AL Andrew Leigh
DS Dovid Slavin
LS Laya Slavin
DS As we grow up the question is, do we remain big children and just scream for different things? Or do we start to think where am I needed? Not what do I need but where am I needed? What can I contribute?
AL My name is Andrew Leigh and welcome to the Good Life, a politics free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We'll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.
Born in New York in 1965, Rabbi Dovid Slavin came to Australia first to get married in 1991 and then to settle in 1992. He operates Our Big Kitchen. A massive kitchen operation in Bondi which distributes around 80,000 meals a year to the neediest Australians. He's also a chaplain in the New South Wales ambulance service. Works to find bone marrow matches for people recovering from leukaemia. Operates a school and a synagogue. He and his wife Laya have eight children and it’s a delight to welcome him to the Good Life podcast today.
DS Andrew, thank you for having me on the programme.
AL Dovid thank you for hosting me in Our Big Kitchen. So, the story of food in your family has a tragic start with the story of your uncle. Tell us about that.
DS True. Well, my mom she’ll be well and healthy still lives in New York, who was born in 1931 so I won't tell you her exact age because she'll be very upset. But still extremely, extremely with it. Is still traumatised. As an 11-year-old girl… The war breaks out when she's nine. Two years of running around being stateless, moving from Poland into Russia. And her youngest sibling, a little boy who could barely speak at two and a half, literally dies from hunger.
And they're on a train going from nowhere to nowhere. No idea where they're going or what's in store for them. They come to the capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, big city, where they go off to a medical centre. And in horrific circumstances the nurse looks at the boy who was wearing a very nice coat and said he won't need their coat anymore. That's the way she announced the death to them. The child was left. They received a docket. They went back onto the train and that was the last they heard of him.
And this all these years later is still something which is so raw, such raw pain. Feeling she should have done more. She could have done more. And why war and why hunger. But hunger became a very, very big issue. And she herself experienced a great deal of hunger. She carries food with her wherever she goes. And that's very, very central to her being.
AL So this experience of your mother as an 11-year-old girl must have shaped how she dealt with food in your childhood too, I imagine.
DS Very much so. So, you had to finish the meal. That was because there were people hungry elsewhere or because of the terrible lack that she experienced in growing up. Because there was a long, long time during her years where she was both homeless, stateless, and hungry.
AL You grew up in New York. Which part of New York?
DS I grew up in a place called Brooklyn, New York in a neighbourhood called Crown Heights. Crown Heights is a lovely neighbourhood. Was populated almost exclusively by survivors of the war and survivors of communism. So, when the war was over many Russian Jews had the opportunity for the first time since the advent of communism in 1917, this is now 1945, to get out as Polish citizens.
Because Russia allowed Poles to go back to Poland because they were now friends after the war because they had a common enemy much bigger than the Germans and the Nazis. Many Polish Jews lost family members, Russian Jews filled those empty places in the family and left which is what my dad did. So, when Russia and Germany initially invaded Poland. And this was talking about my being fed as a little boy, it was a bowl of porridge, there was a line made in the middle, that was the dividing line between the Russian and German side. And as I ate one side, this was all very, very connected to growing up.
But in real life when the Russians and Germans invaded and took back Poland, as they saw it Poland was the enemy, and Germany and Russia were allies. When Operation Barbarossa turned it on its head and they attacked Russia, Germany becomes the big enemy and Poland by default becomes the ally. When the war is over Russia, for the first time, since the end of the communism allows many people to leave en masse. Jewish people took that opportunity, particularly religious Jewish people took the opportunity to leave Russia and my dad leaves with that group.
AL Did you have a happy childhood growing up in Crown Heights?
DS Couldn't be happier.
AL And you then make the decision to come to Australia. And since we began talking, Laya has come in to enter the room. So maybe I can get the story from one or other of you as how you first met. You're both pointing at each other. I love this.
DS Well, I first came to Australia in 1988 with my dad for a wedding of my first cousin, a very dear friend, who's marrying a girl from Melbourne. And in the Jewish community, in the community we grew up, families are very, very involved in helping their children find suitable dates. This is not an arranged marriage. This is an arranged date. There's a big difference between them. But my dad comes with very strict instructions from my mom who always had the last word at home that not even to think about looking to anybody Australian because it's too far and it's not happening.
Well, as it happens on day one, the cousin with whom we were staying in Melbourne, who in fact set her brother up with his bride and wife to be says to my dad, he's got just the perfect girl. And he told her under no circumstances and that's about where that stayed. And then over months and years many people who knew us both constantly kept suggesting that we should go out. And eventually it happened, and we met. And at first, it was a little bit of an anti-climax because so many people thought this was perfect and Laya definitely didn't see where the similarities were. And I wasn't much better.
LS As you can see he enjoys history. And my version of history is whatever's happened in history they tried to destroy us, if anyone's tried to harm anyone else, if we've survived, if we’ve got through it let's eat. And that's my beginning, middle and end if it brings people together, brings people to do good. So, the first date was three hours explaining Winston Churchill, who he absolutely idolises. And I think I failed every part of history in school.
