Monday, November 27, 2006

On Hosting

Several years ago, I partook in a meal of some sort - I think it was Shalosh Seudos - sponsored by a husband and wife observing a yahrzeit, I think of the wife's father or grandfather. I think I was in Baltimore, Los Angeles, or possibly Toronto, but I don't remember for sure. (If anybody can figure out from the following account where I was or who the family was, please tell me.) Anyway, during the meal, the sponsoring husband spoke about the man whose yahrzeit was being commemorated. He had apparently been a rabbi in eastern Europe - Lithuania, I think; not one of the really famous ones, but a talmid chacham and respected leader of his community nonetheless. I don't remember much of what the speaker said about him, but one thing stuck in my mind. The speaker related that this rabbi had advised his wife not to put herself out too much, or to pour enormous energy, into hosting the houseguests they periodically had. He explained that if she tried too hard to be an exemplary hostess, she would end up feeling that having guests was a burden, and would be less amenable to putting people up - i.e., fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. Better, he advised, to be more modest in her hospitality, but to be always willing to provide it, than to put such effort into it that she would burn herself out and sometimes - consciously or otherwise - avoid hosting altogether.

I felt then, and still feel now, that this was truly wise and excellent advice. I travel not infrequently, and I have often been faced with the task of finding myself a place to stay. On several occasions I have struggled mightily to land myself a host, despite having many contacts in my destination city. How much happier I would have been to hear, rather than a gentle refusal on account of logistical considerations, the following: "You're welcome to stay here, but I don't think we'll have any beds available. I can give you a pillow and a sleeping bag, and you can sleep on the floor;" or "You can definitely sleep here, but we're eating out, so you'll need to arrange for meals for yourself." How much easier and less stressful my life would have been at those moments!

Additionally, I do not think I am unusual in preferring to stay with people who are moderate in the efforts they put into hosting me. I feel more comfortable in a home where I am treated more like a member of the family than like a guest at a hotel, because I find the experience far more relaxed and authentic. Hosts who roll out the red carpet for their guests and "go the whole nine yards" often put (generally unintended) pressure on the objects of their hospitality to put equal effort into being exemplary guests - through frequent and elaborate expressions of gratitude, fastidiousness in not imposing upon their hosts an iota more than they already are, etc. I think it is fair to say that the more effort a guest senses his host is putting into hosting him, the more the guest feels his presence to be an imposition, and the less comfortable he will consequently feel in asking for anything more. The experience of being a guest in such circumstances is simply more awkward and stressful than it would otherwise be.

Unquestionably, this is all a matter of taste. There are certainly people who enjoy being hosted in fine style, and consider anything less to be skimping, or even a slight. On the whole, however, I think the aforementioned rabbi's advice was good counsel to every potential host and hostess.

Thanks to SW for encouraging me to write this piece specifically, and to write, generally.


Anonymous said...

Not that I have nearly the same number of experiences as you since travelling cross-country in a car is definately not my thing, but I can nevertheless wholeheartedly second the desire to just be given a minimal amount so that I do not feel like an imposition.

And it is good to see new posts on your site. It makes getting through boring classes a lot easier!

Btw...saw a comment on Hirhurim that my boy, Stephen Harper, might not last much longer. That would be a real shame.

DES said...

And it is good to see new posts on your site. It makes getting through boring classes a lot easier!

You could always check out the regular updates to "Sources Indicating That Chazal Did Not Possess Perfect Scientific Knowledge" (see upper left-hand side of blog).

The Stephen Harper bit is just my own pessimistic speculation. I'm afraid that Canadians will be too stupid to keep him.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. You touch on a point that relates to so much of life. Some people feel that everything they do, especially anything which puts them "on display" needs to be perfect. Maybe we should try to put others and their needs and feelings first. Kudos.

J. "יהוא בן יהושפט בן נמשי" Izrael said...

Once I was staying in Amsterdam (the one in the Netherlands, not Missouri) for a while, and I got an appartment that was about 2.5 times bigger than what I actually needed. I got to do a lot of hachnosas orchim, as everyone knew I had extra room, they selflessly relinquished their z'chus in my favor.

Once at maariv I spot a guy pointing at me, talking to these two Yerushalmim. We ate dinner sharing memories from 'ir hakodesh and discussing who's related to whom, how when and why etc.

It was raining hard, and the next morning I wake up to a strange and unidentifyable noise. I couldn't figure out whether a car was driving in my dining room or if the washing machine decided to award us a free concert and come upstairs. First I went to check on my daughter in the crib - so far everything OK. Then I go downstairs, I couldn't believe what I saw: it was literally raining from the ceiling! Torrents, mamesh pouring out of the ceiling! (We later foud out that it got so bad it went through all the apartments all through the ground floor, and screwed up everyone's walls, floors & carpets.) But the two Yerushalmim weren't too impressed; they sat at the table, coffee and cigarette, and when they see me coming down they go: "es regent eibik azey?" (does it always rain like that?)