Free Love and Communal Shabbat Dinners

When I lived in San Francisco, I didn’t have much going on in the way of hospitality — mainly because I had so much going on in the way of running to concerts and readings and bars and keeping myself sleep-deprived after hours.

robert altman crowd 60s

My one respite from the constant influx of alcohol and art was to throw Friday night Shabbat dinners. I could spend pages telling you about it, but I actually already wrote a book about it, so I’ll skip that part for now. At any rate, when I was out-cooked, around the time of the holidays, I used to go to the local rabbi’s house for Rosh Hashana dinner and Passover seders and stuff.

Always, without exception, there was a formidable crowd — a combination of local families stopping by, semi-detached 20somethings looking for a free and decent meal, and the odd traveler. One of those travelers, brought by a friend of his who owned a (fabulous) local bed and breakfast, Noe’s Nest, was Robert Altman. “Oh, wow!” I gushed. “Like the dude who made all those movies!”

“I am not,” he replied — gallantly, and especially so, considering that, on a later occasion, he would (good-naturedly) rant that everyone mixed them up, and his web site was ranked higher on Google.

Robert, it turned out, was a cameraman in his own right — and one of more than significant merits, having been the photo editor for Rolling Stone magazine for much of the Sixties. Through the meal, we sat next to each other, sticking out in both our career choices (him: photographer, me: robert altmanprofessional poet) and attire (him: black mock turtleneck; me: probably something 20 years old and paisley) and not exactly fitting in with the rest of the crowd, although fitting in in the way that we were all of us mismatched, all of us more-or-less haphazardly tossed into the melting pot that is a Chabad House.

Through the meal, he kept joking that he wasn’t really Jewish because he didn’t keep kosher and this was his first Rosh Hashana meal in years. I kept telling him back: if he hasn’t done any of that and he still remembers he’s Jewish, he’s doing better than most of us.

Posted on May 26, 2009

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