Pineapple upside-down cake may no longer be the rave, but good manners never go out of style. Accordingly, with the High Holidays approaching, the time is ripe to review some etiquette. So whether you plan on sending or accepting an invitation this season, there is no need to stress — certain guides have you covered.
In fact, achieving an optimal experience on either side of the hospitality divide is no more difficult than reviewing suggestions from luminaries like the Emily Post Institute, Dr. Seuss and the Talmud.
In a passage titled “holiday houseguest manners,” the former suggests being considerate, complimentary and a willing participant.
“As a guest, it’s your job to put all your positive qualities on display: enthusiasm, congeniality, consideration and thoughtfulness,” advise the keepers of the Emily Post legacy. “This goes double at the holidays.”
Such actions go a long way, explained Michelle Goldwasser, who for the past three years has organized a hospitality Shabbat for Congregation Poale Zedeck.
Even before Goldwasser began matching pairs based on interests and potential conversations, she grew up in a household where her parents regularly hosted guests throughout the year.
Most experiences were positive, recalled the former Teaneck, N.J. resident, but certain incidents were beyond bizarre.
“There once was an older guy staying at my parents’ house,” said Goldwasser. “He was probably around 100, and at one point he decided to sit on the floor of the basement with his arms crossed, and refused to leave.”
The guest, who normally resided in Brooklyn, N.Y., enjoyed the quieter suburban surroundings and resolved to stay indefinitely.
“Only when his daughters came and pulled him out did he finally leave,” said Goldwasser.
There were other occurrences — like the time Goldwasser’s family went away and left the house to guests only to return home and find it trashed — but nothing measured up to one miserable blizzard.
“An out-of-town family had come to stay with my parents,” she said. “They were intending on being there from Friday evening until Sunday morning, but the weather had other plans, as a massive snowstorm made it virtually impossible to leave.
“So being the host my mother is, she was in the kitchen constantly cooking for these people, while my father was outside constantly shoveling, trying to clear a path through the driveway,” she continued. Given the conditions, Sunday turned into Monday and Monday into Tuesday. The snow did not let up and neither did the stress inside.
“At one point, after my mother was exhausted from having cooked and fed this family for days without break, she retired to her room to collapse on the bed,” said Goldwasser. A few minutes passed, the door opened and in walked one of the adult guests, who “laid down on my parents’ bed and began watching T.V. ”
There are certain lessons to be gleaned from that and other childhood experiences, Goldwasser explained, such as “trying to be considerate of your hosts.”
“When people come to you as a guest to eat or sleep, a little help goes a long way,” echoed Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill and a regular host on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays.
This Rosh Hashanah, Altein expects to welcome approximately 35 guests each meal. It is a slightly higher number than the 20 or so people she and her husband typically have on a regular Shabbat.
Altein has developed a tactic for achieving the most out of the holiday.
“Keep it simple, but tasty,” she said of the menu. “Your guests will be just as happy, and you will be a lot calmer.”
Along those lines, maintain clear communication, added Goldwasser.
“As far as being a host for meals, find out if the guest has a preference for certain things, or if they have an allergy to certain items, before you start making all of the food,” she said.
It is when communication breaks down, and respect for the either side fails, that situations go awry, as in the case of “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose” (1948), who finds himself taken advantage of by a bevy of creatures seeking refuge in his horns. The Dr. Seuss classic tale of hospitality gone wrong is a must-read in the few minutes of calm that can be had amidst Rosh Hashanah preparations.
Still, the easiest thing is just to “be a mensch and do what you can to make the other person feel comfortable,” said Altein.
Or, as Hillel the Elder eloquently stated 2,000 years ago: “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to another.” PJC