It may be 7,536 miles away from her own kitchen in Tel Aviv, but I can just see my 95-year-old mother jotting down suggestions for what she thinks my sister in Los Angeles should serve on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that starts at sundown Wednesday. Her selections are predictable: homemade challah; chicken soup with kneidlach; vegetarian chopped liver (in the old days it was the real McCoy); roasted chicken (she no longer eats red meat) accompanied by a tzimmes and numerous other side dishes; and a fruit compote with her famous mandelbrot or a honey cake for dessert.
My mother's preferences for Rosh Hashana fare are traditional, things her Odessa-born Russian mother and generations of Ashkenazi Jews would have made in the old country. It's a menu that evolved based on the limited number of seasonal foods that were available. Yet symbolism also played a fascinating role in the evolution of Jewish holiday cuisine, and not just on Rosh Hashana. Throughout the Jewish year, seasonal foods are incorporated into special dishes that have become the caretakers of our wishes, laden with symbols from Jewish history, and collective memories of nature in the biblical land.
Today, these same symbolic foods can still be a part of tradition, though we might prefer to have them updated a little.
Foodstuffs were among the first symbols in Judaism, beginning from the fateful day when God chastised Adam and Eve for eating that forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. In biblical times, the grapevine symbolized security and well-being, peace, quiet and abundance, as did the fig tree. ("They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree / And none shall make them afraid.") The grape was so revered that it is the only fruit to have its own blessing (when consumed as wine).
The pomegranate held even greater symbolic richness. King Solomon graced the pillars of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with carvings of pomegranates, and the Bible required that they adorn the priests' garb as well. Its form embellished coinage of old, and the tufted crown of the pomegranate is purported to be the first inspiration for the kingly headdress.
The complement of bell and fruit held particular significance for the ancients. Bells symbolized the male pomegranate flower, the fruit the fertilized female. In the Song of Songs, pomegranates are used as a metaphor for beauty — "Thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil" — and in later days the fruits were used to decorate the booths (sukkot) on the Feast of Tabernacles. According to legend, the pomegranate contains exactly 613 seeds, the number of commandments in the Torah that Jews are instructed to perform, and an ancient custom suggests that on Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, we should consume a pomegranate to remind the Creator of all the good deeds we have (we hope) done in the last year.
This year, as in centuries past, Jews from all over the world will devote some element of their Rosh Hashana menu to symbolic foods. Most will dip sliced apple in honey, a late-medieval Ashkenazi tradition to symbolize our wishes for a sweet new year to come. A round challah will substitute for the usual elongated loaf shape, symbolizing the cycle of the year and the continuity of creation, and pieces of it will be dipped in honey, rather than the traditional salt.
Other dishes were chosen because their names in Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic or even Ladino, have connotations suitable to the holiday: The custom of eating tzimmes a carrot-based Ashkenazi stew traditionally served on Rosh Hashana, derives from the fact that the Yiddish word for carrots, merren, also means "more" or "increased." Sliced into coin-shaped pieces, they symbolize a wish for "more" health and wealth for ourselves and our children. Even kreplach — small stuffed pasta dumplings — hold symbolic significance: An ancient mystical tradition suggests that since the new moon is nearly invisible at Rosh Hashana, some holiday foods should be "covered" or hidden as well.
But in Sephardic communities, once dispersed throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa, living in a climate similar to that of Israel, the plenteous selection of fruits and vegetables together with a Talmudic passage written in Aramaic evolved into a pre-meal Rosh Hashana Blessings Tray ceremony characterized by the eating of their own symbolic foods.
"At the beginning of each year a person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates," the rabbis of the Talmud said, interpreted in later years to mean the consumption of foods seen as "omens" with mystical powers, or a subtle way of asking God to fulfill our needs. Fenugreek, for example, or rubia in Aramaic sounds, like yirbu — "increase" — and its accompanying blessing asks that our merits be multiplied. Dates, or tamar in Hebrew, sounds like the Aramaic word yitamu, which means "will stop"; asking protection from our enemies and all those who wish us ill. A sheep or fish head (vegetarians can substitute a head of cabbage, garlic or broccoli) symbolizes our desire to "be at the head and not at the tail."
Although we are of Ashkenazi descent, in my home we have also adopted the Blessings Tray ceremony, and added a bowl of assorted items (such as a key and a peach) with which family members can invent their own blessings ("may we have the key to health this year," "may we have a peachy year"), just for fun.
But for extra blessings (you can never have too many), these same symbolic foods of Rosh Hashana can be woven into the holiday meal (the leeks and apples in soup, honey with chicken and pomegranates in the form of wine in the dessert), to create a festive dinner that is rich in meaning, even though it might be a little more modern than what my mother would have ordered.
I think she would approve.