As a Jewish woman who prefers work to cooking, the Hebrew calendar determines most of the time I spend in the kitchen. Certainly I cook year round — especially for shabbos — but for me, serious cooking happens over the Jewish holidays. While most Jewish women would probably claim Pesach as the ultimate in holiday work, I am most challenged by the fall holidays, when my professional world collides with my Jewish world.
In the heart of the summer months, from Shavuos until mid-Elul, I don’t do much cooking. I take summers off from teaching English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I use that time to study, write and catch up on reading. And without festive holidays all summer, most substantial cooking goes on hiatus.
But by late summer, I am swept up by a whirlwind of obligations as the new college semester crashes into the fall holidays. The Jewish calendar calls me back to my kitchen, but I’m no foodie. I am a simple cook, and so I pull out my worn 1987 edition of Joan Nathan’s “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen.” From my dusty spiral recipe notebook, I peel apart recipes glued with dried honey and find holiday menus and to-do lists that go back over 25 years. At the top of each page of notebook paper is a list of Rosh Hashanah guests, written in my hand or my daughter’s; I leaf through each one, noting the passing of time and family.
For me, this period has always been a time of balance and reflection. While I weigh in on the past year and ask people I may have wronged for forgiveness, composition papers pile up, awaiting my thoughtful grading. At least I can work at home and hold Skype office hours while honey cakes turn golden brown in the oven.
The holiday weeks continue compressing my workweek into precious few days. It’s a month-long accordion existence — from work, to preparing at home, to work, to the holiday itself, to shul, and then all over again. I find ways to make it work, but when Simchat Torah ends, I’m ready for what comes next. Not only do we hear Breisheit on Shabbat, but we also welcome my favorite month of the year: Cheshvan.
This is the month that is called Mar Cheshvan or Bitter Cheshvan (think of Pesach’s maror or bitter herbs). Each year, my Rabbi explains that Cheshvan deserves this characterization because it is devoid of joyous festivals (beside its double-day launch on Rosh Chodesh). For me, it is an annual announcement of good news, and I have to restrain myself from standing in my shul and shouting a fist pumping Yes!
I welcome the catch up month of Cheshvan. In addition to beginning to enact changes I promised in Tishrei, I get to put in a full, uninterrupted workweek. Cooking becomes secondary again (although when the leaves begin to fall, I look forward to making a good cholent). I can now thoughtfully read longer emails that have sat flagged for six weeks, and maybe I even grab coffee with a friend who does not go to my shul. Cheshvan is the month when, after work, I don’t need to run to the grocery store to get ready for the next yontiv. After over a month immersed in the holy, I welcome a full secular workweek crowned by the holiness of 25 hours of Shabbat.
In spite of the fact that this month is associated with more troubles for the Jewish people (what month isn’t?), and in spite of the fact that we are not commanded to rejoice during this month, as a woman who loves to work, I am doing my own personal rain dance of relief.
So “Happy” Cheshvan. And enjoy — it won’t be long before it’s time to dust off your Menorah.