September 28, 2006

Sweet Foods For A Sweet New Year

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5767 has come. This past weekend, Jews all over the world welcomed Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Friday night through Sunday afternoon, Jews celebrated the anniversary of the Creation.
Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew for “head of the year”, is one of the most holy days of the Jewish calendar and is traditionally celebrated with two days of synagogue-going and festive meals with friends and family. The festive meals that take place in the late afternoon or early evening of both the first and second day of Rosh Hashanah are typically replete with certain foods associated with the holiday. Like the foods served at many holidays, the foods prepared for Rosh Hashanah are symbolic and unique to this special time of the year.
Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of optimism. Many of the dishes typical of the holiday include sweet and seasonal foods that are to act as “reminders of hope for the coming year” (Joan Nathan, Jewish Holiday Kitchen); such foods include raisins, honey, carrots, and apples.
Probably the most commonly sited symbolic food of Rosh Hashanah is the apple dipped in honey. The apple, a fruit of the fall and consequently readily available during the holiday, acts as a symbol of the season. Honey, a natural form of sugar, acts as a symbol of a sweet year to come. Together, these two foods are to be eaten at the commencement of the Rosh Hashanah meal. An apple dipped in honey is a delicious crunchy sweet to begin a holiday meal. (Apples and honey are, additionally, included in other dishes typical of the holiday. Such dishes include honey cake and apple pie.)
Challah, the braided bread served every Friday night at Shabbat, is made differently and, for some, more savory, for the Jewish New Year. Usually served in a rectangular form, the Rosh Hashanah challah is round, symbol of the cyclical nature of the year. Raisins and sometimes saffron are added to the Rosh Hashanah challah to make the bread more sweet and special.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a “new” fruit, the pomegranate (literally, “apple with seeds”), is often eaten. The pomegranate is meant to symbolize the new year coming, and because of this, it is a popular fruit on Rosh Hashanah menus. Both as an ingredient in complex recipes and on its own, the pomegranate is a popular fruit during the holiday.
After apples, carrots are perhaps the most symbolic food of Rosh Hashanah. Because the carrot is one of very few sweet vegetables that were available to poor Jews of Eastern Europe, they became a substitute for sweet but expensive yams and sweet potatoes. Bright and sweet, carrots (along with yams and sweet potatoes) act as symbols of a bright and sweet new year. Also, carrots cooked and sliced into circles resemble coins. Carrots, then, can signify an increase in wealth. Carrots are frequently served in kugels, cakes, salads, and stews.
Many Jews take effort to avoid serving any bitter or sour foods on Rosh Hashanah. Such foods are believed to act as a negative indicator of the year to come. In a similar vein, Moroccans Jews will not eat black foods such as olives or eggplants, whose color and taste salty or lemony foods (Nathan, 62). Indeed, the Jewish New Year is steeped in tradition.
So many foods and so few days of the holiday, no? But perhaps the foods served on Rosh Hashanah are top notch for a very particular reason. In just over a week, Jews will be observing another High Holy Day: Yom Kippur. On this Day of Atonement, the tradition is to fast for twenty-four hours. We fast to focus on our sins and avoid the distractions associated with preparing meals, eating, etc. Perhaps the foods served on Rosh Hashanah are as delicious as they are in recognition of the fact that on the next holiday, there will be no food served. So, eat and enjoy every bite of Rosh Hashanah. Recognize the embedded significance of the foods served at the Jewish New Year. No doubt, there are reasons why many of the foods served are prepared for this particular holiday.