When it comes to Rosh Hashanah, I’m a big fan. It’s hard not to love a Jewish holiday that’s all about spiritual renewal, deep reflection and heartfelt promises to work harder to present our “better selves” to those around us. But, as I move into my mid-40s, I’m realizing there’s more than that to the Jewish New Year – more than those deep brown challahs filled with sweet raisins, more than the novelty of dipping apples in golden honey and dripping them all over the tablecloth before a great meal. Rosh Hashanah is also a profound vessel of memory and, as I defrost my brisket, hunt for the best-yet new quinoa recipe and knead and shape my challahs, I’ll be thinking of the past.
I don’t realize, until Rosh Hashanah rolls around, how vividly that past is available. I yank those memories from the recesses of my mind and daydream my way back to a 14-year-old self growing up in Cape Town, South Africa. Back then, Rosh Hashanah meant receiving a batch of my grandmother’s taiglach, a recipe I’m still determined to tackle and one that will take me, in spirit, immediately and joyfully, into her tiny kitchen. It meant hours in synagogue, listening to the deep baritone voices of the Rondebosch shul choir, and the wonderful melodies of the cantor, who we imported from Israel for that time of year.
It meant family discussions on who to invite to our Rosh Hashanah table, and long debates about whether we could tolerate, for another year, the uncle who arrived in his farm-stained overalls and fell asleep on the sofa before the meal was over. Or the aunt who was always asking for recipes (and never using them) and used fingers, rather than salad servers, to select the leafy greens she wanted on her plate.
There were wild cousins whose antics my parents weren’t certain they wanted unleashed in the house. And friends whose children my sister and I wanted nothing to do with and campaigned loudly for their removal from the guest list.
With hours before the festival’s arrival, as my mother’s culinary activities sent rich aromas wafting over the house, we kids were in charge of setting the table and removing from the dusty cabinet the exquisite glasses my parents had bought while on a Venice honeymoon 15 years earlier. We’d craft name tags and carefully position them around the table, ensuring we occupied the best seats in the house. And we’d decant the wine an elderly relative had made, pouring it carefully into the crystal decanter only used on such occasions.
At the time, I rolled my eyes at the list of chores, grateful for the reprieve from school but unappreciative, as only a teenager with little worldly experience can be, of the treasures at that table. The family members we’d lose as age and cancer robbed them of more time with us. The recipes I’d never have the foresight to record and the hugs and kisses I never cherished long enough.
What I did bring with me over the decades, that would follow me into married life with children, was an unbridled love for Rosh Hashanah and a determination to make it as memory-laden, meaningful and delicious as possible in my home. It’s why, this year and in the years ahead, I’ll spend hours on dishes I’d never normally prepare: sodium-filled chicken soup with kneidlach, tender brisket that will tempt even the avowed vegetarians among my kids and wafer-thin kichel biscuits, perfect with chopped herring. Maybe I’ll even summon the courage to attempt baking sweet, sticky taiglach, a recipe that requires copious amounts of syrup and hours of careful babysitting.
I’ll do all this and more in the name of memory, because it will conjure my own past, a continent and lifetime away, so vividly. And I’ll hug my kids extra-tight, subdued in the knowledge that, one day, they, too, will celebrate this holiday with their own families after I’m six feet under, hopefully cherishing the food and love-laden Rosh Hashanah memories of their own long-gone childhoods.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.