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Asbury Park Press
In the hours before the sun begins to set on Friday evening, Zahava Perlstein will drape a white tablecloth across her dining room table and set out her best dishes.
She and her family will wear white – a symbol of purity – for the first meal of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. They will eat apples dipped in honey to represent sweetness in the coming year and round challah bread that honors the cycle of life.
Then, a meal of chicken soup with matzoh balls and potato kugel.
“It’s not the partying type when you think of Dec. 31,” Perlstein, 40 and a mother of four from Lakewood, said of the holiday, which will be followed in 10 days time by the more solemn day of atonement and fasting, Yom Kippur. “It’s more of a serious time where we introspect and think about what we did and what we can gain, how we can better ourselves in the next year.
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“For me, it’s really about showing my kids the beauty side of the religion, the grandeur,” she said. “We think of God as our king, (and the holiday) is almost (like) welcoming in the king for the new year. We try to make it as fancy as possible … it shows a certain level of respect and nobility, and that’s something I want to pass on to my kids.”
Celebrating the new
Gilah Lewis Sietz often reflects upon her father’s ability to find new ways to add to the sweetness of the Jewish New Year. (Photo: Courtesy Gilah Lewis Sietz)
Gilah Lewis Sietz lives in Cherry Hill, where her dad Albert Lewis was a rabbi for 60 years.
Lewis Sietz has a full plate of occupations: serving as a facilitator for seniors both through the Katz JCC in the township and at various assisted living communities; teaching high school Hebrew classes; tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students; and being a humorist.
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She also serves as president and founder of Al’s ChorAL, a nonprofit choral group named after her late father. In the time of COVID, Al’s Chorale is “a weekly cyber-singing adult choir,’’ while many of her other occupations that rely on face-to-face contact are on hold.
In part because of her father’s life perspective, Lewis Sietz is weathering the dark clouds of 2020 with resilience and optimism.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, she recalls her father’s joy at choosing a new fruit each year for the family to incorporate into the holiday feast.
“Growing up in a rabbi’s home, we always had company on the holidays. It was usually someone from the congregation whose family was not local – my family never wanted people to be alone. A rabbi’s home was kind of like a public place. And you have to live the morals you teach, my parents taught us that.’’
So, sharing the Rosh Hashanah table might be a married couple, a single person, a college student, as well as her own family. Meeting new people added the theme of new beginnings that is the spirit of the holiday, honoring the beginning of new cycle in the Jewish calendar.
The fruit at the center of the table symbolized this, as well.
“Maybe it would be pomegranate seeds, starfruit, persimmon … anytime something new was introduced in this area, we got them in bucket loads for the holidays, and placed it on the table,’’ she recalls. “And one of the things you say in the blessing is thank you, oh God, creator of the universe who has given us all new and wonderous things.
“You take that delicious fruit and either eat it separately, or you dip it into the honey and you take a bite. This is associated with having a sweet year.’’
If a year came were no fruit was new, her father would offer a new story to share instead as they dipped a familiar apple slice in honey.
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Lewis Sietz says her father would have weathered 2020’s pandemic-restricted lifestyle well, and would have been an inspiration to those chaffing at their limitations.
“My dad always made something new, even if there wasn’t anything new,’’ she reflects. “We are constantly reinventing ourselves. Rosh Hashanah brings home the lessons of my parents full circle … ancient lessons and new ways to use them.’’
More than a meal
Fish heads, shown here as prepared by Berish Rapaport of Lakewood, are eaten during Rosh Hashanah as a symbol of staying ahead of a new year. (Photo: COURTESY OF BERISH RAPAPORT)
The symbolic foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – called simanim – are ripe with meaning. Tzimmes, a carrot dish whose preparation varies by family, brings more sweetness to the new year. The Hebrew word for leek, karrat, resembles the word for “cut,” so cooking with the vegetable symbolizes cutting ties with people who wish you ill will. The many-seeded pomegranate, used in salad or to prepare a glaze for meat, is a reminder of one’s many blessings.
“The food is very symbolic,” said Berish Rapaport, chef and owner of the Lakewood restaurant Yapchik. “It’s pretty interesting, going back thousands of years.”
Then there is the head of a fish, often passed on a platter, representing “that we should be ahead of our year, ahead of our accomplishments instead of at the tail end,” Perlstein said. “And fish, for us, is a sign of life absorbed in water, so the same way we should be absorbed in our laws. The fish in general is a sign of life.”
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The Rosh Hashanah meal traditionally includes dessert, and for Jamie Grubman of Metuchen, the decision to bake a plum pie 15 years ago meant more than she could have imagined when she plucked the recipe form a holiday cookbook.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you why I decided to make it. Perhaps just because Italian plums were available at the farm market?” said Grubman, 46. “I made the pie and served it on Rosh Hashanah. My maternal grandmother looked at the pie and immediately asked for a piece.
“Grandma Diana was totally unvarnished when sharing her opinion. I braced myself for the critique,” she said. “Imagine my surprise and joy to see her face light up. I couldn’t help but note that there were also tears in her eyes. My grandmother explained to me that she hadn’t had ‘zwetschgenkuchen’ since her last Rosh Hashanah in Germany. At that time she was just 15 years old. Now in her late 70s, the memories came flooding back. She said I had everything just right.”
In this family photo from 2000, Jamie Grubman of Metuchen (right) is pictured with her mother, Sandra Raibman, who taught her to cook, and her grandmother Diana Eppsteiner, whose name was changed from Dina when she arrived in America from Germany at the age of 16. (Photo: COURTESY OF JAMIE GRUBMAN)
Traditions make for memories
The coming days will revolve around food for Rapaport, who will be busier than usual as local Jews who planned to join thousands of others on an annual pilgrimage to a holy site in Ukraine cannot due to the coronavirus pandemic, which also is preventing families from holiday travel.