So that was the first date but really learning to know each other’s… Really getting to know the other person. And I don't think in my wildest dreams I would even imagined to be blessed with such a beautiful marriage. And someone that allows me to fly that I can do what I want, be what I want, and just fly. Just fly and just be able to help people which is really a dream of mine.
AL And what role does food play in your upbringing Laya?
LS Food plays everything. It's always the cornerstone. Every typical Jewish mother is always, in Yiddish it's ess mine kind, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, and you just grow up with that. The home was constantly open, especially with a lot of refugees of men, single men that had come out, could have left their families behind and lost everything. And they would always be at our table. They didn't always look the most presentable. Maybe they didn't smell the nicest, but the dignity that they were given and sitting right up at the head of the table and just to feel so special.
So that's really the upbringing that I grew up with. Every festival, every Shabbat, it was about the food and about people joining together. There was a real excitement. It was real family time. So, this is something that I had always wanted a very open home. And more than an open home, not just my home, but as we see something that morphed into a big kitchen that becomes a community home.
Because I really do, I just feel that warmth sitting around a family table. Why can't we have a community family table? Doesn't matter where you come from, doesn't matter what's your background, what you've done, it's where you're going to. And sitting around a table sharing food together, cooking together, preparing, helping people, there's an incredible warmth which I feel that we need so desperately in the world today.
AL So Our Big Kitchen operates an interesting space in the Australian social services world. Many organisations are in the business of food distribution to bring people in for a conversation. Other organisations are involved in food rescue and distributing food to those places. Now, what seems unique about Our Big Kitchen is the way in which the food production process becomes social. Where did the spark of that idea come from?
DS It started several years ago with Laya being a hairdresser. So, in the Jewish community, in the Orthodox Jewish community, women who marry wear a wig. And although you're not on TV here, you're just on a podcast, but even if you're on television you wouldn't know that Laya’s wearing a wig today. And she’s really good at it. So, Laya started by being a hairdresser. This was her first very creative and doing hairdressing.
That took her into different spaces whether it's theatre which wasn't very appealing and then women going through treatment. When somebody goes through treatment for cancer, health is number one, finance is a very close number two. And number three is the trauma of losing your hair. Another very big thing. And Laya found that when you could give somebody the dignity they see themselves differently. And they're able to persevere through what is a very, very difficult disease.
So, we set up a little studio at home and women would come and have their wigs made. And if they walked out with it, that was very, very big, and they felt really good about it. But in the process she would say to them, how are you managing with the family and dinner? And very often they’d burst out crying because Laya does that to people. People open up and they tell them what's going on. So, Laya would say a white lie. I have dinner from yesterday and I cooked dinner and my husband ordered dinner, wasn't exactly so.
But basically, it sounded good and telling people if you took dinner from us today, you would actually be helping us. And it worked. It worked. So, people take the dinner and again we come home to no dinner. So, we got a little bit more clever. We started bringing volunteers into the home and started cooking. And then it started to get a little busier and suddenly there were several people. And we realised we needed to get a bit more logistical and make things a bit better.
I went down to Winning Appliances and spoke to John and told him I need a chest freezer, maybe one that came back from a customer, a scratch on the door. And he asked me what for and I explained to him. He says I'm going to give you a brand new one. It’ll be delivered to you [unclear] go. It got delivered to our place and at no cost, which was very nice. And we borrowed a commercial kitchen. And we had three teams, the prepping, cooking and packing. And it was magnificent. It was a really wonderful day.
LS The feeling that day was absolutely incredible. It's just magical.
DS We still go back to that, that was really… And we were thinking each in our own way and each thinking about what each other are thinking. But at midnight Laya comes up to me, we just finished cleaning up, we were the last ones there. This is amazing. What a day, what a day, what a day. When can we do this again? That was really the first question. And with a very straight face I said to Laya I'm never going to do this again.
LS I can actually touch that moment. Just that shock of it almost felt like it was just…
DS Burst out, who did I marry?
LS And then he had this look in his eyes. He had that look for about 10, 12 years, for a long time. And he just said there'll be groups over here. There'll be groups here. There'll be school groups here. People will be mixing. Food will be going out. Trucks will be coming in with fruits and vegetables. And I was like whoa, we just had a cook off in a school. And he goes no, this is what we're going to do. And he goes we're going to do with systems.
We’ll know how much has come in. What's going out. Who's being helped. And was just, I didn't truly see it. I smiled a lot and I thought, mm gosh. He was the joke of town. But he's an incredible visionary. I call him my entrepreneur of goodness because he had a vision of something so grand. People would laugh, it’s too big. What are you going to do? Every problem that came up became Slavin problem and he just looked at it as an opportunity.
