Breaking bread: dining with the Lightmans, a Jewish family in North London

For many Jewish people, Friday night dinner is the most important meal of the week. We join a North London family to find out why.

By Alex Mead
photographs by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi
Published 7 Feb 2018, 12:30 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 16:27 BST
Shabbat is considered a day of rest. And one element of Shabbat that binds most Jews ...

Shabbat is considered a day of rest. And one element of Shabbat that binds most Jews — even the non-observant — is Friday night dinner.

Photograph by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

"We're a tearing family, not a cutting one," says David Lightman, as he rips chunks from a round, spiralled loaf. The bread is challah: a long, chunky, braided loaf with an egg-to-flour ratio that must have the chickens working overtime to make their Friday order. It's also delicious, with an almost brioche-like sweetness but staunchly pillowy inside. You won't find much air in this bread; after all why lose the space when you can fit more delicious sweet dough into the gaps?

"How good is that challah," says David, reading my mind. "I think he must put crack cocaine in it because once you've had it from this one baker, then nothing else will do. We're totally addicted to this one."

Our host on this Friday night is a man of a, let's say, solid, stature, with a Dali-esque moustache twirled (or perhaps combed, I'm not sure quite how David's is done) to two fine points, framing a huge beaming smile that's almost cartoon-like in its friendliness. He dresses with a cartoon palette too — splashes of colour, dazzle and pattern all over his person. Once he starts talking, you know there's razzle to go with the dazzle too. With an ear adorned with a ring and shiny cuff, fluoro bands on the wrist and a head topped with a patchwork kippah, from the second you set eyes on him, you know David Lightman is quite the character.

The crack conversation is cut short when his wife, Kate, and youngest daughter, Noa (17) bring in the soup. Not just any soup; chicken soup.

"If you say Jewish food, the first thing that comes to mind is chicken soup," says David. "Mother's penicillin." "I think smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel," offers the couple's oldest daughter, Maya (23), before adding, "and then chicken soup." Noa, returning to the room, agrees on the salmon and cream cheese bagel front, before uttering what can only be blasphemy. "But I do think chicken soup is overrated." "Oh, don't say that," says David, before Noa continues, "I think salt beef, chicken, smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg and onion, hummus…" "I said one thing," says David. "Not the whole deli!" Kate joins in: "I would say hummus." "That's more Israeli than Jewish," reckons Maya.

The battle to define Jewish food rages on, with David ever more aghast at his daughters' collective lack of deep love for chicken soup. I'm firmly on his side. The soup is proper soup, not the sweet, creamy, milky-coloured stuff peppered with tiny flecks of chicken that many non-Jewish people grew up with. Made by boiling joints or whole chickens with vegetables and herbs, it's a chicken stock-based soup, where every mouthful tastes of chicken and not just the occasional one when you stumble across that tiny morsel of meat. 'Lokshen' — Yiddish for 'noodle' — in its various forms, accompanies most Jewish chicken soups, and Kate's is no exception, with threads of flat egg noodles bathing in those tasty waters, topped with crunchy croutons.

The dissing of the chicken soup hasn't yet abated, with eventually all three female family members declaring they'd actually prefer butternut squash soup. "So if we had a Friday night and mum said it was butternut squash soup, you'd be fine with that?" asks David. "I'd love it," says Maya. "We'd all be happy with that," agrees Kate. "Shame on the family," sighs David.

It's an admonishment that comes with warmth, and has been preceded by several blessings. Before dinner, beneath an inevitably offbeat screen print of that moustachioed bandit Burt Reynolds, Kate had begun Shabbat, the Sabbath, by lighting two candles, covering her eyes and saying a short blessing in Hebrew. With the candles lit, David — sitting at the head of the table — made the next blessings, first for each of the three children (the eldest, Nathan, is the only one missing), then for wine — after which a goblet of sweet, fruity, kosher wine is passed around the table — and finally for bread.

