Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Holiday Superfecta

Tonight's challah, gefilte fish and horseradish

This week is Rosh Hashanah, which is the beginning of the Jewish New Year, one of the most important holy days of the year.  Over the years many people ask if Rosh Hashanah is like New Year's Eve with parties, etc.  While it is certainly festive, it is still a holiday which carries a lot of religious significance.  Simply speaking we Jews read out of the Torah on every Sabbath and Rosh Hashanah signifies when you start again from the beginning.  The more complicated explanation is that Rosh Hashanah is the day in which you reflect back on the previous year, think about  your mistakes and how you could have done things differently.  A week later you later you ask G-d to forgive you for your sins on Yom Kippur followed 5 days later by  Sukkot which lasts 8 days and in simple terms is a holiday celebrating the harvest.  Following this is Simchat Torah, which is a celebration commemorating the reading of another complete cycle of the Torah and one of 2 Jewish holidays where it is a mitzvah (good deed) to get drunk.  In other words Rosh Hashanah kicks off what I call the Holiday Superfecta. 

These holidays can fall anywhere from the beginning of September until mid-October.  The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, so they occur on different days of the year with a lot of variation.  In Israel though, there is about a four week period which is peppered with holidays and where many people don't work, or work only half days and of course there is no school.  The school year in Israel usually starts around the beginning of September, and if Rosh Hashanah falls the next week, then kids usually have a 3 week vacation right after the start of school.  It's strange but after living in Israel for my first year, many strange things started to seem normal. 

Certainly Jewish culture revolves around a lot of things, but food is extremely important in our rituals.  Many Jews during the holidays eat traditional food which has been eaten by their families for generations.  Depending on where your family's origin is, can mean that traditional Jewish foods are different, or have a lot of different variations.  Jews, in their thousands of years of wandering also absorbed many local traditions and those also influence Jewish cooking and cuisine. One of the most interesting holidays I ever spent was one Sukkot in Israel.  I went with my cousin to the family of her cleaning woman and her Yemenite family to have lunch one day during Sukkot.  Besides eating outside in the sukkah, nothing else about the meal was at all familiar.  But I enjoyed every second of it and there is something very beautiful that within the world of Judaism there are many different customs, practices all rooted in the same religion.

I absolutely loved the holidays in Israel.  For the few days before everyone acts totally insane and buys enough food to feed a small country for a month.  Although you want to kill someone while you are in the supermarket, it is actually quite comical.  Through it all Israelis still have a strong sense of family.  While divorce rates are also on the rise, still family holds a very important place for most Israelis.   Many grown Israelis that I know who have familes of their own still spend Friday evening together with their parents, brothers, sisters, etc.  At holidays whole families (and friends) come together for a lot of food, laughter, very lively discussions, singing, etc.  It really is beautiful.  I really enjoyed the many kind friends and their families who adopted me so many times during holidays in Israel. 

As a kid, we spent most of the Jewish holidays at my grandparents.  Thanksgiving was at our house when I was a kid and when I got a little older, my aunt always had Thanksgiving, but Rosh Hashanah was nearly always at my grandmother's house.  It was always a lot of fun.  My family was not religious, although we did go to synagogue I think more for the social interaction than for spirituality.  My grandmother's house was a fun place on holidays (actually on any day).  Our family was pretty small, it was my grandparents, my parents and brothers and my aunt uncle and 4 cousins.  We saw a lot of each other (living a block away from each other as youngsters) and often spending Sundays at my grandparents.  We did what I think a lot of o ther Jewish families do on holidays, we ate a lot, hung out, talked and debated different things (sports, politics).  They were good times, although the holidays weren't all that much different than our usual Sundays together.  The only difference was the food my grandmother served.  On Sundays she almost always made steak (how she broiled delmonico steaks 14 people which were eaten at the same time, I'll never know.  On holidays she always made chicken soup, on Rosh Hashanah with kreplach and on Passover with matzo balls.  She also usually made a brisket (and I must say her brisket was awful, my mom's brisket was moist and tender and Meme's was dry like shoe leather) but she always made kugel and tzimmes so by the time you ate your gelfite fish, loaded up on kreplach and challah, you could skip right over the brisket onto kugel and not even care.  Skipping over brisket was like some intricate culinary game of hopscotch.  And although we never talked about it as kids, a couple of years ago I was together with my cousins and one of them brought up Meme's leather brisket and we all nearly peed our pants laughing, maybe because my aunt reproduced it at that particular get together, but just like riding a bike, my cousins brother and I played hopscotch then like we never stopped playing it. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I really love to cook.  I would not call myself a great cook, but I am solid. I can make a non leather brisket, so that's something, right?  As a child I spent many of those Sundays and holidays perched on my grandmother's royal blue stepstool in her pink kitchen (and I mean PINK, pink cabinet, pink stove top, pink oven, pink refrigerator), watching her as she made her food.  When I wasn't at my grandmother's house, I did the same in our own kitchen watching my mom cook.  My mom and grandmother did not write down recipes.  My grandma would say, you have to do it and not write it down, so I never wrote down any of her recipes.  However, when I grew up and started cooking, I really did know how to make most of the things she made.  Anyway, I think one of the reasons I really love to cook is that cooking connects me very closely with that time in my life.  Some of my warmest memories were spent in the kitchen.  I spent so much time talking to my grandma when I was there watching her cook.  She talked to me about her life, her parents, about music and dance, about life.  My grandmother was the warmest and kindest person I knew and I just loved being with her there, while she cooked for the family that she loved.  So, when I am cooking, particularly when the smells of what I am cooking are wafting through the house I feel that close connection toward my grandma.  I really do think that is why I really love to cook so much. 

And my holiday dinners largely resemble hers.  I use her silverware.  I make a lot of the same food and fuss over the table the same way.  When I am putting away her silverware, I can almost transport myself back to her pink kitchen, drying the silverware with her dish towels and putting them back in the same holder that she had. 

Maya, right before dinner asking me to 'bless the bread' already!

Our crowd at holidays vary.  Sometimes it is just us together with my inlaws, sometimes Leo's brother and sister are in with their families, sometimes friends are in.  Last year we had about 20 people, and tonight it was just us and tomorrow night it is us, with Leo's parents and a friend.  Small or large though I really love doing it.
In the earlier part of the week when I was making my soup and kreplach, I posted a little bit on facebook and many friends and family asked me for recipes and what I was making, I was honestly flattered that people wanted my recipes and wanted to know what I was cooking.

Tonight's Menu

Apples with Honey
Gefilte Fish with horseradish

Orange Chicken with Honey
Wild Rice
French cut green beans
Baby green salad with vinaigrette
Apple Crisp

Tomorrow Night's Menu

Apples with Honey
Gefilte Fish with Horseradish
Chicken soup with kreplach
Cucumber salad
Brisket with shoestring carrots and sauce of sherry and figs
Mashed Potato puree with spring onions
Hericot Verts
Green salad with dijon vinaigrette
And some kind of dessert (not sure yet which)

No comments:

Post a Comment