As an absolute opportunity that we're going to build something so incredible. And I think the actual building process if you were there yourself, we didn't want that to finish. You had Muslims, Greeks, Catholics, Italians, Jewish, it was almost like the UN there. But working together in the most harmonious, beautiful… Never would meet the people that would benefit from this but something magnificent.
DS That was that night that the kitchen was born. The kitchen was born in my mind, I could see it, and how would… We had no money. We had no space. But I knew that this would have to happen. I know what it would have meant to Laya. And I would often tell people that there was a Shah Jahan who lived in northern India. And he had a wife whose name was Mumtaz Mahal and when she passed away he built a structure to commemorate her. That's obviously the Taj Mahal.
And if so many years ago a king can build for a dead queen a building so meaningful and so inspiring. If I have the privilege of sharing my life with a queen who’s alive, well and kicking, should I not build a living palace that will benefit people in a real way. And this was the motivation to be able to build and to get a couple of nos along the way. But eventually, you just need one yes and we progressed and progressed and progressed. And the kitchen is now here and we're very, very pleased.
AL And you were showing me through it this morning. The scale is extraordinary. The fridge rooms, the freezer rooms, the dispatch centres.
DS Andrew if there's one thing which I say more than anything else it will be, we haven’t…
LS Begun to scratch the surface. I think we're the happiest unhappiest people because we see what we've got. We see how much more we could do.
AL But I love the story, Dovid, you were telling me about how you ask people to make donations. Making clear that really they're not doing you a favour, you're doing them a favour. Tell us about that.
DS So the way it basically worked is you approach somebody and there's a long line of people wanting things from anybody that has resources. And I definitely don't want to be one of the five billion people in the world who are chasing money. That's definitely not what I want to do. And we want to get things done. And when you stop, and you talk to people you ask them what's important to them.
People have families, people have businesses, what's socially important to them? What do they want to hear at their funerals? What have they achieved? What did they contribute to the world? What dreams would they like to see happen when they were younger and today life has gotten in the way of those things?
So, you do this properly. You approach, say, a tiler and you say to him, tell me what's important to you? And then whatever the person would say, and I've done this hundreds of times, never failed. What is important to you? And whatever they would say things like homelessness, world peace, social isolation, any issue that was important to them. Crime, whatever it may be, whatever the social problem they found lacking in the world, and they would like to make a contribution towards that. I would say I can't believe you just said that. Because that's exactly what we're trying to build.
So instead of it being I think you should help me, it's I'm here to help you see through that vision because you just told me that's important, isn't it? Well, let's do it. And your small contribution will fill that little void that we now need to be able to create this space where people can come together and cook and share and help. So, this is how we turned the tables. Rather than somebody which is in the kitchen… There's no plaques of sponsors because our names should be hanging in their house, not vice versa, because we've helped them do what was important to them. And we continue to do that.
AL And the way in which you work is to draw on huge numbers of different volunteer groups. Let's go through some of the different volunteers who work in your kitchen. Maybe we should start with the man who's managing things.
DS Starting with George Karounis, lovely, lovely guy. So, at a particular time there was a programme through the Corrective Services in New South Wales, that a select group of inmates based on good behaviour can go out into the community during the day, work, and then go back to sleep in jail. So, they were effectively still incarcerated, had to fill their sentence, but this was a way of integrating them back into the community and as an incentive for good behaviour within jail.
We've had probably about 30, 35 participants that came through that programme. They're inmates, we've always called them participants or staff. And they’re people who've made bad choices and who've paid for those choices, and this is what we believe. And there's a deep belief that if an inmate is shunned and aren’t given a second chance by society, by the community, you can bet your bottom dollar that the criminals will give him a second chance. And that's exactly where he or she is going to be back.
And who pays then, then society pays again because they continue to offend. So, we need to get out of our mindset, which at times is difficult, and say they've done their time and it's time to give them another chance. George was one of the people who were part of that programme. Today he’s the manager of the kitchen. And his ingenuity and his loyalty and his dedication knows no bounds. And George feels that everything that he does is really investing back into himself. It's not something he's doing a favour for somebody else. This is who he really is.
And it's a programme that we invested a lot of time and are very, very proud of the people who came through. And there are challenges working with people who are incarcerated, technical challenges, emotional challenges. But if the kitchen was only built for several dozen people who would not have had that opportunity, and also all the people who they would have offended against if they would not have this. Because technically many of those would have gone back to jail. So, we're very, very pleased to have been part of that project.
AL And having released inmates here also provides them with the opportunity to meet some interesting people too I imagine.
DS Oh, yes. So, what we try to do is almost to orchestrate. I’ll share one story and we'll take… I can leave the judge’s name in, but David Kirby was a founding board member of ours from before even started, just stepped down now after many, many years. And I would always say to the board the names of the people who were coming to us as part of the programme. And I mentioned a particular inmate and he had this look on his face and said, oh, that's interesting. I sentenced them for murder.
