The High Holidays herald new beginnings, ushered in on a wave of familiar rituals.
We gather around fragrant tables laden with a combination of traditional and new foods. We recite blessings over candles, wine, and bread, and say one for a sweet New Year. We pass the challah and the honey. We celebrate, we pray, we remember, and we reflect surrounded by our congregations, our friends, and our families. Whatever is going on in the wider world is, to a large extent, put on pause. It will be there when we return to regular life.
But this year — 2020; 5780 — we can’t put the pandemic on pause, and so, perhaps for the first time in our collective memory, we are rethinking all of our High Holiday rituals. Will we pray outside or follow live-streamed services? Will we dine within “pods” or in front of a computer screen?
And for those of us who do the cooking, there’s the additional, pressing question of how we will adjust our menus to meet these circumstances. For inspiration, ideas — and lots of delicious holiday recipes — we turned to some of the most talented and creative culinary minds in the Jewish food world, and asked them how they were adapting their holiday gatherings and menus in light of Covid-19, beginning with Rosh Hashanah:
Adeena Sussman, Tel Aviv-based author of “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen”
How She’s Observing: We’re going to stay close to home this year. We’re celebrating Rosh Hashanah by moving into a new home. What could be more new for a new year than that?
There’s a lot to reflect on. This year has been about approaching the holiday from a place of gratitude and appreciation rather than overindulgence. Abundance comes in different forms, and I think health is the greatest form of abundance right now. I admire and support anyone who’s going to do a full Rosh Hashanah this year, and if we were in a different situation I would, but we’re keeping it simple. Like everything else with Coronavirus, the idea is that everyone does what’s best for them. That’s definitely the lesson of this time.
What’s Cooking: I’ll make some kind of a roast with dried fruit to represent the new year, or my Root Vegetable and Medjool Date Stew, and we’ll get a really nice bottle of Israeli wine. I‘ll probably buy challah this year because I won’t have time to make it, and a beautiful jar of honey that has a slice of honeycomb right in the jar. In my childhood, honeycomb was such a holiday treat.
Advice: If the idea of cooking a lavish meal bums you out, pick one “reach” item that you’ve always wanted to make and make that, whether it’s roasted garlic cloves or a fabulous dessert or challah. Pick one indulgent thing — don’t feel you have to gild the lily in every aspect of the meal. A lot of us, when we feel lonely, we tend to turn inward. Make the extra effort to call someone, put it out there. Everyone’s feeling the same way.
Joan Nathan, Washington D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts-based author of cookbooks including “King Solomon’s Table”
How she’s Observing: The services are almost all virtual so that makes a big difference. It means you can probably eat longer and watch the service if you want to, or eat afterwards, depending on the service.
We’re going to only have our family. All my children are going to be here because there’s an unveiling for my husband Allan’s grave; he died six months ago. Usually I have a huge lunch on Rosh Hashanah, either on the Vineyard or in DC, and of course I won’t be doing that anyway until it’s a year since Allan died.
Usually I have 35 or 40 people after synagogue. It’s my favorite lunch of the year. But here, we’ll do the meal at night and my guess is that after synagogue we’ll maybe do a meal on the beach and do the Tashlich at that time.
There have been seven of us for the past month. It’s me, my son and daughter, their spouses, and two grandchildren. We’ve been having dinner every night and we’re sitting at a table and talking. I think so many of us have lost the art of talking to each other that that’s one of the good things about Covid. You’re having meals, and sitting down. A meal has become a meal, and not just a feed.
What’s Cooking: For Rosh Hashanah I’ll make a plum pie. I have to see if the blue plums are in season here. Hopefully somebody will have a blue plum tree.
It’s the only holiday I’ll have any family with me, because they’ll be gone after Rosh Hashanah, so I’ll take advantage of it. Because we’re on Martha’s Vineyard, I might make cod fish cakes for the first course and I will do chicken soup with matzo balls.
We’re close to the earth in summer, and at Rosh Hashanah we’re still close to the earth, so you think, ‘What are good harvest foods?’ Squashes are coming in, and potatoes. I’ll do what’s available in the garden. My Rosh Hashanah challah this year will be loaded with herbs from the garden. Everything is going to be as local as possible.
Evan Bloom, co-owner of Wise Sons Delis in the Bay Area and co-author of “Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews”
How he’s Celebrating: I think it’s going to be a lot like Passover, when we did Zoom Seders. I think some people are convincing themselves that it’s okay to gather, and I don’t think it is.
