Tradition, Tradition

Finding meaning in holiday foods.

A few years ago, I started observing an old Rosh Hashanah ritual. Having gotten a hold of a Jewish holiday cookbook, I resolved to bake my own sweet challah bread to ring in the Jewish New Year. As I dotted the dough with raisins, twisted it into a braid, and wrapped it into the traditional round shape, I was filled with even more pleasure than usually accompanies the making of bread: I had found a way to mark a holiday that previously left me at a loss. Although Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, I am not religious. And I'm not one to go to temple for the comfort of habit or community. Although I try to make the holidays I celebrate as meaningful as possible—researching and reciting the historical stories behind Passover and Chanukah—one of the most significant and comforting parts of the holidays is the food I prepare.

Of course, I'm not unique in this; food is a central part of holidays for everyone. One of the things my husband, a native Irishman, loves best about this country is Thanksgiving. "A holiday that totally revolves around food!" he exclaimed after celebrating his first. But the relationship between Jews and food—let's face it, between Jews and overeating—has always been particularly close. In a weird kind of ethnic chauvinism, Jews pride themselves on knowing how to gorge. One of the long-running, not-so-funny jokes in my family growing up had to do with how the goyim supposedly threw parties: with no more sustenance than potato chips and beer. In our self-image, Christians were thin. We were not. If this was something my brother and I struggled with, food nevertheless contained secrets not only to our heart but to our identity.

As I grew up to travel the world, a kind of coded bonding often took place when I met Jews, whether it be in London or South Africa. We talked bagels: where to get them, were they as good as New York's, did the locals go in for the newfangled (read goyim) kind with blueberries and cherries or stick with traditional poppy seed and onion.

Missing out on certain foods during the holidays—latkes for Chanukah, matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish for Passover, hamantaschen for Purim, and now challah for Rosh Hashanah—throws me off balance, making my year not quite complete. It's something I face every Purim, actually, because it's hard to find really good hamantaschen in Seattle, as they appeared in the Jewish bakeries of my hometown Cincinnati: giant triangles of flaky crust, bursting with fillings of poppy seed, prune, or apricot. Choosing among them was a sweet agony of my youth.

It's not enough just to make the food either; certain microrituals are involved. Every Passover, my family discusses the quality of the matzoh balls—light or leaden—a vital addition to the Hagadah's four questions.

And before every holiday, at least for a while, I called my mother for recipes. Sure, I could have written them down once and for all, but I liked the excited communication as holiday preparations began. I would ask, as if I hadn't ever heard it before, "And the matzoh meal should be what consistency?" or "You think a kosher chicken is really important, huh?" Unfortunately, I now know the recipes too well to pretend; these days, my mother sometimes calls me. "Send me your challah recipe," she recently demanded.

Now that I have a daughter of my own and another on the way, I envision the same kind of communication with them someday. I hope my daughters will remember baking Rosh Hashanah bread with me and will want to do the same on their own. And I hope the handing down of recipes will reach back more than one generation. There's one I'm saving especially for my oldest daughter; it's for traditional Jewish apple cake, given to me by my mother, and to her by my father's mother, whose name my eldest daughter bears. It's a piece of her identity that couldn't be sweeter.

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