And I asked him, David, are you comfortable with him coming here? He said absolutely. So, he comes along, and I speak to this inmate who’s a lovely guy. And I asked about the criminal justice system, and he was very, very fear saying he did wrong. They were right. They did the right thing. I deserved it. I did my time. No pointing fingers at anybody. I asked him, tell me about the judge. And he was full of praise, absolute gentleman.
I go back to David Kirby, and I say to him, David, you have a very big fan in this gentleman who you sent away for almost 20 years. And he was a bit surprised. He said oh that's interesting. Really? I said yes. Never one to miss an opportunity I say to him, maybe you should catch up over a coffee here. And he was taken aback, but eventually that's what happened.
The feeling of the same person, the embodiment of society, wearing a robe behind the desk, holding the law at his fingertips, saying to an individual, we don't want you. Go away. You're needless to us. You're useless to us. But when the time passes that same person welcomes him back into society is so redemptive. It's so therapeutic. It's so powerful. And we started doing that, encouraging other judges to come visit the people who they sentence all those years ago.
AL Laya can you tell me a little about how the school programmes work and how you manage to harness the energy of schools to volunteer in the kitchen?
LS So that's actually one of my favourite ones. Having children coming through the kitchen. The school programmes is something about wanting kids to grow up having this as part of part of life, part of being fun. We're competing with iPhones, we're competing with games, we're competing with a lot of things in this world. And everything is about me. What can I get for myself? And I've got one thing and my friend has already got the next thing. So, happiness is always bypassing them.
And we felt that if children could do something tangible with their hands and see the outcome. For them to hand it to somebody else. For them to know that it's going to make a difference in the world. What does it say to a child? It says to a child that I'm important. I matter. I might not be top of the school with my grades. I might not be scholastic I might not be the best runner. I might not be the best soccer player. But I with my talents can make a difference in this world.
And you see children coming in from all ages, almost like their shoulders slugged down, could have been bullied or anything, anything happened in their life, or just normal children's stuff, and they walk in, and they've created something. Something they've never had a chance to do at home. Or some of them do and they come with better skills. And the feeling is incredible. The feeling is just incredible. And we've had such beautiful connections. One of the things we do is get children to write cards. They'll come into the kitchen. Programmes will vary.
Sometimes they'll just come in and bake biscuits, beautiful, decorated biscuits with different shapes and different notes on the biscuits. But accompanied with that biscuit is a personal letter, personal small little note. That volunteers will dress up as clowns and we have about 500 costumes that were kindly donated to us. We will head out and just go into the hospitals and nurses will tell us which wards to go to. Who we can cheer up.
And many times, those notes… I don't call them biscuits. I call them biscuits of love and biscuits of hope. An elderly lady who has just gone through surgery has a note that says on it, you are strong, you can do it. Or another lady receiving a message, we're thinking of you. Just a total stranger and they’ll look at and say, that's just what I needed today. And here a child can make an incredible difference.
So, children will come in, bake biscuits, cook, bake bread, learn about healthy eating. And children in all different situations whether a child has just been diagnosed with diabetes, and the list of nos and the list you can't do or celiac the list of things that you can't eat and being isolated. We turn that into something fun, do a masterchef competition. They can quote unquote, buy what they're allowed to eat, but they've got to cook it. Then there are judges. Turning something that could be very upsetting into something that's a fun opportunity for the children.
And one of my favourite times was we had a group of children that came after school. And one of these kids came and he just washed dishes for about two hours. I get a phone call from his mom what did my son do today? And I thought, oh, gosh, I handed over actually to the rabbi and I was nervous what she wanted, and he said he washed dishes. And then she just burst out laughing. Said what happened?
And then she explained to us that she had had a birthday party booked for him. He had had a bowling party booked and he comes home, and he says mom changed my mind. Thank you very much for the offer of the birthday party I know I was very excited about that, but I've done something today that I'd love to do for my party with my friends. And she was trying to understand what it was. What was better than this expensive bowling party that she had booked? And when we told her that it was washing dishes it just blew her mind.
And from that birthday party started the birthday party the children give. They make, they create, they bake and it's about giving. So, they'll give to the emergency services. They'll give to the nurses and doctors. Each child will take home and think who can I make happy? Who can I put a smile on their faces? I remember after one birthday party there was two beautiful boys and boys, young boys. And I said to them, let's take the food that we've created. They'd made a beautiful dish and let's give it to someone that doesn't have food.
So, they look at me and they look at me and they said, we don't know anyone. Our neighbours all have food. Our friends all have food. We have no idea. And it was bothering them that they couldn't take home that few containers of food. They went back to their mom, and they come back to me, and they said next to my dad's work in the city there are some people living on the street could we take some there? I said sure you can take a whole basket.
And then I said to them how they going to eat the food? And then they figured out they needed forks, they needed containers, they needed napkins. You had to see these two boys just running, collecting the food. And it was an incredible feeling. It was incredible for the mom to watch.
