I love the Jewish holidays even if I may not be the ideal spokesperson for Judaism. Not really lighting the candles every Friday night or going to the synagogue as often as I should, and that’s when I belong to a real hip temple that offers funky programs like Jewish Meditation and Sushi & Sake In The Sukkah. They even stream their services live, so I can join them in my PJs, if I wanted to.
The thing is, when it comes to religion, or really anything, I tend to take the food route.
So, yes, I don’t know the prayers.
I’d fail miserably on any Bible trivia question.
Okay, let’s face it, I’d fail miserably on any Bible question.
I didn’t grow up with this stuff, even though my father was born and raised in Jerusalem, which is also known as, The Holy City.
But man, have I got it down on what you’re supposed to eat when.
For Rosh Hashana, a two-day holiday which began at sundown yesterday and celebrates the Jewish New Year (5775, for those of you scratching your head, like I was) there are a few essentials:
The first, the must-have, the easiest, is apples and honey, the main focus being the honey, for its sweetness and to bring forth a sweet New Year.
So you start with that.
Really eating anything sweet afterwards works. Chicken with fruit is a tasty main course. If you are of Eastern European descent, you’ll go for a large serving of tzimmes, a candied stew made from carrots and dried fruit. Another favorite is kugel, a baked casserole using undisclosed amounts of sugar, butter, sour cream and some sort of fruit: pineapples or raisins or cherries. Most people have memories of a grandma’s unbeatable version of one of these two dishes. The lucky few have a memory of both. If you want one with a killer secret ingredient, take a peek at mine.
Yes, it’s all high in calories, but God sort of ordained it, so you’re good to go. Which means you’ve gotta put a crumbly, crunchy topping on that kugel, maybe requiring a wee bit more butter.
Desserts on Rosh Hashana are popular, for obvious reasons. There’s the prerequisite honey cake, maybe throw in an apple cake too, since you are already slicing a bunch of apples for the dipping-in-honey bit. And, of course, rugelach, the crescent-shaped pastry filled with chocolate, raspberry, or apricot is a staple at any Jewish event (and they balance perfectly on the coffee saucer, you know.)
Since you’re not focusing on how tight your pants will become in the coming new year, I’ll take this opportunity to discuss the bread you will be eating as well. It’s the Jewish go-to standard: challah, that addictive braided loaf of goodness.
I eat this every Shabbat (candles or no candles), often slathered in butter. On Rosh Hashana, the same bread will make its appearance in a round shape and served, you got it, with honey.
Round is big on Rosh Hashana. Theories abound: that the round loaf represents the cyclical nature of the calendar year, that it is smooth and seamless like we hope the coming year will be, even, that it represents a long life span.
The cool thing about Judaism, whether channeled in a progressive synagogue like mine or in a more traditional setting, is that there is always more than one interpretation for everything. We Jews love a good discussion. Multiple viewpoints are encouraged, almost expected. Pair that with a warm, honey-dipped slice of fresh challah and I’d say that is the start of a very delicious new year.
In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water. Let stand for about 5 minutes to dissolve the yeast. Stir in the salt, sugar, oil, and eggs until blended. Gradually mix in flour. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Come on, get into it. This part is like going to therapy without having to cough up $200 afterwards.
Place the dough in a bowl, lightly oiled, put a dishtowel over it and forget about it for a bit (aka, until it is double in size.)
This part is also fun: Punch down the dough. You heard me. Take off that dishtowel and sock it dead center, as if you were Mohammed Ali himself.
Okay, this part gets a bit tricky. The braided round challah requires a spatial mind, or, I am a blundering idiot because I can’t figure out how to do it. Seriously, I’ve studied it closely, it entails rolling out long snakes of dough (like a traditional challah) but then forming them in tic-tac-toe type settings and going all crazy on it, whipping strands under and over and around that would leave even the most agile weaver confused.
So, I’m sticking to the spiral version. Seriously, it may be silly, but there is enough stuff to stress about so I am not going to throw visual perception into the mix. And many folks actually prefer this loaf for symbolic reasons:
Spiral = smooth = circular = Rosh Ha Shana. I can work with that equation.
So, here we go for the round shape:
Divide your dough in two pieces.
On a lightly floured surface, roll first piece into a very smooth 24-inch long “snake” of even thickness.
