Today is Friday, which – needless to say – makes tonight special. Across the city, a variety of observances mark the end of a long work week. Downtown, New Yorkers will be meeting at happy hour after happy hour around quitting time. And when the sun goes down this evening, many neighbors in my historically Jewish neighborhood will take their prayer shawls and one another’s hands and walk to the local synagogue. They will sweetly wish one another, Shabbot Shalom. As for me, I’ll grab a couple of bags of candy and drive straight to Church Ladies’ Poker Night.
Church Ladies Poker Night used to be standing commitment, one Friday each month, but a couple of years ago, it moved to a more irregular basis, and now the poker games happen only very occasionally. This remains a lament of
mine, because Church Ladies Poker Night was such a significant happiness staple in my life. But tonight I’ve got no tears to shed; tonight our game is on.
Tonight, across the broad green felt hexagon folded out over our lovely host’s dining table, I and five other religious leaders, truly wonderful women, every last one of them, will be calling out games of Five-Card Stud, Texas Hold ‘Em, and Midnight Baseball, alternating between blue and red decks of Bicycle
Playing Cards. We will count out with meticulous exactitude six stacks of chips
that have been taken out of the locking aluminum briefcase where they are customarily kept. Very quickly, the stakes will get high. We may have a little trouble recognizing one another. Tensions will mount, the language will foul, feelings will get hurt, and before the evening has ended, if we’re on a roll, someone will point at another of our beloved sister players, and demand with venom in her voice: “How much do you have? Seriously, tell me. Tell me! I want you all in, every last chip.”
Why? Because the Church Ladies do not play. Go big or go home. Go ahead – you can get an early start on Sunday’s sermon. What do we care? We’ll tell you how little we care, in the bluest language imaginable. Honestly, I’ve hadn’t heard such inventive strings of obscenity since I attended an all-girls’ preparatory academy. Sailors would blush and the Latter Day Saints would under no circumstances tolerate it.
When my father-in-law learned of our standing game, he was perplexed. He wanted to know if we played for money. The question itself gave me offense. “Of
course,” I replied. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
We have definitely achieved buy-in among the players at Church Ladies’ Poker Night. One month when I couldn’t make it, my seat got assigned to another stray church-type who did not have a solid grasp of the seriousness of our game. She then made an exceedingly silly suggestion about donating the pot
to charity. This almost immediately invoked the full fury of the other players.
I wasn’t there to witness it, which to this day, I regret.
Drink, smoke, swear, but whatever else you do, do not bring any sanctimony to the card table with you. I believe I’m speaking for all the players at Church Ladies Poker Night when I say: Frankly, we’d rather you cheated – even that would be preferable to being holier than thou.
If you read the Gospels closely, you get the sense that Jesus himself thinks along these sorts of lines, although admittedly, there is no record in the scriptures of his having a regular poker game. Still, no sin stains his spiritual vision like sanctimony. According to the evangelist Luke, Jesus tells the people that while the critics of John the Baptist complained John was a joy-killing teetotaler, his own critics sound different complaints about him. “You say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless,” Jesus concludes, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” Indeed she is.
So isn’t it possible that Wisdom’s children may even sound like church ladies late on a Friday, in the heat of one of the last games on poker night? Couldn’t it just be possible? Try not to let all that cussing and shouting fool you. We all have our ways of saying Shabbat Shalom.