She said they had just gone on an overseas trip, and she said she had not seen them as excited as they were then to deliver the food. Two hours later they came back for another crate of food. So, this is the power children are our future. And when people say teenagers are rotten, I can tell you teenagers are amazing. Kids are amazing. Give it to them in a tangible way. Give it to them in a fun way. They’re just incredible. Rabbi what do you think?
DS Not going to argue. I learnt a long time ago.
AL You've also used the space for cross cultural cooking, too. How has that worked?
LS Magnificent, magnificent.
AL Give me an example.
DS So what we do is we we’ll bring children from different backgrounds. So, for instance, Jewish and Muslim children who hear about each other, and definitely watch on TV things about each other and pick up different ideas. What we do very regularly is to bring in two groups. There's one group of Jewish children, one group of Muslim children. Each brings three recipes, and we mix them up. So, it's not group by group, it's one, one, one, one.
So, we have them totally mixed with each other. And part one, they're teaching. Part two, they’re learning. And they go away with six recipes. There's a lot of symbolism in that. If I have an apple and you have an apple, and we exchange, we still each have one apple. If I have an idea and you have an idea and we exchange, we each have two ideas. So that idea.
And then they just talk, and they just hang out and just spend time. And they walk away with new friends, learning new things, they're encouraged to ask questions about each other's behaviour and cultures. And you see barriers being broken. And this is a programme which I really would love to expand. My idea here would be to get more adults involved and more programmes because really, in this case, the food is only an excuse. There's so much more that happens as a result of these events.
AL You've also done work with corporate Australia coming in.
DS We have a lot of companies coming in here doing team building. That's become one of our biggest programmes in terms of the amount of people that come through here during the week. The concept is that companies more and more are realising, A, the need for people to be involved in meaningful team building. Now, you've done your white-water rafting and your rock climbing and paint ball shooting. Now all wonderful activities, I'm not sure exactly the benefit to society, but so be it.
But let's say you've done that, and you want to do something which is not only fun, but also meaningful. That you could walk away and realise what we have as opposed to what we're missing. And cooking as a group really does that. It's a lot of fun. And companies come along, and they pay for the opportunity to participate. Which really covers the cost of raw ingredients, and keeping the doors open and keeping the lights on. The meals are theirs.
And all we have done effectively is to facilitate their coming in, helping them cook it. And if they want to take it, we always encourage them to take it and give it and not only to those who have hit rock bottom but to friends to family. One of the big issues that we find here is that people live in very siloed lives. And if there's a problem with your neighbour you don't get involved because it’s none of your business. So, you wait. And then the marriage falls apart. The job falls apart. This little injury becomes a debilitating injury and then they're out in the street.
We wake up. Let's get them food now. We try to encourage school groups that come in. So, parents in the school who can pass each other for 12 years like ships in the night never even seeing each other, never knowing each other. Except for the one parent that double parks, that very rude parent, every school's got a couple of those, but they don’t even know each other. And when your son comes back, your daughter comes back and says my friend's dad something happened you have nothing to offer to your child, nothing to offer to them.
So, we have many of the schools in the area here come in, cook, bake, put away. It’s the school who's doing it. And when the school community knows that within their own community there's somebody who's doing a tough or somebody who's celebrating the school body comes together to share meals. Those meals happen to have been created in the kitchen. That's a separate story. So, between the corporates.
And the corporate team building is amazing because it's a great leveller. It's the CEO together with all the employees at the same level. Sometimes those who don't cook very well do much better in the office and vice versa so it's a great opportunity. And we're getting a lot of the bigger IT companies, the bigger banks, where there's large members of staff. We’ve been very busy, but we'd love more and more people to come in. Because it's not just a question of meals being created. It's also an opportunity for people to stop and realise how good we have it.
LS I think it also allows them, you see them all walking out, they've come in one person, they're here to help somebody else but they've actually received so much. Many people say, we look at the world differently. We look at our relationships differently. We look at things that were bothering us when we first walked in and the nagging things whether at work or at home, it just lifts you up to a different level. And you see it time and time again as people come through the doors.
AL It is striking to see in my three little boys how much they are nicer people when they've been volunteering. If I take them along to some community event it brings them out of themselves. Makes them less inwardly focused, more outwardly focused. It's a striking change you can achieve in a very short space of time. But I'm curious about what we can learn as a culture from what you're doing. Whether there's ways in which Australians outside their capacity to contribute to Our Big Kitchen might reconceptualise our relationship with food and sharing food.
DS Food is very, very important for the simple reason that we need it on a regular basis. But it can also be such an important metaphor. So, a child, for instance, a child is born, and the child is three hours old, the child is hungry, and they know how to ask for food. Nobody has to teach us how to say please. That's a given. We scream, we carry on until we get all we want.
As we grow up, the question is, do we remain big children and just scream for different things? Or do we start to think where am I needed? Not what do I need but where am I needed? What can I contribute? Food has that constant reminder because as much as I've eaten, there is still the hunger which will be back again in three hours’ time, in five hours’ time. It’s not like I've been there and done that. It doesn't quite work that way.