Here’s a tip: round challah can be filled with sweet treats, namely golden raisins, although some über cool moms (I won’t name any names) have been known to toss in mini chocolate chips instead. In any case, if you want to go this route (maybe do one loaf plain and another loaded up) then you are going to want to roll out each snake piece with a rolling pin so that it is flat, sprinkle your desired add-ins and roll that snake back up into a strand so these goodies are nestled inside the dough. At that point, you go on to shaping it in its spiral shape. Got it? Good.
Bring one end around to form a circle that is about 5 inches in diameter. Continue winding the rest of the snake on top of the circle so that it spirals inward and upward, finishing in the center. Tuck the end of the snake into the center.
Do next loaf. (Remember, you’ll have to roll it out first if you want to fill it with raisins/chocolate.)
Place on a baking sheet and allow it to rise another 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Whisk together your wash ingredients and brush over the tops of the loaves. Sprinkle with seeds, if desired.
Bake for 30 minutes or until bread is a golden color and emits a hollow thump when patted on the bottom. "HUH?" you are thinking. Seriously, don’t panic. Just gently pick up your loaf, or turn it or whatever, and lightly tap it (like a criminal would lightly tap floorboards to determine where the hollow one holding the cash is.) When you hear that hollow thud sound, you’ll light up with happiness (like said criminal) because your fabulous challah will be done. Hey, don’t go breaking into anyone’s house or anything.
It is a lazy Sunday afternoon and my son sits glued to his PS2, a dinosaur of home video game consoles, I’ve learned from stumbling from one Gamestop store to another unsuccessfully seeking programs that will function on it.
The name of his newest game is so long I had to write it down on a neon pink Post-it. Even reciting it diligently from store to store was not enough for my memory to grasp and make mine, and as we crossed off locations that told us they didn’t carry it, hadn’t in years, my faith began to waver. It was my son’s dreamy, hopeful eyes that ignited my resolve and kept me going, on to visit one more store, ask one more time, maybe, who knows, maybe, store #7 will be The One.
Store #7 was a washout.
“We only sell PS3 and up,” the cocky young salesperson with a shiny stud earring answered, tearing his flat stare away from his iPhone onto us and sighing, as if we’d interrupted an important direct tweet with President Obama.
Really? Look at the boy’s eyes. Look into those eyes. Tell me you don’t get lost in that caramel glaze of hope, like I do? Tell me you’ll go to the back of the store, the very guts of it, and search in forgotten boxes, hunt for this obscure outdated game whose name I fail to remember and need to recite on a now-crinkled neon pink Post-it.
I feel like saying this to the unaffected clerk who has already forgotten us and continued tapping away at his smartphone, Tweeting, Snapchating, or Instagraming some inconsequential hiccup of his life.
My eyes beg to burn my wrath in that dry-ice way they know how.
But I don’t let them because I glance at my son and his eyes, thoughtful, rich and deep, beg me not to.
I mumble a middle-aged, proper “thank you” into the empty space and head to the parking lot, my mind spinning for a solution.
My son is cool with the whole thing.
But guilt and anger fester in me.
“You wanna look into getting a used PS4?” I ask kindly, as we get back in the car.
I can’t afford a new PS4.
“Nah, mom. I don’t like those. PS2 is good. I like it. Retro,” he adds, strategically, making it okay.
I’m not sure if he is lying or not. He is, like me, quite skilled at telling fibs.
All I know is that he is fiercely loyal and protective , a cub growing quickly into a man.
“Let’s go home, Mom. I’ll find it on Amazon,” he concludes, laying a reassuring eleven-year old hand on mine.
Back home I am grateful for the Internet.
We do, indeed, find what he is looking for, quickly, cheaply, with no shipping and handling fees and zero attitude.
Within days the package arrives.
He opens it and is ecstatic to find the PS2 game he pined for. It is loaded with bad graphics and even worse music. It’s really too new to be retro, to old to be hip, but my son is happy destroying villains to a soundtrack of what seems to be The Carpenters merged with an overdose of bad 80’s electric guitar solos.
The one that needs reassurance seems to be me. I keep remembering that indifferent twenty-year old kid at the game store, his sigh at our outdated request, and the world of updated game consoles that flourished without us.
