Finding My Religion in a Bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup

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…)

10 replies on “Finding My Religion in a Bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup”

  1. Jewish by my fathers line, but not observant. I started my Jewish and Hebrew learning as an early adult. Intriguing foods that bound families to the dinner table on holidays that started at sundown seemed so right.
    I introduced my mum to Matzo Ball soup while she was sick early in the year, never ever would she have eaten it if she was well. I have her hooked on the boxed Manischewitz I told her its been in the family “since 1888” it says so right on the package!
    Who would have ever though a little sliced green onion on top would make it gourmet enough for her.

  2. Shameless (not-my)self promotion: There is a movement out there for people who are culturally Jewish…but not religiously. It’s called Humanistic Judaism. And here in NY, there’s even a KidSchool, and High Holiday Services, and everything. The NYC congregation is called The City Congregation.
    And basically, there’s no way to be a bad Jew in our congregation.

    Also- just for the record: my mother’s recipe for Brisket?
    To die for.

  3. I’m a culinary jew too, I never knew it was a “thing”. This and another of your posts helped me feel as though I wasn’t a bad jew, just a different sort of one. My father was Jewish born in Rome. Because of this, we have meals that are traditionally Jewish and also a christmas eve tradition as his parents took on a little of what their new country felt was tradition. We’re not doing hebrew school for our kids but I promise you, they’ll know every Jewish food (and maybe a little Yiddish).

  4. Whatever way it is continuing, as a member of the older generation, I am so pleased to know that tradition is apparent in one way or another.

  5. Firstly, thank gawd for Zabars. Plus I second that emotion for a ‘haymishe’ MadMen episode. Including Joan, of course…

  6. Now you have to post the matzo ball recipe with the almonds. I do sprinkle slivered almonds on the top of the kugel for crunch. I think once Jews moved to America the concept of being Jewish culturally rather than keeping kosher, etc. took hold. In some ways that’s the great assimilation story for every culture. In the end it’s all about the food! Wouldn’t you love to see an episode of Mad Men that takes place at one of the Jewish agencies? There would be a whole lot less drinking and more noshing I’m sure!

  7. I think that Jerry Seinfeld created the idea of being Jewish culturally and a lot of Jews associate themselves more with the culture than the religion.

    I go the whole hog (not literally!) for the Jewish holidays and make everything that my grandma would have put on the table in order to create the experience for my family. However, I do also get a lot of pleasure knowing that they equally enjoy going to services (they’re begging to go back tomorrow – I never observed two days as a kid growing up in a reform temple).

    Another secret to good, old-fashioned, scrumptious matzo balls: ground almonds. Mix them in.

  8. You are so right…the Maneshevitz mix is key to a fluffy matzo ball…

    I just finished putting the last dish away from my RH dinner and lunch. Yes, there’s true religion to be found in the history of preparing (and eating!) the food..and more so the smell of simmering chicken soup, as you walk through the door…that evokes all sorts of good feelings and memories for me…

    While we are Reform shul-goers (same synagogue since I was a kid), it’s the prayers and the familiarity of the food that does it for me. Especially when my daughter regularly begs me to make my family recipe for chicken soup….

    Shana Tova!!
    p.s. So impressed you make that kugel with the cottage cheese! Now that’s taking me back! But tell me the truth, did you MAKE the gefilte fish or buy???

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