So, there's a lot of symbolism and there's a lot of opportunity for people to look at food and learn the lessons that food teaches us. And whether they're looking at food as a parable of accumulating knowledge which becomes part of us like food does. Or food which helps us show appreciation, which is very important. Food which helps us realise what we have and how easily we can share.
So, there's a huge amount that we can and should be doing. As a community we need each other. It is very painful to walk past a street full of people or walking to see a bus stop. Pass the bus stop today ten, 20 people sitting in there, everybody on their own phone. And people simply have lost the ability to connect and look people in the eyes.
AL So Dovid, what does this mean in practical terms? What lessons should people be drawing from…?
DS People should be learning firstly, if you have lot to eat you should feel grateful and not take it for granted. That's lesson number one. Lesson number two…
AL And saying grace is very, very important.
AL In a secular culture I think we often forget to be grateful for the pleasure of having enough food every day.
DS As people, Andrew, we are extremely honed to know how to say please or how to take things that we need. We want something suddenly the person between us and the tomato sauce is important because he could pass it to us. The person didn't exist yesterday but now he's here because now we need him to do something for us. So that comes to us as a given. And if we are consumed in a world of pleasure where it's all about what I need, what I need, what I want, what I want it's really not a very, very happy ending to that.
If we live in a world that teaches us the opportunity to appreciate what we have, and food is one of those because when it's not there we feel it very, very, very acutely. That can be the beginning of starting to realise what we have. In many traditions, and I speak on behalf of the Jewish tradition, our day begins by saying thank you for waking up. That's a lot better than people who don't wake up in the mornings.
And then for standing up, and then for being able to touch my toes, and there are blessings and opportunities to thank the Almighty for every step of the way. And when we say those thank yous it's not God that needs those thank yous it's I who have to say those thank yous. Because if not, all those things are taken for granted.
And instead of waking up today and saying, oh, it's raining outside, not again. How terrible. Or it's, I've woke up late or what have you, all the big problems that people tend to have, or I don't know what to wear today, God knows, depending on the gender or depending on the issue that seems to be important. You stop and realise what you do have. And that is really the difference of being positive or being negative in life. Life very often will happen in a particular way despite of our best efforts. It's how we internalise it and how we interpret it which really makes the big difference.
And we see this again and again with food. And we hope that through a place like the kitchen people can come in and realise what they have. They say the guy who was upset that he had no shoes until he met somebody who had no feet. So, on the one hand, also the realisation that I can make a difference. Today that’s becoming so much more of an issue where young people feel, what is the purpose? What am I needed for? What purpose do I have in the world? And why should I put up with any degree of inconvenience or hardship when there's what is often seen as the easy way out by putting it all to an end? God forbid.
AL There is a lot of research being done around the scientific benefits of fasting of taking long periods without eating. But I'm also interested in the spiritual side of fasting and the extent to which fasting helps us better appreciate something that we might have otherwise taken for granted. To what extent do you think fasting can help play a role in a good life?
DS Well, fasting is a part of many traditions. In the Jewish tradition there are several times the year that we fast. The holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, we don't eat. And the message there is that we are living in a different plane. It's not that normal day to day consumers that we are. Today we are like angels. We're living… The fact that we ate for two days before and will eat for two days after we don't worry about that. But the concept of fasting means that we are removing ourselves from our comfort zone, removing ourselves from what we do normally.
And it gives us an opportunity to think. In fact, people who haven't eaten for a long time do attain a level of clarity of thought. My dad often told me that he was 19 being drafted into the Russian army and one of the ways of getting around it was creating the symptoms of particular diseases that kept people away from the army.
So, he from the end of Saturday, which is an eating day, didn't eat until the following Friday when he had a doctor's appointment. And he comes to the doctor, not having eaten for a week. But he said that during that week he would [unclear] there was such clarity in his mind. Very painful, but eventually you settle into that. And to come to the doctor to realise the appointment was only next week. So, he would laugh at it.
But there's definitely a clarity that comes when we are removed from what am I going to eat now? What's for lunch? What's for dinner? I'm feeling peckish all the time. Waking up for a midnight snack. So, we tend to look at the benefits of food but there's definitely a great deal to be learned from refraining from eating food.
AL And Laya I'm interested too in the way in which all of us might do more to welcome others to our tables. Where do you think there's opportunities that we miss to share food with those who are strangers to us or who are particularly in need?
LS I think the best way of doing it is not being good at maths. Because when you're not good at maths you have no idea how much to make. So, we tend to often fight. I think the only thing we fight about is he'll tell me I've made too much food and I'll say we didn't invite enough guests. And it's just become something that there's an abundance of food because I'm not good at maths.
