Let’s say you are invited at the community dinner after service on Friday (or at the house of some religious family) and are absolutely clueless. This post is intended to help you navigate the most obvious things. First of all – don’t be embarrassed to ask. How should you know if you have never experienced a traditional Shabat dinner before? If people don’t want to explain what they do, it is usually because they themselves don’t know.
So… the thing will probably start with getting a seat. Try to figure out if seating is gender separated. You can also just ask someone of your own gender where to sit or stick to the person who invited you (he/she will either advise you where to seat or most often tell you to sit with her/him).
When everyone is seated, at some point the host will perform Kiddush over a glass of wine. It is proper for everybody to stand, be silent and listen, men should cover their heads. Usually somebody will have poured you a glass of wine beforehand, hold it in your hand and drink (part of) it when the whole thing is finished (not before, watch the rest of the crowd).
After Kiddush, people will go outside to wash hands (called Netilat Yadaim). Usually in the bathroom or kitchen or in special tubs set up for the purpose. Lag a bit behind and follow someone of your gender (in case you end up in a bathroom – awkward!). The procedure of washing the hands is the following: Fill the provided cup with water. Take it into your left hand and pour 3 times over your right hand (some pour only 2, it really doesn’t matter). Then take it in your right hand and pour 3 times over your left hand. If your are left-handed pour first over the left hand, your strong hand. I learned to lift my hands in front of my eyes to say the blessing, but I have seen many people who don’t and just say the blessing. If you don’t know the blessing, just say in any language you understand something to the effect of "Blessed are you, G’d, king of the world, who has commanded us to wash our hands" – anyway you say it silently, so no one will notice what you say. If you want, recite Hamlet in Klingon. Only afterwards dry your hands. Some people will leave the bathroom to say the blessing and then create chaos when they reenter to dry their hands. If everybody does it, follow their lead, otherwise say the blessing inside and save everybody the trouble.
A potentially very embarrassing moment is when you come back from washing your hands. It is customary not to speak from the moment you wash your hands until the start of the meal. At my first meal where they actually followed this custom, I ended up being the only person in the room talking, all eyes on me, but nobody was able to tell me what I was doing wrong, because they couldn’t speak. Awkward! You may hum or communicate in inventive sign language (I’m not sure if this is ok if you use actual sign language or if you are deaf, maybe this still counts as speaking).
The host will then take the bread, lift it up in his hands, and say the blessing over bread. He will rip the bread in pieces, dip them in salt and give everyone a piece. Eat it. Now you are free to talk again.
At this point the meal starts and the "ceremony part" is over for now – until the blessing after the meal, which may be a topic for another post.