Late September always marks the observance of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hoshanah. If you’re not Jewish, or you don’t have friends who are, chances are you may not have noticed this recent commemoration. Here in the U.S., at least, Jewish holidays don’t get a lot of attention. So here’s some background in case you don’t know.
Rosh Hoshanah signifies the start of a ten-day period of prayer and reflection. At the other end of this holy time is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the highest of Jewish holy days. Devout Jews will fast for about 25 hours in observance of this day, not even taking water. Yom Kippur is hard core, and the most faithful of Jews spend most of the day in the synagogue, in quiet contemplation.
Not me, of course, because I’ve wandered away from Judaism over the years. In fact, I tend to keep a safe distance from organized religion of any sort. Still, I was born a Jew, and even if I’m not a devout one, I’ll always identify myself as part of the tribe. But back to the lesson:
Unlike January 1st, the Jewish New Year is pretty quiet. You won’t see thousands of Jews packing Times Square wearing party hats and glittery glasses with the year 5775 spelled out. Nor will you see a giant Waterford matzoh ball drop at midnight to start the celebration. Just a few happy greetings of “Shanah Tovah” to observe the day. And food, of course.
Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, himself a nice Jewish boy, once stated that there are three basic tenets to all Jewish celebrations:
1.They tried to kill us.
2. We beat them mightily.
3. Let’s eat!!
Oversimplified, maybe, but Bruce speaks the truth. Putting aside any discussion of modern times and the current (and let’s face it, chronic) unrest in the Middle East, people of other faiths have been waging war on Jews for thousands of years. And for some reason – I attribute it to basic Jewish stubbornness – Jews have managed to survive and frequently claw their way back to the top of the sand pile.
What better cause for celebration, am I right?
Just like any other culture or religion, there are certain foods which are unique to Judaism. Earlier this week, my niece Lindsey shared a delightful Buzzfeed video, which presented a taste test of a few Jewish delicacies, as experienced by some unsuspecting goyim. I’ve included a link to the video here. Watch it first, and then I’ll provide some Jewish mother commentary.
All of these foods, and countless others, were on the menu for many holiday observances, almost always held at my maternal grandmother’s house. Mama, as we knew her, taught me the basics about cooking. She was an oracle of food. Think Yoda, only a little taller, and with an Austrian accent. Also, not green. You can read about her here.
Now, let’s take a closer look at these interesting foods.
Gefilte fish – I have to make a confession here. Don’t tell anyone, okay?
I’ve never actually tasted gefilte fish. I blame my mother. When I was little, I vividly remember that she found them disgusting. She refused to eat them. I can’t tell you if it was all based on the taste, or if it was the visual aspect of gefilte fish that put her off. But Mom referred to them as “turds in a jar.” And with that picture in my impressionable little head, I could never bring myself to try them.
Next time you go to the grocery store, check out the Kosher food aisle. Locate the gefilte fish and see if her description isn’t dead on. You may never eat them either.
Kugel – Just as the tasters said, kugel is something of a hybrid. It’s served as a side dish, but has elements of a dessert. Kugel is a conglomeration of egg noodles, cream cheese, butter, sugar, cinnamon and other goodies, which is then baked – sort of a dessert lasagna. In the video, it has fruit on top of it, but I’ve never seen it prepared that way. Done properly (translation: how Mama taught me to do it), it’s topped with ground corn flakes and spices.
It’s delicious and rich and decadent, and as the video blurb stated, it does have magical powers. I always fix kugel for Passover. Mostly because my brother Marty calls me a few days before and says “So, are you bringing the kugel?” Hey, there are some traditions you just don’t mess with. Give the people what they want, I always say.
Matzoh balls – What the meat ball is to Italians, the matzoh ball is to Jews. A flavorful blend of herbs and matzoh meal, this humble ball is best experienced in a bowl of hot noodle soup. Done properly (translation: how my Mom taught me to do it; no doubt Mama taught her), the base is Lipton noodle soup, the kind with the tiny noodles in it. Talk about magical powers. Matzoh ball soup is like nectar of the gods. Trust me on this.
Chopped liver – Go ahead, turn up your nose. That just leaves more for the rest of us. Chopped liver gets a bum rap because, as the goyim mentioned, it’s ugly, resembles cat food, and is, you know, made of liver. But one of the tasters called it a pate. And that’s exactly what it is.
Jews make it from chicken liver (so as not to waste anything), but if you go to a debutante party, or someplace where rich people hang out, there’s liable to be a very expensive goose liver spread on the buffet. You can dress it up and give it a snooty French name (fois gras), but you can’t fool me. I know chopped liver when I see it. Mama’s was perfect, served on little slices of dark rye bread.
Rugelach – Rugelach wasn’t a staple at our celebrations. We were too busy inhaling Mama’s legendary cheesecake, which is still a favorite recipe in our family. But rugelach is a delicious little pastry which can be filled with a variety of fruits, nuts, or sweet spreads. After I watched the video, I began to google rugelach recipes. Seems like a good thing to have in my growing arsenal of Foo-worthy foods.
Manischewitz – as stated, this sweet Kosher wine is frequently served at Jewish feasts. Pronounced ‘mana-SHEV-its’, this wine is sneaky and dangerous. It does taste like grape juice, which is why you lose track of how much you’ve had. You refill your glass over and over, at what is often an hours-long holiday dinner, and eventually, you are well and truly wasted. My very first hangover was courtesy of Manischewitz. Beware.
There you have it. A guide to fine Jewish dining, should you be so lucky to partake of such. If there’s not an honest-to-goodness Jewish deli in your area, then find yourself some Jews and buddy up before the next round of holidays. What better way to secure an invite to a Jewish feast?
But remember, steer clear of the gefilte fish.
Speaking of food, yes, I am still doing my monthly baked goods giveaway. The original August winner never responded to my email, and due to some technical issues (my IT department was really busy this month), it took a while to select an alternate winner. But I’m tickled to announce that the next random name drawn was none other than my dear and wonderful pal Lynne. She’s been my friend since 2nd grade, is a constant voice of reason, an always calming influence, and a frequent drinking buddy. Lynne is also, as she describes herself, “an inaugural subscriber and creative contributor” to this here blog. She’s been here from the start, so it’s a pleasure for me to bake her a pan of lemon squares and deliver them to her office.
Stay tuned, September’s winner is coming up in the next blog!