But in thinking about his childhood, it is not the holiday meals he remembers most.
“After prayers the first night of Rosh Hashanah, there’s a blessing that everybody tells each other, ‘L’shanah tovah,’ (that means) ‘should this upcoming year be prosperous,’ ” said Rapaport, who was raised in Brooklyn. “I remember growing up. I remember the lines until 12 o’clock at night, people would wait for the rabbi to have their blessing for the new year. We used to go to my grandparents that lived across the street from this grand rabbi, and we would watch it from the window.”
This message of L’shanah tovah now has a place at Rapaport’s holiday table, where his young daughter will hide a homemade card beneath a loaf of bread. He did the same as a child.
“I remember my father opening it, we hid it there, when you open the cover on the bread,” he said. “You say ‘Oh, what a gift!’ It’s very kid-oriented, and (spiritual and symbolic).
“The holidays are an exciting time. It’s about the spirit,” he said. “Most of what’s important, what I’m teaching my kids, is to give them the fun and happiness of what our community stands for and what life is all about.”
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Even the act of covering the bread has meaning.
“We start the meal with wine and grapes rather then bread. So we are accustomed to cover the bread as not to insult the bread,” Rapaport said. “And you are thinking, ‘bread doesn’t have feelings,’ but it’s not about what the bread feels. It’s the teaching moment to your kids to be sensitive to other people’s feelings.”
For Carol Hacker of Metuchen, cooking for the holidays makes her feel close to her mother, who died in 1989.
“My mother is one of eight siblings, so as you can imagine, our holiday meals, including Rosh Hashanah, were huge,” Hacker said. “I remember the long table that extended down my grandparents’ hallway. My only memory of my grandmother, Olga, is watching her make noodles from scratch for chicken soup.
“She and my mother used to make gefilte fish, as well as brisket, chicken and kugel. Of the four sisters, my mother is the only one who knew how to cook,” she said.
“She continued to make these meals until she passed away in 1989. I am now the only cook of all of my cousins. Although, I never learned to make gefilte fish (and I regret it) I do make everything else, including the Russian eggplant relish passed down from my grandmother. I never feel closer to my mother than when I cook our traditional recipes for the holidays, listening to classical music.”
Another of Rapaport’s Rosh Hashanah memories, this one more somber, was reading from a prayer book his great-grandfather owned when he was a prisoner during World War II. While digging trenches in a satellite camp of the German Dachau concentration camp, he traded a week’s worth of bread for the book, which was shared among the prisoners, Rapaport said.
“On Rosh Hashanah night, my father would take all the kids to my great-uncle to bless them a new year, and he always insisted they take out that prayer book and show us,” he said. “We would say a prayer in it, which was pretty amazing.”
A food extravaganza
Carol Leslie of Tenafly is grateful that her grandmother’s brisket has withstood the test of time — and people’s continually changing dietary habits. “In an age when everyone turns to fish and vegetables, my grandmother’s brisket is still really great and fool-proof,” she said.
It’s a dish that her mother and grandmother would serve to the aunts, uncles and cousins — around 30 people — who’d come to their home on Long Island to celebrate the holiday. The brisket followed an all-day food extravaganza of cake, stuffed cabbage and other classic Jewish dishes that enticed some 200 friends and neighbors to their home before dinner was served.
“We’d set up a buffet and everyone helped out,” Leslie recalled. “There would be two big bowls of M&Ms for the kids. A lot of traditions came from that.”
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The brisket is one of them. The other is noodle pudding, aka noodle kugel, which Leslie said has been tweaked over the years to accommodate various dietary restrictions.
“Over time instead of pot cheese, it would be low-fat cheese or yogurt,” Leslie said. “And then there’s the lactose-free cheese. Anyone who has dinner parties knows what that’s like.”
Herb Karlitz of Demarest has also changed his mom’s holiday brisket recipe. “Hers was very traditional,” he said. “I took it up a notch.”
More like many notches.
Instead of cooking the slab of meat in the oven for a few hours, Karlitz first marinates it in Bourbon and beer and then smokes it for 16 hours.
“It also has about a 10-ingredient dry rub,” he said.
This year he’ll be serving the brisket to his family (he and his wife have two daughters in their 20s) and his mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law. His parents have passed away, but Karlitz still recalls his Dad’s reaction when he first had tasted his version of holiday brisket.
“Why are you making it different?” he recalled his father saying. “It’s just not traditional.”
Karlitz’s comeback: “Well, I didn’t make a pork loin.” Besides, he said, ‘it’s my version of tradition.”
Makes two medium-sized loaves
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons dry yeast
1¾ cups warm water
3 tablespoons oil
¼ cup sugar
2 eggs, 1 for dough and 1 for egg wash
1 tablespoon salt
Desired toppings: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dehydrated onions
Freshly braided challah breads await the oven. On Rosh Hashanah, the bread is shaped in a circle to represent continuity, and once baked, is often dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet year to come. (Photo: SARAH GRIESEMER/STAFF PHOTO)
Lightly grease a loaf pan.
In a large bowl, mix flour, yeast, water, oil, sugar and 1 egg. Add salt last. Knead together to form a dough.
Cover bowl with a towel and allow to rise one hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Braid dough and allow to rise 20 minutes.(For Rosh Hashanah, the dough is usually braided into a circle.)
Beat remaining egg and brush challah. Sprinkle with topping of your choice. Bake for about 35 minutes or until golden brown on top and light brown on the bottom.
Recipe courtesy of Nicky Norman of Toms River, organizer of the 2019 community baking event, Knead Kindness.
Sarah Griesemer joined the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey in 2003. Send restaurant tips to [email protected].
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