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High Holy Day Memories: Yes, it is the food!

Rabbi Judith Beiner, JF&CS Community Chaplain

Memory plays a big role for the Jewish people. Several of our holidays, I.e., Hanukkah and Passover, give us the opportunities to recall and celebrate national victories. On other holy days, such as Yom Kippur, we recite the Yizkor Memorial service, during which we remember those loved ones who are no longer with us. Additionally, our holiday tables are replete with traditional foods, many of which are prepared from recipes handed down to us by our parents and grandparents. A slurp of chicken soup or a bite of honey cake has the power to transport us back to our childhood.

Remembering the past is central to Jewish living.

Following a recent study session I had with a group of older adults on the topic of the High Holidays, one gentleman approached me and shared, “I’m so glad you came to talk with us today about the holidays. I’ve had a couple of bad years with lots of hard stuff happening. Your talk today helped bring back so many good memories…”

It’s no accident that many of our holiday memories are connected to food. Jewish celebrations are intentionally filled with sensory experiences, in order that we may engage our full selves, body and soul. Thus, we have a myriad of celebratory foods for every holiday. The symbolic foods for Rosh Hashanah are called simanim/signs. With each siman, there is something in either the nature or name of the foods that represent a theme of the holiday. Carrot coins for good fortune; pomegranates for hopes of increasing our good deeds; fish heads (better the head than the tail) are to inspire us to be leaders, not followers; the round challah to celebrate the birth of the world; and of course, apples and honey represent the collective wish for a sweet new year.

In addition to eating all the delicious holiday foods, preparing them can also spark memories. As I’m sure is true for many of you, several of my holiday recipes are written on 3×5 cards, in my mother and grandmother’s distinct handwriting. These hard copies are precious mementos, dog eared and stained. As I retrieve them from my files and gather the ingredients somehow, I feel as though my dear ones are still with me. When my mom’s honey cakes came out perfectly this year, I took comfort in the reminder that her legacy lives on within me.

There is a special prayer we recite before eating a piece of apple dipped in honey: “May it be your will, Holy One, that we be blessed with a sweet and good year.” As we enjoy all the special holiday foods this year, may the sweet memories that arise fill our souls.

L’shanah Tova U’Metukah – May you and your dear ones be blessed with a good and sweet year.