When I discovered Knives and Napkins

Some of you may not agree with the following observation, but having been to yeshiva and having friends who roam the yeshiva circles for 10 years now I can tell you that it is an unspoken rule that the tableside mannerisms of guys who went to yeshiva are way different then of those from regular old modern orthodox and secular back rounds. One can make the argument that these yeshiva mannerisms or lack of manners when it comes to food can be made as a generalization across the board in any community billing itself as charedi, black hat or penguin.

I remember the first time someone told me to take my elbows off the table, I gave her this shocked rather quizzical look as if she had just told me she was present in Roswell when they dissected the aliens that landed at area 51. I was brought up in a home of half naked men eating salad with their hands, so I was totally distraught at the fact I would have to eat my soup with one hand neatly gripping the spoon and the other playing with my napkin that was forcibly out in my lap by a raving mother who could not believe the lack of manners that kids displayed these days.

When I got to yeshiva for high school I was not shocked at the lack of manners, I actually felt right at home, except for the fact that Friday night dinners were no longer the usual make Kiddush, get into our underwear, whip out the Jewish press and then rant about how the liberals were destroying the country that week. It was almost as good, instead we could eat chicken wings and make piles of them on the white plastic table cloths, sing fake nigunim made from Metallica songs and talk about all our BS sexual escapades.

After high school is when I discovered the unique utensil called the knife, prior to graduating high school the only time I had ever used a knife was to carve my name into picnic tables and fillet a fish. As far as I was concerned knives had no place at the dinner table, unless you needed to spread some sort of butter or margarine.

The discovery didn’t come as such a shock, it was more of the discovery that I was expected to stop using my left hand as a knife and actually scrape my plate with this long and awkward utensil. I was told to stop using my fingers as a knife, because it was rude. Then things kicked into high gear, I started eating out at places that were not owned by folks who learned in kollel for their jobs and therefore hadn’t had time to use knives and napkins, those things were simply a nuisance when you trying to funnel cholent and kugel as fast as possible down your gullet so you could get a shabbos shluff.

Slowly I became refined up to the point that I could tell you what each utensil was for, I never made it up to the difference between a wine and champagne cup stage- for I am not in that socioeconomic class as of yet, but I have graduated to the point where I, who was the human steam shovel when it came to food and had absolutely no manners whatsoever can actually sit down at a meal and judge other people for my past habits.

For instance I can tell a yeshiva guy from a mile away based on an untouched napkin and a clean knife. These pieces of evidence are most often seen at weddings, in fact, I feel that separate seating was instituted more as a shalom bayis issue, since the ladies didn’t want to be the topic of gossip as the women discussed how poor their table manners were. Imagine a graceful woman sitting next to some guy not stopping at anything plowing down plate after plate of the salmon with dill sauce, and then having the nerve to ask his neighbors if they are going to eat theirs. This is exactly what I do at weddings, I always wait a few minutes and then go around the table asking anyone for extras, it’s a great way to chop some free food.

Unfortunately I am not through with my refinement, for I just started to attempt to put on the reverse thrusters prior to diving into a meal, of course this has not worked to slow me down and when faced with a buffet I appear as if I was just living in a cardboard box for months and this is the first food I have seen that was not thrown in a dumpster for a long time. Eventually I may become so inclined as to tell you the difference between all the glasses placed at uppity events where the hosts read magazines like Atlantic and Gourmet, but until then I will be drinking my water from bottles and eating with my mouth open, thank you very much.