As September rolls in you can feel Rosh Hashanah in the air. The days are shorter and the first hint of autumn crispness is blowing in on the evening breeze. The beach and pool season is still open but the remaining swimming days are numbered. Although the leaves don’t change color in California like they do in many parts of the United States, the first droplets of rain, (hopefully) promise to fall soon, washing away the dust that clings to everything here during the dry summer months. The fall fruits are ready for harvest, especially local apples and pomegranates, two fruits symbolic of Rosh Hashanah. Jewish children everywhere, although only back in school a short time, look forward to the autumn High Holiday season.
The holiday meal for Rosh Hashanah is an important family event. Denying your family an appearance during this holiday celebration is equivalent to denying a Christian family your presence at the Christmas feast. Trying to coordinate which family members will dine at whose house is a feat of delicate negotiation, one that usually erupts in someone’s disappointed in-laws yelling, “But they got you last year! It’s our turn!”
Unlike Passover with its the dietary constraints, Rosh Hashanah is a creative cooking celebration. You can experiment and try foods or recipes not eaten the rest of the year. As long as everything is sweet, representing the desire for a sweet new year, everyone will be happy. (Sorry, diabetics, this is not an ideal holiday for you.)
A sweet meat dish is the main attraction at a traditional Rosh Hashanah meal. One of my favorites features chicken pieces slow-cooked on the stove and smothered in prunes and honey, seasoned with sticks of cinnamon. When the meat falls off the bone and the sauce becomes a thick, sticky gravy, it’s ready. This chicken dish is decadently sweet, spectacularly delicious, and perfectly appropriate for a Rosh Hashanah feast. The full recipe is available in the cookbook A Fistful of Lentils by Jennifer Abadi. Apple-Honey Drumsticks, courtesy of the Food Network Kitchen, or Honey Garlic Chicken, provided by The Endless Meal, are also crowd pleasers.
Brisket is another popular main course on Rosh Hashanah. Although Jewish holiday meals often center around a chicken dish, Rosh Hashanah is the holiday when one can go all out and prepare something really special and a little different. The Sweet and Spicy Brisket recipe from Kosher Scoop is moist and delicious.
Despite Rosh Hashanah’s call for creativity in the kitchen, there are few symbolic foods you will find on every Jewish table. Pomegranates are an important holiday food, partly because they ripen this time of year, but more importantly because, according to legend, pomegranates contain exactly 613 seeds, one for each of the 613 commandments in the Torah, and serve as a reminder of the commandments in the new year.
Honey serves as symbolic prayer for a sweet new year. It is tradition to dip apples in honey prior to sitting down to the holiday meal and to ask God to bestow upon you and your family a sweet new year.
Another traditional food is challah, a sweet braided loaf consumed as part of the Friday night Shabbat meal. On Rosh Hashanah, we eat a circular challah, round representing a smooth new year with no bumps in the road. Stuff the challah with plump raisins or coat it in honey syrup to highlight the sweet theme for the new year. My favorite is this tasty challah recipe from reformjudiasm.org.
Last year at the OFJCC’s staff holiday Rosh Hashanah celebration, Rabbi Joey Felson gave a speech wishing everyone a wonderful new year. He spoke of the symbolism of the different foods on this holiday and asked how many of us put a leaf of lettuce, a raisin, and a stalk of celery on our holiday table. Everyone, from my religious co-workers to my secular ones, was stumped. Lettuce, raisin, and celery? We had never heard of such a tradition. What could these foods possibility symbolize? Rabbi Joey laughed and looked directly at CEO Zach Bodner and said, “Let-uce have a rais-in celery.” Get it? “Let us have a raise in salary.” We all agreed that was a nice wish for the new year!
Finally, no Rosh Hashanah feast would be complete without dessert, and honey cake is the most popular choice for this sweet holiday. Baking honey cake is not an easy feat, as honey dries the cake and makes it very dense. The secret to a light and fluffy honey cake is a bit of black tea, a cup of good coffee, or a generous pour of whiskey. The cake does not take on the flavor of these liquids but they help keep the cake from feeling like a brick made by the ancient Israelites in Egypt. Ah, but now we are diverging into the story of Passover.
I hope you have a chance to experience a Rosh Hashanah celebration this year and I wish everyone a sweet and healthy new year. Shana Tova!
You can celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the OFJCC community at several events this season. And of course don’t forget to check out our OFJCC Rosh Hashanah Pinterest board for inspirational holiday recipes and décor ideas.