Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

In 1967, the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” also starring Sydney Poitier and Katherine Houghton, addressed the difficult subject of race relations in America that sometimes led to love and marriage. The movie was groundbreaking as it was reflective of a quintessential American custom. Dinner around the table in one’s home tells much about the hosts and their guests.

The table has historic roots that begin in Judaism. The sacred altar was a place where the “showbread” was served. The bread represented substance and bounty. Following the days of sacrifice and a Temple altar, the Shabbat table at home became the “small sanctuary” where the bread was set. Two challahs on Shabbat, like the double portion of manna provided the Israelites before the seventh day, was the beginning of a proper table also set with white linen, candles, and wine. There the prayers were made to sanctify the Sabbath and to bring blessings to the household.

Jewish and non-Jewish homes, alike, consider the family table, especially in a formal dining room, to be the place where significant customs are on display. Traditionally, parents sit at either end joined by children, relatives, and guests. Where one sits might be a sign of one’s importance or relationship. And one’s best manners are always on display. The conversation typically proceeds with courtesy but also engagement on topics of the day. Before anyone would breach boundaries of decorum, temperaments would be contained with respect for the head of the household.

The guests at the table tell us much about the head of the household, too. A co-worker, neighbor, friend of the family, or even a total stranger might be welcome to join the family table. But a person of ill-repute would reflect poorly on the household. Opening the door and offering a chair at the table to people who stand against reasonable social norms, ethics, and morals would raise questions and create embarrassment and concern for the household and everyone who attended the meal.

Who doesn’t check a guest list twice? Who doesn’t put out their best dishes or at least their best effort when they welcome others to their table? Who doesn’t take pride in the table they set for guests to enjoy? Most people do and many others try.

The Tracy-Hepburn movie was a pivotal movie. It was groundbreaking in its ability to raise an issue for Americans to confront at their own dinner tables. The producers prompted the question they hoped would be asked at many tables as the nation wrestled, grew, and moved through difficult but important times. If asked and answered, families and communities would grow in understanding, and a nation would find common ground with people who shared values, ethics, and outlooks, rather than skin color and narrow beliefs. The real America, it was discovered, was greater than racism, bigotry, and antisemitism.  

Thanksgiving is behind us. Perhaps your dinner table reflected the very best your family has known and extends to others who joined you. I trust it wasn’t just a place for contentious debate or contrary opinions about America’s unifying hopes. As the winter holidays near, there’s still plenty of time to open your doors and invite to your tables those who meet your highest expectations for the greetings we wish each other especially at this season, like “Peace on earth,” “Goodwill to all people,” “Happy Chanukah to my Jewish friends,” “Merry Christmas to my Christian friends,” and “Happy Holidays to all.”

What will your table “say” about you this season? May your table always be a sacred place to honor the blessings you have received and wish to share with others who join you there.   


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? 3