Holiday Foods

Foods associated with holidays depend on geography.

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Reprinted with permission from Gates of the Season: A Guide to the Jewish Year (Central Conference of American Rabbis)

Theholiday spirit is a complicated web of feelings and expectations. The crispness of the air, the best china on the table, the cleaning of the house, and the new suit of clothes are all important elements of preparation for the festival  we are about to celebrate. The delicious aroma of holiday foods transmits wonderful memories and ethnic consciousness. The honey cake just out of the oven tells us it is Rosh Hashanah; the crisp, slightly oniony smell of potato latkes reminds us it is Hanukkah; the making of matzah balls and charoset heralds the beginning of Pesach. 

jewish holiday foodsHoliday foods enhance and elevate our festival celebration. By reserving certain distinctive foods for special days, each holiday meal takes on its own joyous and familiar character. Festival foods reinforce the meaning of the holiday and add to the celebratory mood of the diners. Every Jewish family has its favorite holiday foods. Through time these foods have become imbued with beautiful associations and warm memories. They have acquired a uniqueness and even a sanctity of their own which are handed down from generation to generation. These special recipes are part of our rich cultural and religious heritage.

Holiday foods are as different and varied as the Jewish people. Wherever Jews have lived they have adopted and embellished foods from the local culture. Foods from ancient Egypt and Rome, medieval Germany and Spain, and nineteenth-century Russia and Hungary grace the holiday table. The spicy and aromatic cookery of the Sephardic Jews is as rich and diversified as that of Ashkenazic Jewry.

The traditional Sabbath eve meal often consists of chicken soup with kreplach (meat filled dough), chopped liver or gefilte fish,chicken or fish prepared in any number of ways, a kugel (noodle or potato pudding), and vegetables. The traditional dish for Shabbat afternoon in Eastern Europe was cholent (meaning "hot"). Potatoes, kasha(groats), and the little meat available were placed into a pot and cooked for twenty-four hours in the community oven before being carried home by a child for the noon meal. In this country, a typical cholentincludes brisket, onions, lima beans, and barley or potatoes. It is a perfect dish for crock pot cooking. Sephardic dishes for Shabbat would include various vegetables, such as carrots, zucchini, or eggplants stuffed with ground meat, or delicious rice-based dishes.

Sweet foods, symbolizing the anticipated sweetness of the year ahead, are prominent among the delicacies that constitute the Rosh Hashanah festive meal. Apples dipped in honey, lekach (honey and spice cake), tayglach (honey and nut pastry), and honey cake are eaten for dessert. The challah is baked in a round shape (reminding us of eternity) instead of a braid and is enriched with extra eggs, sugar, and raisins to signify the promise for a sweet and rich year. Gefilte fish, chicken soup with three-cornered kreplach (said to symbolize the three patriarchs), carrot or prune tzimmes, and meat or fowl would complete the meal.

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Rabbi Steven M. Fink

Steven M. Fink is rabbi at Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.