“You wanna eat something?” I ask as my son shoots, kicks and bombs his way through the game.
“No thanks,” he tells me, without moving his eyes from the screen.
“You sure?” I push, the Jewish mother in me can’t help herself.
“Yeah,” he says, then pauses.
And here I know I’ve got a gem of a boy. Here he takes his eyes off the game and looks at me. A good fifteen seconds of love pours out of his eyes into mine. Enough to have his leg blown to bits by his opponent, the one hiding behind the boulder there. For his mama, my son takes the fall.
There’s a big explosion and a scream that sounds like Mariah Carey caught naked in the dressing room.
“Okay, yeah, I’ll have something,” he answers, returning to his game, not even flinching at the trauma his onscreen persona has endured.
He’s picked himself up again and continued to battle, missing the smile spread wide across my face.
“How ‘bout a slice of Cranberry Bread,” I toss out in my best casual-sounding voice.
I believe I can fix any problem with a slice of something sweet.
“That’ll be great, mom. Thanks.” He chimes back. “And a bowl of strawberries, please.”
He’s not much of a sweet bread eater, my boy. I know this. Which is why he’s asked for the strawberries. He’ll eat all the fruit in the world, even when he doesn’t want anything, a bowl of strawberries is always welcome. But he is kind, thoughtful, and sensitive, so he will take my slice of Cranberry Bread for me. Maybe he’ll break off a piece as if to pop it in his mouth, then park it on the upper corner of his plate. If I serve it warm with a slab of butter, he’ll spread that around with a knife, watch it give way to the glistening cranberries. Engage in the ritual of eating it without actually taking a bite.
I’m overlooking the years of therapy I may be thrusting upon him with my need for happiness through food. Unlike him, I can be incredibly selfish, like now, plopping a piece of cranberry bread on a plate and placing it in front of my boy merely to ease the anger, frustration and hopelessness our unsuccessful store hopping flared up in me. There is more to this, I realize. But what better way to ease a mother’s sense of inadequacy than with cranberry bread?
“Thanks, Mom,” my son smiles, ignoring his game and playing along in mine. He is wise beyond his years, understanding me so well like that, choosing to give me this moment instead of enjoying his. I see the bad guys on the screen. They’re all out in the open now, approaching him, preparing his demise. He will have to start over from level one to regain all his powers if he doesn’t defend himself right now. His eyes scan the screen quickly, assess the situation in a matter of seconds and return to me. In my book, he’s ahead of the game all the time.
The skeletons that surround me make me smile. Some hold cigarettes, others pet dogs (in skeletal form, of course), and more daring ones balance baskets of flowers on their hard heads. It’s the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, here in Mexico: a holiday officially celebrated October 31 through November 2 to commemorate the lives of everyone’s loved ones who have passed away. For these three days gravesides become picnic areas as entire families join to rejoice and remember their loved ones, making sure to offer them their favorite treats, graveside. But the festivities begin way before that… “Calacas”, or skeletons, adorn every street vendor’s sidewalk offering. Bright orange cempasuchil (Mexican marigolds) flowers, used by the Aztecs to mourn their dead, are the official floral offering for the dead and are mandatory at every corner florist, and then of course, there is Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead.
This sweet concoction begins to appear in early October and is seen in all sizes with all sorts of fillings in ever pastry store in town. Circular in shape with extra dough used on top to resemble bones, it is finished off with a hearty coating of crunchy sugar. Inside, you will find a rich, buttery dough, very similar to challah bread.
Pan de Muerto takes center stage in the offerings on altars that families make for their dead (who doesn’t love sweet dough?) alongside those beautiful flowers, packs of cigarettes and bottles of tequila. If you are lucky, you will be treated to one filled with chocolate, or better yet, dulce de leche. That is, if the dead feel like sharing it with you.
There’s a memory tucked away safely in the crevice of my mind, through twists and turns of the years gone by, unscathed by the notorious forgetfulness that usually defines me, this memory stays, is strong, is protected.
It’s of my mother, of course, and warmth and sweetness – the nourishment of food given to a daughter by her mother. It can be sunny out or cloudy, these parts of the memory don’t matter, for I know in the bubble of this moment that I am all right. Because my mother makes it so. She smells sweet and sends a small smile in my direction. My eyes are big and blue and slightly teary-eyed. I’ve had a rough day; the days are rough at age six when your best friend finds a new best friend, when you scrape your knee, when your father has gone away on another business trip.
