I’ve been an observant Jew for the last twenty-five years, and I’d like to think it’s out of piety, but really, it’s for the food. With a few notable exceptions (gefilte fish, I’m talking to you), Judaism guarantees a good meal. The wise-ass summary of all Jewish holidays is pretty much right: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.
So it goes without saying that I rank holidays solely by their traditional food offerings. Shavuot, of course, is number one, because you’re more or less commanded to eat cheesecake. Hanukkah means eight days of doughnuts, which makes it also number one. Yom Kippur is number seven hundred and twelve.
As for Rosh Hashanah, well, it’s not to be taken lightly. Rosh Hashanah foods are symbolic; what you eat is supposed to set the tone for the year. This is both good (apples and honey) and bad (fish heads).
Then there’s the menu the Talmud prescribes: “At the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates.” We’re not supposed to eat them because they’re delicious (because they aren’t. Gourds?). It’s not how they taste, but how they sound. The names of these particular foods sound like the things we’re praying for this time of year: that our merits increase, that our enemies be vanquished.
In other words, we’re eating puns. Which was also the idea behind every Rosh Hashanah dinner I hosted in my twenties, each pun worse than the last. First came Rosh Mexicana, then Rosh Italiana (we ate rosh lasagna). Then Russia Shana (piroshki). From there it was all downhill, with themes like Rosh HaShande (guilty pleasures) and Rosh HaShania, a country-western menu in honor of Shania Twain.
This year, because my daughter doesn’t have teeth, it may well be Mush Hashana.
If I were a different person entirely, my menus would be coming from Hip Kosher, Ronnie Fein’s stunning, stylish cookbook of perfectly delicious foods. I want to eat everything in there. The recipes are clear and don’t look difficult at all. But I am a person who forgets to add fundamental ingredients, who mistakes the sugar for salt. I should not be trusted to do things like frizzle leeks or sauté balsamic-glazed pears.
I wish I were that person, but all the teshuvah in the world isn’t going to turn me into one just yet. So instead, I’ll be relying on the recipes of another Jewish chef: Kenny Shopsin’s Eat Me. Because I don’t think I can screw up his Macaroni and Cheese Pancakes. They sound like heaven, and if that sets the tone for my year, that’ll be a very good thing.
Jennifer Traig is the author, most recently, of Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria, as well as Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, and Judaikitsch: Tchotchkes, Schmattes and Nosherei, and the editor of The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir. She lives in Ann Arbor.