My kids once asked me if I knew what my own first word was, when I was a baby. And I had to tell them that it was “Amen.”
They were a little abashed. What a holy, prayerful child I must have been! But it wasn’t like that. My family always prayed before we ate, and since “amen” came right before the food, I thought it meant “Let’s eat.”
“AMEN! AMEN!” I would apparently holler like a pudgy little zealot, banging my spoon on the high chair tray like one hungering for the word of God, but actually just hungry.
The prayer we said before we got to “Amen” was a sort of all-purpose Hebrew prayer of blessing before a meal: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro. “Blessed art thou, o Lord our God, king of the universe, by whose word all things exist.”
I have taught this prayer to my children, and this is the one we usually say before we eat at our house. It is very likely that, according to Jewish tradition, this is the wrong prayer to pray for most meals we eat (there are various prayers for different kinds of food), but as my kids tell their friends, we are only Jew-ish anyway, so we’re doing the best we can. I like it because it covers the bases: It acknowledges the majesty of God over everything that exists, including myself, and my family, and this plate of rigatoni or whatever. Amen, let’s eat.
And yes, we pray this prayer even when there are guests over. We give them a little warning that we’re going to pray in Hebrew, and they’re welcome to bow their heads if they’d like. Occasionally it has led to some interesting conversations about our heritage or about our faith.
And yes, we pray this prayer even when we’re eating out in public. I have always encouraged my kids to pray before they eat no matter where they are. I think it’s important.
They don’t have to make a big show of it. There is a fine line between being a witness and being a weirdo. To illustrate… Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.