the breakneck-paced Hebrew as we sang the blessings and ushered in the Shabbat bride, but I doubt anyone at the table even noticed. We feasted on a delicious meal that mixed traditional Jewish fare with modern-gourmet, gluten-free Seattle cuisine. I was gently reprimanded several times as I attempted to clear plates and assist in the kitchen. As a good Jewish girl, this made me uncomfortable. I finally managed to collect some soup bowls and cart them into the kitchen without causing a scene.

I liked being in the kitchen with the women. It was almost as if I fit in somewhere – until the arrival of a beautiful dark-haired, exotic woman who was ushered into the kitchen and introduced as the rebbetzin’s health and diet coach. She came to “drink in” the spiritual nutrients of Shabbat, even though she wouldn’t actually ingest anything the rebbetzin had prepared. She was lively and spirited and I thought that we might actually become friends – until the conversation took an ugly turn. I’m not sure how we got there, but when the topic of autism came up. I had a bad feeling.

Health-guru gal began to harp on the evils of Western medicine and insisted that pediatricians were purposefully injecting autism-causing vaccines into babies for financial gain. I suggested that we not bring this conversation into the dining room, where my noble, opinionated pediatrician husband was sitting. All the women concurred. But our impassioned wellness coach grew more strident and vocal. I vowed to keep silent, though I have spent years examining this accusation, writing about it and even winning journalism awards.

Once she asserted that the money-grubbing pediatricians at the helm of this conspiracy were willfully harming innocent babies for money from vaccine companies, I could no longer remain mute. “I’m sorry,” I calmly announced. “That is simply not true.”

“It is true,” she countered. “I work with Robert DeNiro. And we go all over the world lecturing about this.”

I practiced restraint. After all, with Robert DeNiro – clearly a paragon of scientific wisdom and an intellectual giant to boot – commanding the opposing forces, I had little hope of convincing anyone that low-paid pediatricians do what they do for virtuous purposes that have nothing to do with profit.

I explained that my husband had been in private practice for decades and had lost thousands of non-reimbursable dollars immunizing his patients because it was simply the right thing to do. She continued to berate my husband and me. I excused myself and returned to the table.

The women rejoined the group and listened attentively as the rabbi shared an enlightening story about his 103-year-old grandmother. The exotic health guru chirped that her grandmother had also lived to be 103 years old. What a coincidence!

“Mazel tov,” I promptly replied, trying to mend fences and put the evening back on course. Everyone at the the table looked at me with odd expressions. There was a long moment of silence.

“She died last week,” the woman said. I shrank in my seat, horrified by my error. My family began to snicker. Then I, too, found myself giggling. If arguing in the kitchen was gaffe #2, this was pretty much gaffes #3, 4 and 5 – ones from which I doubted I could recover.

The rabbi adeptly guided the conversation out of the woods and the women slipped back into the kitchen. Only an artsy-looking blonde woman and I remained at the table with the men. During a lull in the conversation, I mentioned how beautiful her hair was and wondered if I might have the name of her stylist in Seattle. Again, a long moment of silence overtook the table. “It’s not mine,” she said. “It’s a wig.”

“Oh, of course it is,” I stammered. After all, I do know the custom of Judaism and shaitels. What was wrong with me?

We sang some niggunim and the rabbi invited us to say the post-meal blessing. I called my children to the table: “Boys, it’s time to bench.” The rabbi smiled and celebrated the fact that I actually knew what the Birkat Hamazon was and had used the English version of the Yiddish term “bentshn.”

Things couldn’t get worse, I thought – until the rabbi shared a poignant story about his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. As I looked past him at the portrait of the elderly black-hatted, bearded man hanging on the wall, I felt overwhelmed by the sense that I had seen this man’s image before. My husband Mark saw the wheels turning in my head and as I opened my mouth to ask about this portrait of the rabbi’s familial ancestor, my husband kicked me hard under the table. He shook his head at me with a look begging me to not speak. While this is not my custom, I took the cue and closed my mouth.

When we left, I said to Mark, “That was a portrait of Baal Shem Tov, wasn’t it?” He nodded. “Thank you for stopping me,” I gratefully acknowledged. Then we drove home, my husband and children desperately trying to stifle their laughter – to no avail.

So how many gaffes can a reformed conservative gal make at an orthodox rabbi’s Shabbat table before she never gets invited back? Only time will tell.

Debra Rich Gettleman is a mother, blogger, actor and playwright. For more of her work, visit

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