In case your Jewish knowledge is somewhat limited, Shabbat is considered a day of rest, beginning when the sun goes down on Friday and not coming to an end until the sun sets on Saturday. Between those hours, it's family time; downtime, where – depending on a family's level of observance — no work should be done, no cars driven and, for some, no electricity used. One element of Shabbat that does bind most Jews — even the non-observant — is Friday night dinner. And, like many things Jewish, it's all about the food.

Cooking for a community

Before the main course arrives, talk turns from soup to university. Noa is sussing out her options, and David is reminiscing about how he met Kate at the Jewish Society at Lancaster University. "I was part of the Jewish Society before I met you," explains Kate. "I wasn't Jewish but I came along because I had a bunch of friends there."

It was also at university that David — born and raised in north London — first faced any kind of anti-Jewish behaviour. "I had this wonderful ideal that uni would be all sitting on the grass and talking about philosophy, and I met some smart people, but I met some awful people too — people who defaced Jewish Society posters with swastikas."

David later became president of the Society, and his family encouraged Kate's interest in Judaism. "Even before we started dating, because we were friends, Kate would have Hebrew lessons from my dad," he says.

The chicken arrives. Like the soup, it's a mainstay of the Jewish Friday night dinner. "I actually do think chicken and roast potatoes," says Noa, referring back to our 'dishes that typify Jewish food' chat. The main event is joined on the table by crisp roasties, Israeli salad (chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions) and veggies. It's finished in no time, Kate hovering to offer seconds, dutifully accepted.

The Lightmans keep kosher. To perhaps risk oversimplifying, the rules of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) mean animals must have cloven hooves and chew cud — which disqualifies pigs — and must be killed in a certain way. Shellfish and certain fish are a no-no too.

"There are plenty of Jews in London who don't keep kosher," says David. "But as soon as you ask, 'Do you keep kosher?' you have to qualify it immediately. There are people who keep kosher at home, but not out; people who'll eat meats that are kosher by the type of animal, but not how it's killed. And some people define kosher as not eating pork or shellfish. People have their own ways. Look at the Shabbat: some people abide by certain rules, but not others. My view is that there must have been something that kept Jewish communities together for thousands of years because you don't see many Hittites walking down Golders Green high street do you?"

"What are Hittites?" asks Maya.

"They were Middle Eastern tribes in Biblical times," explains David. "I think kashrut is part of the thing that's bound Jewish people together, it's part of a balancing act. You also have to be part of the wider community.

"We have lots of non-Jewish friends whom we invite for Shabbat and they're hesitant at first," continues David. "But they always want to come back. It's what happens when your wife is as good a cook as Kate."

There's a reason I've found myself breaking bread with the Lightmans. After contacting their synagogue to see who could host, they were the first to call. "We joke that we must be on their speed dial," says David. "There will always be guests every Shabbat. We'll often have both tables end-to-end.

"Because the synagogue was so good to us, and because Kate converted to Judaism, we've always been very open when it comes to inviting people over. Whether it's those on the conversion course, or people who are new to the area, or anyone really — we can always squeeze someone in. I remember stories from my Hebrew classes as a child when they'd talk about people inviting strangers to dinner just because. I always thought that was so marvellous."

Dessert arrives, a huge bowl of fresh fruit, and a blackberry and apple tart, but conversation continues unabated. "My boyfriend is normally here on a Friday night too," says Maya. "He's not kosher or anything but he always does Friday nights."

And if you can't make a Friday night at home? "I usually have to tell dad about three months in advance, so he can mentally prepare for it and doesn't feel as if I'm leaving him forever," she laughs. "Then I get about two months' worth of grief afterwards, then we're fine."

Maya, like Noa, both clearly love Fridays, and for all the threats of a butternut squash soup revolt, I'm pretty sure they'd miss the Jewish 'penicillin' pretty quick.

"I like change," says David, "I change jobs, I change all sorts of things, but some things are anchors in life, and one of them is chicken soup on a Friday night."

Nobody at the table disagrees. It seems chicken is going to rule the roost for some time yet.

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