What we mean when we refer to “Jewish cooking” is actually “Jewish cookings,” multiple culture-specific culinary traditions, influenced not only by where our forebears lived in ages gone by, but by where we live today. Those distinctions are particularly clear when it comes to fare for the High Holy Days table.
When Ashkenazi Jews think about tzimmes, they envision a stewed concoction that typically includes the only vegetables and fruits available to their ancestors in northern and Eastern Europe — carrots, prunes, raisins, and root vegetables like yams. But for a Sephardic and Mizrachi version, Jews of those backgrounds instead look to the myriad fruits and vegetables so abundant around the Mediterranean, where they have their roots, and flavored with spices common in their traditional cuisine.
A common denominator for holiday fare may be chicken, as Brooklyn-born Isaac “Ike” Antebi of Allenhurst can attest. But for him it was not only the tastes and smells evoked by childhood memories of feasts on the High Holy Days. In the tradition of his family, from Aleppo, Syria, one central ingredient was also tzedakah.
Antebi vividly recalls bringing crates of live chickens into his house so that his father, Rev. Morris Antebi, could ritually slaughter perhaps four dozen fowl — enough to feed his family of 13 children and a large extended family, and to donate an equal number to charity. Antebi said that his father, a deeply observant man who was a founder of the Syrian-Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Deal, would “put on a white apron and go into the bathroom, and he himself would kill them so they were ready for cooking. The birds don’t die right away, you know; they fly all over the place.”
For details about the Sephardic seder his family observes these days as part of the erev Rosh HaShanah meal, he suggested talking to the family cook — his niece, Lily Aves, also from Allenhurst. These seders, observed widely in Sephardic and Mizrachi communities, comprise a series of symbolic foods twinned with blessings in the form “Yehi ratzon” (“So may it be His will”) for the new year. It is a tradition some trace to Rabbi Abaye’s comment in Horayot 12a on various foods that serve “as a positive omen for one’s actions during the coming year.”
The themes of the blessings — that God should get rid of our enemies, increase our merits, and multiply the good things in our lives — are often connected to food via a pun. For example, the Hebrew word for a date, “tamar,” resembles the verb for “end,” “yitamu,” and thus is tied to the blessing, “May it be your will that you will end our enemies and those who wish us evil.”
The seders Aves prepares for the new year always include pomegranates, whose multiple seeds “signify that you be fruitful and multiply,” she said. Because Rosh HaShanah literally means “Head of the Year,” tongue or the head of a sheep is included in the menu. Black-eyed peas, which are small and numerous, symbolize a plea that “your year should be plentiful…with money and good wishes and good tidings,” Aves explained.
Although Syrian Jews share with Ashkenazim the custom of cutting up apples and dipping them in honey — “because you’re hoping that God will provide a year of sweetness,” Aves said — the Syrians add a prohibition against putting any salt on the table. “You don’t want anything salty and sour — so your year should be filled with constant happiness and joy,” she said. A candied gourd and stuffed cabbage continue the sweetness theme.
Aves also explained that the demeanor for the erev Rosh HaShanah meal is serious and focused on good deeds. “People are supposed to be extra kind because you don’t want to be judged harshly.”
Sara Nezaria, who lived in Monroe Township until her recent move to Delray Beach, Fla., grew up in Iran and made aliyah in 1952 at age 12. After her marriage to Yehezkel Nezaria, also an Iranian, they lived in Dimona, Israel, for six years, then Ariel; in 1986 they moved to the United States.
“In Iran each town has their own tradition; I use my mother’s Kashanian tradition,” Nezaria said in a recent phone conversation.
For their Sephardic Rosh HaShanah seder, Nezaria’s family starts with a soup containing meat from a lamb’s head. They also eat pomegranate seeds, which they pair with the blessing, “May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.” And they eat fish, whose numerous offspring remind God to multiply our “merits like fish.”
“Dinner usually has something sweet,” Nezaria said. “Plain rice [chelo] with sautéed almond [badom], onion, and raisins [keshmesh] on top — or some people do rice mixed with carrots and beans. It depends on which town you are from.” Another sweet dish frequently served is carrots fried with sugar and cinnamon and then mixed with brown and white beans and black-eyed peas.
To end the Yom Kippur fast, Nezaria’s family’s custom is to drink a mix of ground apple, sugar, cold water, and rosewater.
Native Israeli Racheli Rozett, who has Tunisian-Jewish roots on both sides, met her husband, Dan, when she was working as an au pair in the United States. They lived in Israel for about 13 years, then moved to East Brunswick to be close to her mother-in-law.
Some might disagree with this particular New Year’s custom that she embraces, but Rozett said that because garlic has “a strong smell that people can’t stand, we use it to push away our enemies.” She incorporates the garlic, along with eggs and breadcrumbs, into small levivot (pancakes). Other symbolic foods at her Rosh HaShanah seder are fava beans made with cumin, salt and pepper, and pumpkin, which she fries with egg, flour, salt, and pepper.
For the holiday dinner, Rozett makes buleh, a meatball stuffed into a potato cut into a crescent shape, and a soup of vegetables, hummus, and handmade couscous, a staple of Tunisian cooking. The traditional couscous-making process starts by mixing semolina with oil, salt, and water. The resulting dough goes into a couscousiere, a special steamer, then is pressed through a strainer and steamed again.
At her grandmother’s table, Rozett said, they would break the Yom Kippur fast with tea and “very, very hard” cookies.
Rahel Baruh of Highland Park, Ashkenazi herself, said she became Sephardic “under the chuppah” when she married Haim Baruh, who was born in Istanbul, Turkey.
At a Turkish Rosh HaShanah seder, leeks (karti in Aramaic) are made into little balls called köfte; they express a wish that those who wish Jews evil “yikartu” (in Hebrew) — “shall be cut down.”
For the traditional Swiss chard at the holiday meal, Baruh substitutes spinach, via a frittata. For the symbolic rubiyah, she uses black-eyed peas mixed with coriander, cinnamon, and onions.
Baruh also draws on her own Ashkenazi background for the holidays, making “a bunch of brisket.”
“You never know how many guests are going to show up,” she said, noting that to feed extra people “you just take out another brisket from the freezer.”
Like many people these days who prefer a healthier, lighter approach to the traditional dishes, Yvette Schlussel of East Brunswick, the daughter of two Polish Holocaust survivors, modifies the Ashkenazi fare she grew up with.
“I know the traditional foods — chicken, tzimmes, and some kind of vegetable kugel — and I try to do a variation on the theme,” she said. Following the custom of eating round items “to symbolize the roundness of the year — that it be stuffed with good things,” Schlussel cooks green peppers stuffed with quinoa and vegetables roasted with garlic and herbs. To replace the traditional calorie-rich tzimmes, she captures its tempting colors with roasted vegetables.
For Yom Kippur, instead of meat-filled kreplach, Schlussel said, she sometimes makes wontons, usually with a vegetable filling, because “they’re not heavy and don’t sit on your stomach.”
As she described it, Schlussel’s “Jewish cooking” tips a hat to her Ashkenazi roots, modified by her close ties to Israel, but it also strongly reflects contemporary American food culture. “I’m always trying to think about how to make everything we eat healthier,” she said.