Mom is at the stovetop and she stirs something and I know life can get better. It is sweet and salty and creamy, enveloping me in a hug of cozy buttermilk. I see kernels of corn bubbling gently in the mix and I smile. I know soon a comforting plate of creamed corn will be placed in front of me, not because it is supper time or because I have requested it, but because it is just one of those days, a moment only a mother can read in a daughter; a moment only a mother can fix.
And she does, crowning my bowl with an excessive slab of cold butter that quickly eases into a pool of salty liquid, disappearing just as rapidly as my foul mood does.
Each bite warms me, fills me, sweetens me, brightens my heart. And the memory stays. Ready for the taking. Anticipating the moment where, maybe, I’ll be having a tough day and I’ll walk into a cute café and order a coffee and…what’s that my eye spots? Ponque de Elote? Cornbread!
I ask for it and to my delight it arrives warm and is like no other cornbread I’ve tasted before: it is moist, buttery, salty, and sweet. It is my mother’s smile all over again. It is her assurance that the day will get better. How could it not with so much love and goodness?
Bread haunts me so.I am not supposed to eat it this week (a Passover thing) and so, it teases.And lures.And promises me I can’t live without it.
The scale reconfirms Jewish law:I can live without it (the scale insists for longer than one measly week).The rolls forming on my gut reconfirm that Jewish law and scale are correct (when did this happen?)But the bread, ah the bread, in all its glorious forms is insurmountable torture to go without.There are warm bagels sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and spread with generous seas of creamy cream cheese or ciabata bread, with its extra chewy crunch on the outside, torn open to reveal those craters of dough forming planet-like surfaces which beckon wild blueberry jam to get trapped and devoured in.And of course, let’s not forget the French epi loaf with thorns of golden crunch running up and down the captivating baguette like an edible spine.I am shameless with this loaf, leaving intellect behind, notions of carbs and calories and such; I just tear at these spines, ripping whole chunks of epi off their vine and devour them warm and whole, slathering the occasional hunk of butter or brie, if I have self-control or time or either. These are breads I can’t live without.
So, yes, the idea of a boxed cracker called matzo…well, pales in comparison.Don’t get me wrong. I look forward to the initial matzo meeting.There is nothing quite like a whole piece of matzo slathered with butter and a toxic sprinkling of salt.This is how my father taught me to eat matzo and almost anything else:butter and a toxic sprinkling of salt.Butter and salt is how the purists do it, the Israelis, or sabras:the real matzo men (and women).Other ways seem pointless after that.And I’ve tried: egg salad, peanut butter, chopped chicken liver.Some work.Some scream out for the real yeast deal.
I admit then that that first, second, even third piece of matzo was delightful, delicious, a real embracing of my Jewish roots and a straight shot back to my childhood, where, finding matzo in the Latin Catholic country of Venezuela was a feat in itself.But then pieces got stuck in my teeth.And I had to pick them out.And I felt I had eaten cement. Lots and lots of cement with butter.And horribly so, the charoset, that lovely Passover delicacy of dates, figs, apples, nuts and wine, ran out.That stuff does wonders to a piece of matzo.Right up there with the butter.But when I went dry on that, the matzo went awfully dry.
So somehow I found myself traveling to every bakery for every other possible thing one would get at a bakery:truffle mousse at Le Croissant Time, fresh pasta at Doris (strategically placed by their bakery),hazelnut coffee at the bagel shop.I knew this would not end well for me.I understood it was not fair to me.I have no self-control when it comes to food.None. Zero.It is not in my DNA like food and all things food is.Guilt riddles me somewhat, but then that wafting of warm dough sings and dances in my nostrils and I inevitably cave, like I did this Passover, like I did last.
I don’t go crazy on the bread:a fugitive sandwich in a darkened room, a warm bagel incognito in the car on the run.Abstract places for abstract delights.There is no outright celebration of all things yeast, but still, I can’t bear to turn them away, not even for the week.I hope to not have let anyone down:my rabbi, God, my scale.And so I keep the matzo box nearby, just so.And the butter is always soft.