Part One: Rosh Hashana
Our new Local Voices columnist Melina Macall is a writer, researcher, community organizer and college lecturer focusing on issues around food access. She has lived in Montclair for 18 years and runs Boxed Organics, a local, organic food service, boxedorganicsnj.com. In this series she will discover and explore Montclair neighbors through food and culture. Macall is co-founder of The United Tastes of America, and the Syria Supper Club, which builds bridges across cultures and communities through dinners held in people’s homes and prepared by recently resettled Syrian refugees. For more information visit TheUnitedTastesOfAmerica.org.
September is here and with it the start of the school year.
As parents and children adjust back into their routine of school days and homework, and scrabble for last-minute items, replacing the worn backpack, sharpening pencils, purchasing new notebooks and binders, there is another group of people in Montclair making other preparations.
Along with the change of seasons heralded in September comes Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The date for Rosh Hashana varies on the Gregorian calendar as the Jewish calendar is a lunar one.
Although Montclair public schools are closed for one day for Rosh Hashana it is, in fact, a two-day festival. Along with Yom Kippur, 10 days later, Rosh Hashana is the most important Jewish festival of the year. It marks the Jewish New Year and literally means “head of the year.”
Tradition dictates that on Rosh Hashana our fates are written and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, they are sealed.
Wishes for a good fate and a sweet year are reflected in the greetings exchanged and in the food prepared for special festive meals.
As people meet up for dinner or at synagogue “Shana tova umetukah” (“a good and sweet year”) will be echoed back and forth.
“Leshana tovah tikatev v’tichatem” (“May you be written and sealed for a good year”) is said from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur.
Traditional food for Rosh Hashana reflects these wishes:
Apple slices dipped in honey for a sweet year.
Apples and other food items which are round are also traditional, representing continuity.
Challah, typically a braided loaf, is round for Rosh Hashana. Pomegranates are eaten in the hopes that one will perform as many good deeds as there are seeds.
While there are too many recipes and foods to share here, the general rule of thumb is that traditional Rosh Hashana food will have a sweet and symbolic twist to it. There are two distinct subcultures of Judaism, the Ashkenazim with East European roots, and Sephardim, who have Spanish, Portuguese, North African and Middle Eastern roots. Food at the festive table reflects these roots and lends a very distinct flavor to the meals. Recipes will have been handed down from generation to generation and the continuity of tradition is there even as recipes are adapted by each new cook.
A typical Ashkenazi feast might include:
Chopped liver (coarse chicken or beef liver paté)
Gefilte fish (poached minced white fish) served with horseradish
Chicken soup with kneidlach (dumplings)
Roast honey chicken
Tsimmes (sweet carrots with dumplings) cooked in honey
A typical Sephardi feast might include:
Keftes de prassa (leek fritters)
Empanada del cabasa (pumpkin empanada)
Roast chicken with dried fruit and almonds
Lubia (black-eyed peas with onion tomato and garlic, the beans signifying a hope for plenty)
And, on both tables, you will often finds iterations of honey cake, fresh or dried dates, some kind of fish dish and a variant of chicken soup.
Recipes abound online and you can also buy many of these items, ready made, at local stores in and near Montclair.
Ten days later Jews all over the world gather for the most solemn and holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a fast day and no food or drink will be consumed for 25 hours, from sunset of the night before until three stars are in the sky of the next day. The end of the fast is heralded by a final trumpeting of the shofar (a ram’s horn) and at this moment the fate for the year is sealed. Families and friends gather for a break fast meal. Invariably, a table laden with delicacies is soon laid bare. It is a rare table that does not feature kugel, the ubiquitous, polarizing noodle pudding.
Shana tova, may we all have a good, sweet and peaceful year.