And it gives an opportunity. My children know, whoever they'll see, whether they know them or they don't know them so well, it's a neighbour on the street, just come along. And my one condition which I tell everybody and I'm going to extend the invitation to you, Andrew, and to your beautiful family, your three boys, your family, to please come join us.
And anyone listen to this podcast, join us for a traditional Friday night or a Shabbat day, an abundance of food. Not many formalities, just come relax. But on one condition that you bring more guests. So that's my can we bring flowers? Can we bring chocolates? Can we bring this? Can we bring that? I was like, no, just invite another ten more friends. And they look at me.
AL That's extraordinary.
LS And I’ll put you to a challenge Andrew.
LS Our table extends, and it can extend out into the garden, it extends out into the hallway. There's never ever been not enough space. Many times, I won't have a seat, my husband won't have a seat, the kids won't have the seat, but the room stretches. And I think that feeling of people coming together, sitting around a table, total strangers, you walk away like family. And to me that's the greatest gift.
And I think we can extend that. I often tell people when they leave the kitchen, walk out with big ears, with big eyes and a big heart. Walk down the street and look at someone in the eye and just smile at them. See an elderly person need a lift. I always tell the kids, I challenge them to ten people, give them a compliment. You're at a nursing home. Just look at the lady and say, I love your colour shirt. Your earrings are so smart. Watch her shoulders, watch her smile. Many times, elderly people feel invisible. Just give them a compliment.
We lose nothing from giving, in fact, not just lose, we gain. We gain. You've made someone smile. You're not giving of anything. And I think that's really the beauty is that when people make someone happy it's not a donation. Anyone can do that act.
If it's building a building or supporting a charity you need someone with a lot of money. But to give someone a compliment, to smile at someone and to listen to someone, and to show empathy, you don't need a cent. And everybody can do that. And I do believe that we're going to make a difference in the world. One hot [unclear] at a time. One meal at a time. One sharing a table. And it's our goal to make the world a brighter place.
AL You're also raising eight children. Perhaps this is an extension of the earlier question around hospitality but what tips do you have for people who are nervous parents wondering whether they could manage with one more child?
LS So first of all we're blessed we always say with one child. And people often look at us Rabbi, Laya one child. Rabbi come on. We said yes, we have one Mordechai, one Zavi, one Hannah, one Mendel, one Shayna, one Shlomie, one Lucia [?] and one Rivka. One makes you a mum. We help a lot of families going through IVF who wait for a miracle just to become a parent once. So, you'll never hear from either of us that we have eight children because it's truly a miracle.
And it's a struggle for many couples. And then it's a struggle once they have the child. Postnatal depression can fall in. Your hormones are changing completely. And it's a lot of work. And it's tough work. But I always look at people say you built a really big business, you've created something incredible, did you just sit back and do nothing? No, you worked hard. We're creating the future generation. We've been given a gift of the souls that have been given to us and we've got to give them the best opportunities in life.
And I can tell you, I don't even call it hard work. It is the most incredible, we are blessed. I can't stop thanking God every second. Incredible. Do I have any tips? No, just enjoy every moment of it because it goes by so quickly. It goes by so quickly. And sometimes I think I maybe should be strict. I maybe should be this. We’re just the kids there. As the kids are getting older they're like, no, do this. I think everyone should be going to bed on time and everyone should be doing this. We just look at them and we just come on guys let's go out for pyjama drive.
Life goes by short. The terrible twos pass in a second. The teenage years pass in a second. Life passes by really quickly. Just enjoy it. Take them out of school for the day. Have fun with them. That's my tip. And that's just what happens in our household. So no, you're not going to get any tips of formal parenting from us. Just enjoy every moment. And if you have the possibility keep on having more because it gets easier as you go along.
AL I have a set of final questions. Feel free to both dive in or one or the other. What advice would you give to your teenage self?
DS My teenage self, I would have… I am blessed to live with very little or no regrets. But my teenage self had the privilege of living in the company of a very, very great man, Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was an absolute giant of a person. And physically, he hasn't been here with us now for almost a quarter of a century, he's very much alive in all that we do.
Having said that if I was a teenager again I would have spent more time with him personally. You're not to know how things pan out in life. But just seeing the sheer force of his personality. We could connect with that today because there are books and there are videos and there are people who remember, and I remember. But that's definitely something which I would do differently going forward.
AL So to spend more time with the one that you admire.
LS Not growing up in America, growing up in Australia, our connection was going once a year, going twice a year. But definitely that everything that we do today is with that push, is with that enthusiasm, is with that pat on the back, you're doing great, but do more. And making that difference in the world what would I tell my teenage self? Just fly with whatever talent you have.
Don't try to be somebody else. Don't try to do things that you know that you're not good at. Just take your talents and fly with them. God gives us talents. If I look at somebody else and say, oh, I want to be like them then you're constantly never happy with yourself.
There is only one Laya in the world. I came down for a purpose. I came down for a reason. And knowing that and fully believing in that, that only I can achieve what I've been put down in this world to do. If I look at somebody else, I'm not him. Different talents, different temperament. So, taking what I've been given, the gift that I've been given, and living that to make the world a better place.
