Thursday, September 25, 2003
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which this year falls Sept. 26-27, has several meanings. Binie Holtzberg, the wife of Monterey''s newly arrived Chabad Rabbi Dovid Holtzberg, explains that the penetrating sound of the shofar, or ram''s horn, which is blown in the synagogue on this holiday, is a call to repentance, ushering in the ten-day judgment period leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It also symbolizes a baby''s wail, recalling the sacrifice Abraham was willing to make of his son Isaac to prove his loyalty to God.
Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah involves food. Solemn yet festive meals are served after the synagogue services. Biniee tells me that each meal begins with blessings over the wine served in a special cup, the Kiddush cup. Celebrants then wash their hands as they prepare to dip braided challah bread in honey, instead of salt as is the usual custom.
Every week for her Sabbath meals, Binie makes sweetened, egg-bread challah in loaf form. For Rosh Hashanah she bakes challah in the shape of a circle, so that the New Year will be complete. Before Binie braids her challah she always takes a small piece of dough from the loaf to bake separately. In ancient times, this small baked piece would have gone to the high priest at the Temple in Jerusalem.
After blessing and eating the challah, the next course involves diners dipping apple slices in honey while wishing each other, "May your new year be sweet." Binie says that Jews avoid sour foods like lemons and pickles on Rosh Hashanah as well as spicy foods like mustard, because they only want to think of sweet things in the New Year. Nuts are another taboo food according to Binie. In Hebrew, letters have a numerical value, and the value of the Hebrew word for nuts, egoz, has the same numerical value as the word "sin"-- something one might wish to to avoid as one''s fate is being weighed on the heavenly scales.
Gefilte fish are the next course on Binie''s traditional holiday menu. These chopped whitefish balls in aspic usually decorated with a carrot on top are served at celebratory occasions among all Ashkenazi Jews (those of European origin). Claudia Roden, author of The Book of Jewish Food, writes that hassidic Jews (who are also Ashkenazi) like the Holtzbergs prefer sweetened gefilte fish, making the dish even more appropriate for sweet New Year wishes. A fish head accompanies the gefilte fish, symbolizing the desire to be at the "head" of all one''s endeavors.
Chicken soup with matzo balls made from ritually processed flour follows the gefilte fish. The round shape of the matzo balls again symbolizes a well-rounded, or complete year. Pomegranates are also served. "The pomegranate''s many seeds reflect our wish for many merits," Binie explains.
Binie says that almost any kind of chicken can serve as the main dish as long as taboo-for-the-holiday foods and flavors are avoided in the sauces and dressings. I could make a meal just out of the side dishes Binie describes: potato kugel (grated potatoes with eggs and onions cooked as a casserole), apple kugel (sweetened grated apple casserole), and tzimmes (honeyed carrot slices with raisins). According to Claudia Roden, carrots symbolize prosperity and good fortune as well as an increase of merits over shortcomings. Roden further writes that golden foods like baked apples, also served on Rosh Hashanah, evoke joy and happiness.
Binie says that a medley of desserts like ice cream cake, honey cake, and apple pie complete the sweet offerings of a Rosh Hashanah meal (non-dairy versions only, if chicken or other meat is served, in accordance with kosher law). Sweetened tea rather than coffee, which is bitter, is a typical ending for the meal.
This Rosh Hashanah will be particularly special for Binie, who moved with her husband from Brooklyn to Monterey this past March. In previous years she always helped her mother with the holiday meal; this will be the first year that she will be responsible for cooking all the food not only for her husband and baby, but for a community dinner the couple will hold Friday at the Monterey Hilton. That dinner is part of the outreach efforts of the Chabad movement, of which the Holtzbergs are emissaries. It''s a big introduction to the local community--they sent invitations to 2,500 Jewish families throughout Monterey County.
As I speak with Binie I think of how women of all faiths have contributed to holiday celebrations throughout the centuries by cooking the holiday meals. Watching Binie prepare to oversee her first Rosh Hashanah dinner, I reflect on a line from Chabad literature: Good actions transform us and the world around us.
For information on Chabad''s Rosh Hashanah dinner, contact ChabadMonterey@aol.com.