It’s Rosh Hashanah– the Jewish New Year. For those of you non-Jews out there Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make up the High Holidays. Basically the one time of year that most Jews go to some sort of service and feel officially Jewish. I grew up secular to a fault. We did not even go to services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur unless we were in Michigan with extended family and shamed into it. But, we did eat.
Somehow even if none of us fasted we managed to have a break-fast for the end of Yom Kippur and some sort of Rosh Hashanah dinner. We always had a Passover Seder even if it was very light on story and heavy on the matzoh balls. This past year as my husband and I have searched for a Hebrew School for our daughters, feeling like we wanted them to be connected to their heritage and history, but not wanting any teaching of a patriarchal “God” we have had to try and define what kind of Jews we are. And I have concluded that I am not Conservative nor Reform nor even Recontructionist (though the temple we ultimately chose is) but that I am at heart a Culinary Jew.
I believe in the power of brisket. I believe that when I combine sour cream, eggs, cottage cheese and noodles into a kugel I honor my grandmother. I believe that gefilte fish connects me to my ancestors in a way The Torah never could. (Though I can’t imagine keeping a carp in my bathtub.) And I believe that sitting down to the holiday meal is far and away the most important lesson of the High Holidays.
My bible is Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America. It is my staple filled with recipes that bring me back to the sweet kugel, chili sauced brisket and sweet and sour meatballs that remind me most of my childhood holiday meals. And I don’t care how many recipes The New York Times publishes year after year, nothing beats Manischewitz mix for making perfect Passover matzoh balls. Don’t mess with my grandma on this point.
Last summer when we spent a month in Italy and visited the town of Pitigliano, which was once teeming with a prosperous lively Jewish community that is now only remembered by the eerily empty cliff-side synagogue, we wandered into the old sanctuary, felt the rough rock walls of the fabric dying room and the ritual baths and contemplated the etched Stars of David and Hebrew letters. But it wasn’t until we went to the Jewish bakery and ate the centuries old Jewish treat Sfratti that I really felt connected to the Jewish people who came before.
In many ways I’ve come to realize that my faith in the culinary is a matriarchal faith. It is the flip side of the Hebrew chanting and reading of The Torah that dominates the services of the High Holidays, which for centuries was the exclusive purview of men. In the kitchen, mixing, chopping, frying and stewing like generations of women in my family tree have always done to mark these momentous Jewish holidays is the best way I can imagine to honor those who came before me and pass on the essence of Judaism and tradition to my daughters. And while we don’t have ancient family recipes passed down through the years we do have that box of Manischewitz mix that I will be sure to tell my daughters they must use in order to make matzoh balls just like their great-grandma did. (and add your own carrots, that’s the secret…)