Dinner Table: diverse group, a hearty meal

Last week I asked what you did on Tu B’Shevat. This week I’m asking: What did you do on Martin Luther King Day? I chose to attend Dallas Dinner Table, a deceptively casual-seeming event started quite a few years ago by some folks who thought that race relations could be improved if a small group of people would simply sit down, have a meal and talk together. The idea was to mix ages, sexes, races, religions and ethnicities around a dinner table, and maybe some learning and mutual understanding could be the result.
Well, nobody has yet been able to measure the success of that idea in mathematical terms. But those who’ve attended — myself included — endorse the idea as an eye-opener, and at least a potential mind-opener. And when open minds lead to understanding, maybe changes will follow.
The first Dinner Table I attended was a free-for-all: There was no agenda, just talk; the food was the icebreaker. Or maybe it was our hosts: two gay young men who shared a house, which was where we had our dinner. In the years since, I’ve gone to Dinner Tables in a church — an office building — a restaurant — a shop in a strip center — but mostly in other private homes. Whether the food is catered, home-cooked or “takeout” brought to another venue, it’s always the responsibility of those who host — the food is their contribution to the idea, and to its purpose.
This year, I was assigned to an unassuming-looking house on one of the Dallas “M” streets. (Side note: Yes, participants are assigned. Yes, this is well-intentioned, but not always successful. First I was assigned to the same church where I’d been last year, and when I asked if that was a good idea, the answer was my assignment to the home of a family I already knew! But three is indeed a charm, and my final assignment was very successful.) The hostess is an artist, and the house is full of her amazing works — many, in many media. She and her husband are also good cooks and bakers, so the meal — simple, as are all Dinner Table meals — was salad, homemade stews (meat and vegetarian options) and wonderful chocolate cake. This was their third Dinner Table; they have enough space to host two tables of attendees, and at evening’s end they promised to do it again next year.
The first Dinner Table I attended had no moderator. But many — if not most — things change with experience. There are now some guidelines and actual guides: Leaders bring icebreakers and question-and-answer “games” to get the conversational ball rolling. There’s a leader at every table, a role given in advance to individuals who choose it. You don’t have to be a professional of any kind to do this; everyone wanting to take part in this human relations adventure is asked to choose in advance between leading or just plain participating. (I always pick the latter.)
The surprise at my table of seven was that the person most peppered with questions about life experiences wasn’t Black, or Oriental, or Muslim or Jewish — it was a Christian Hispanic female who had the most interesting stories to share. Our white host was seated next to our black leader, a woman who kept us on point and on time: Dinner Tables take exactly three hours, ending promptly at nine.
A bonus for me, as the only Jew in this group, was that this year, Martin Luther King Day actually fell on the same day as Tu B’Shevat, so I was able to give my table-mates a bit of information on a holiday none of them had ever heard of before. And everyone agreed that planting trees is akin to planting ideas, which we all did plenty of that evening.
So I encourage you to consider Dallas Dinner Table as a way to observe a great American’s birthday. I assure you: The present will be yours.

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