Can Southern Jewish Hospitality Ever Go Too Far?

Wanting to share your favorite foods is great, but guilting people into eating them isn't

Welcome to our home! What can I get you to eat or drink? How about some sweet tea and some freshly baked cookies? And for dinner I have made for you my grandmother’s recipe of fried chicken, fried okra, biscuits and homemade apple pie for dessert.

This is the Southern hospitality we have all come to know and love. The South is known for our way of truly welcoming people and making them feel cared for and, of course, well-fed.

The Torah teaches us the value of welcoming the stranger early on when we learn about Abraham welcoming the strangers into his tent. They are given a place to rest, and chance to wash up, and, yes, food to eat—but nowhere does it say that Abraham stuffed his guests with rich foods to the point of them needing new robes because they were so full.

This need to show our hospitality through food is complicated. Have you ever tried saying “no thank you” to a Jewish mother who wanted you to eat? Just try it and let me know how it goes. Attempting to politely turn down food—even for legitimate personal reasons!—can inadvertently cause offense. It sets the guest and host up for a tough dynamic.

My team of itinerant Education Fellows, who travel all across the South, have encountered this unmatched hospitality time and time again. While it is the loveliest of gestures and my staff has enjoyed many delicious meals from the road, I wonder how hospitality has come to center around food – and what it can mean when food issues, from allergies to kashrut to vegetarianism, make feeding someone a more complicated prospect.

But how do you say no? After all, we realize how much effort and thought goes into making those delicious meals and we know that all of this is being done to make our experience a positive one. While the intentions are good from both the guest and host, often times the guest feels an obligation to eat foods that they don’t want to eat. Sometimes people even find themselves being teased for wanting to make healthy choices. In this instance, the feeling of being cared for fades quickly and is replaced with defensiveness and frustration.

We must find another way to show people that we are happy to see them and be with them in ways that don’t require them to compromise their own needs. Instead of us deciding what our guests should eat, perhaps we can ask them what they prefer. Maybe as hosts we can have a combination of both of our favorites. We may not get to showcase our grandmother’s recipes, but in the end we will make our guests feel welcomed and cared for, which is what hospitality is really about.

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