AL What's the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
DS I've never had a challenge with it. I've yet to have a problem. So, it’s a little bit hard to… If I was to have a problem, I don't know, I’d probably seek advice or something. But so far it's all been very, very smooth sailing. The answers are fairly clear. Had over the years some issues, you talk to people. So, I've been blessed to have had an incredible life, especially looking at what goes on in other parts of the world. And what took place even in our country a couple of decades ago we really don't have reasons to be upset.
LS And I see that he lives that because many times he’ll come home, and I’ll know it was a hard day and I’ll know there was challenges. And he'll just look at me and I'll say, you know my grandparents in Poland or in Russia can you imagine what their day was like today. Because I think he loves history so much he's living it and breathing it and totally that comes through. I don't remember ever a day, at the end of the day sitting at dinner with the kids and a pressure or a negativity or anything that's been hard.
It's just look how we've been blessed today. He's able to take every situation and turn it around. And it's just a rainbow. It's just beautiful. Gosh, oh my gosh, we are so blessed that this and this happened to us. What opportunity can we do to do more good. And we really used every opportunity to take anything that's come to us and turned it into good.
And I would say being a woman going through many pregnancies and having postnatal depression with some of the children I think really just having an incredible support network around you. And I think that's why I feel that the kitchen is so important because we need a village to be part of. We need to be part of people. It doesn't change life’s circumstances. Doesn't change the problems that have been thrown up against us. But you've got someone to talk to.
You sit in a mother's group, and she’ll say, oh my gosh, yes I cried the last two days or yes I had this. You feel like whoa, I'm normal. And I think that's really part of society, going off our phones, going off our Facebook, our Instagram and just talking, connecting. At any given time in the kitchen, you'll see people cooking, working together. No one's on their phones, people are just talking. And you walk away with a lighter burden. So, I'd say having people surrounding you the whole time, exercising, looking after each other and having good people to talk to, connect with.
AL When are you most happy?
LS When I have people sitting around my Shabbat table. When I can share food. When the kitchen’s full. When I'm dressed as a clown in the hospital. Don't get me started the list is endless. We are blessed. Thank God.
DS I am happiest when Laya’s happy. It’s simple.
LS And I think we just because it's a gift to get that happiness, I'll go to the hospitals and make people happy. And I think, oh my gosh, I'm receiving so much happiness. I want to share that with the whole world. I've cooked something and I've just given it out, I feel so good. I want other people… I never want something just for myself. If I'm feeling something, if I receive something, why shouldn't other people feel that? And I think by having this kitchen this feeling of helping people and this feeling of living just on a different plane. You live on a higher, can't even describe it.
DS Different reality.
LS Different reality, you're living a different reality. It's almost like being at the top of a skyscraper and looking down and thinking, these miniscule problems are so little. And when you see people walking out of the kitchen it's that aha moment that yes, little things that really were annoying, it’s so windy today, it’s so this, you’re different little things don't bother you. So, our happiest time is being able to share this with other people.
AL And finally, to each of you what person or what experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
DS Well, it's the upbringing. A child is a piece of clay who absorbs and who watches a lot more than hears, sees. And if a child is given a positive experience that is, in the most case, who the child becomes. And I was very, very blessed with extremely loving parents and fantastic siblings. Being born into what I believe and still believe is the best family at the best time in the best place.
And again, having the incredible influence of a real leader, Lubavitcher Rebbe, is something which is most part and shaped my life and still continues to do so going forward. And I still hope and pray to live up to his expectations. Which I'm sure on one hand he'd be proud, he probably wouldn't tell me so. He'd expect a little bit more and he's right.
LS I think I'm just going to echo the same feelings Dovid that you did. I'm blessed, blessed from being a little child to growing up to be born to the most wonderful warm family. And just seeing my parents, seeing my mother running out delivering people food. Running out late at night to do the ritual after someone's passed away to bury them in the traditional way to prepare them before burial. Just things my father collecting money for a bride and groom that didn't have money to have a wedding.
So just constantly seeing. It was never something we were told, you have to do this what you have to do in life, just seeing it. Just watching my father pass someone in the street and running back and giving him food and giving him a blanket and just seeing that. And being blessed to grow up in a traditional home where the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s values were lived and what we're part of our home. And when we talk about the Rebbe it’s just his eyes, he cared. He cared for every single person that came by and was concerned. And if we could do that then we're living his legacy.
AL Laya and Dovid Slavin big chefs with big hearts. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on the Good Life podcast today.
LS Andrew, we're honoured. Thank you for…
DS The opportunity.
LS The opportunity and we look forward to having you join us for a traditional Shabbat meal. And please bring lots of friends with.
AL Sounds great. Thanks for listening to this week's episode of the Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple podcasts formerly known as iTunes. Next week I'll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.
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