The holidays are the busiest time of year for Wise Sons. We do a lot of catering. Passover was the busiest catering season we’ve ever had. This holiday’s going to be similar.
This year, getting to spend the holidays at home, especially with my very new addition, my new daughter, being able to be home and blow the shofar and eat a challah at the table rather than picking at it in the restaurant, it’s different. The act of putting them on the table, feeling festive will be different this year.
How the Fires Are Affecting the Holiday: If the weather gets nicer we’ll do something outside with friends, but I can’t plan for that. I can’t plan for tomorrow, because I don’t know what the smoke’s going to be like. (They say today being outside for a full day is like smoking eight cigarettes.)
What’s Cooking: If I hadn’t cooked every meal every day for the last six months, I’d be excited to cook something for Rosh Hashanah. But I’m not, so we’re going to be getting catering from Wise Sons. I bet a lot of people will be burned out from cooking.
At the restaurant for Rosh Hashanah we always do a round raisin challah in addition to a honey cake we make. It’s not the one in the cookbook. The honey cake recipe in the book is based on Betty Crocker vanilla cake mix. People are busy, and making cake from scratch is a lot of work. This is the way my mom cooked. You start with a vanilla cake mix and you add spices, and you get something moist and I think better than homemade. There’s a reason those cake mixes are so popular.
Advice: Don’t feel that you have to cook. There are a lot of restaurants that are struggling — and not just delis — that are doing food for Rosh Hashanah, really great food. The holiday is about celebrating, being festive. Order takeout and put it on your fancy plates. Eat something sweet.
Eden Grinshpan, Brooklyn-based, Toronto-born host of Top Chef Canada and author of “Eating Out Loud: Bold Middle Eastern Flavors For All Day”
How She’s Celebrating: Both my parents are Romanian-Polish, so I grew up in a very Ashkenazi home and every holiday, not just Passover, we had chicken soup with matzo balls. We had a brisket or roasted chicken — classic Jewish holiday food. For me, being a new mother, keeping those traditions is something my husband and I have been talking a lot about.
I have the best memories of sitting around the table with my family, dancing and laughing. The dinner table is where everything happened. Rosh Hashanah is all about ringing in the Jewish New Year and eating sweet foods to symbolize a sweet New Year, and this year we should up the sweet food because 2020 was obviously incredibly challenging for so many people, and it’s still very challenging.
I grew up in Toronto, and because I’m Canadian I was able to go into Canada with my family in July, and we’ve been living with my parents. My daughter is in love with Bubbe and Zayde. It was such a nice moment after being in New York for so many months. Growing up, I spent all of my holidays with my parents, but I haven’t been able to in a really long time, so this is one of the silver linings, to be with them now. It’s going to be really lovely to celebrate the holidays with my parents and my daughter and my husband.
What’s Cooking: We’re going to have a nice Rosh Hashanah dinner and I’m going to cook like guests are coming — I’m not holding back. We’re probably going to make a brisket, definitely make that chicken soup, but also bring in some new staples from ‘Eating Out Loud,’ my new cookbook, which came out September 1.
And it’s actually great because I have so many veg-heavy dishes that are seasonal during this time of the year. I have the honey roasted parsnips with dates and tzatziki, an easy side to make for Rosh dinner. There’s a whole roasted sweet potato with sunflower gremolata and lemony sour cream. Or if you want to play up the sweetness, I have squash with crispy sage and honey.
And actually, for Rosh Hashanah I have a really perfect dessert. I have my semolina, olive oil and honey cake, which you just finish with a beautiful honey-lemon glaze that soaks into the cake and keeps it really moist. I serve it with whipped yogurt. The recipe calls for cherries, but you can use any seasonal fruit. You could put pomegranate, figs — anything that looks great at the market.
Advice: When the pandemic started up, I was Zoom happy hour-ing with all my friends every day. I don’t remember ever being so social. This whole thing has been such a wave. It happened, then everyone had to talk on the phone all the time, then everyone stopped talking and it went very quiet for a bit.
Holidays are the best excuse to start setting up those Zoom calls again. Pick a recipe and make it and eat together. We’re social creatures. We crave not just seeing our friends and socializing with them, but our family. If you can’t get the opportunity to be around them this holiday season, charge up that computer, throw on that Zoom and shamelessly be on it all day. Be with your friends, drink with your friends. It would be super fun to drink the same wine, make the same dish, that would be a really lovely way to make it feel like we’re doing it together.
Leah Koenig, Brooklyn, New York-based author of cookbooks including “The Jewish Cookbook:”
How She’s Observing: For Rosh Hashanah we normally are home because my husband, Yoshi, leads High Holiday services locally. We would usually have guests or go to other people’s houses and share responsibility for hosting. This year, it will be just the four of us. Yoshi will be leading services in person, and it will be streamed for the community to watch. For me and the kids there are no actual services this year — I’m not going to try to make a six year old and a one year old watch the live stream. So we’re trying to find ways to incorporate ritual into the meals since it won’t be happening at synagogue. We’re going to probably do some stuff from the Sephardic Seder. Some Sephardic Jews go beyond apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah and do a lot of food symbolism. It’s called the Rosh Hashanah Seder. They’ll eat a variety of foods such as pomegranates, because you’re supposed to have your luck and your fortune be as plentiful as the seeds of the pomegranate.
The other thing we’re going to try to do is Tashlich. We’re going to meet up with some friends and family outside and do a communal Tashlich because that’s something you can do outside from a distance.
This year, my menu will be smaller. Normally I would do a brisket but this year it doesn’t make a lot of sense because there would be too many leftovers. I’ll probably make the Honey Harissa Chicken from Adeena Sussman’s cookbook, ‘Sababa.’ I’m probably also going to make the Hungarian Jam Kugel from ‘The Jewish Cookbook.’ It’s a noodle kugel but it has ground up poppy seeds and pockets of jam. It’s really sweet and really yummy and the kids will like it.
Advice: We’re lucky because the High Holidays will almost certainly be warm weather, so you can picnic in the park with people. If it’s raining that would be a problem, but if not it’s really a great time of year to do some al fresco on your patio or in a park, some outdoor space where you can be adequately separate. You could have people bring their own food. It’s really just about being with other people, which is such a big part of the holiday.
Alon Shaya, chef/owner of Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver:
How he’s celebrating: My wife, Emily, and I have kind of planned to just celebrate together at the house this year versus going to temple.
What’s Cooking: I’m going to plan on cooking at home and make tsimmes with rice, because last year we were in Israel and we had a chance to cook with this amazing Lybian woman named Malka in Rosh Ha-Ayin, and she made tsimmes over rice, which was the first time I’d ever had it like that, and it was so delicious.
At the restaurants we’re doing special Rosh Hashanah meals. The thing that’s different this year versus most years is that we’re going to be doing take-home meals. People bring it home and have it with their families, but they still get to experience the Safta Rosh Hashanah menu and the Saba Rosh Hashanah menu.
At Saba, we’re really focusing on challah. We’re doing a round braided challah and topping it with pumpkin seeds and caraway and sesame seeds and poppy seeds. The challah is the centerpiece and we’re serving it with lots of different dips to accompany it. One of my favorites is made by one of our cooks at Saba, Amanda. It’s her grandmother’s recipe for carrot and rose jam, which is so, so good, so we’re serving that along with the challah and an apple butter, and honeycomb, and black harissa, which is a harissa made with ancho chiles and black garlic and urfa, which is a Turkish chilim, and it’s got these notes of chocolate, smokiness to it. It’s really, really delicious. So that’s our Saba plan.
At Safta we’re doing more of a complete meal, so there’s going to be apples and honey, a round braided challah, we’re doing pomegranate-braised lamb shank to go along with that, lots of different fresh vegetables from local farms, crudités, which I love dipping in honey as well. You don’t just have to dip apples, you can dip radishes and fennel and carrots and all this stuff that goes really, really great with honey.
One of my favorite Rosh recipes is a spin on an Italian dish. It’s a date and pecan pesto, served over fresh ricotta with grilled bread. It has those very fall, Rosh Hashanah flavors to it, that comes from balsamic vinegar. I feel like it would be a great, sweet-savory element and would be amazing served with grilled challah. It’s a great afternoon snack or lunch option at Rosh Hashanah.
How Coronavirus Has Affected the Restaurants: The emotional toll that it’s taken on our team members has been monumental. We are open at limited capacity at both Saba and Safta, doing our best to tread water and keep our doors open and keep our team employed, though we have limited service. We follow these new protools to ensure people stay safe. It’s been hard, but it’s also been extremely rewarding to see our team step up and really care for each other. It’s brought a great sense of camaraderie and teamwork. The stakes are so much higher than just serving hummus every day.
Advice: Being optimistic, being thankful for what we have, in true Rosh Hashanah form, reflecting and getting ready for a fresh start for next year is the way that we’ve been handling it. Just staying as positive as we can for our own sake of sanity and for our teams. We have to stay positive and keep moving, and keep doing what we love to do.