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August 29, 2012
Eating together can bring a family together. We often suggest inviting family members who aren't Jewish to holiday meals, focusing on commonalities of our traditions. Over time, the festive meals will become part of the year's cycle not only for your immediate family, but for extended family as well. This advice may be easy to apply to holidays like Hanukkah, with its fried latkes and sufganiyot, or Passover, with its built-in symbolic seder meal. But Rosh Hashanah?
For many, Rosh Hashanah evokes synagogue services and perhaps hearing the shofar being blown. When it comes to food, maybe we think of dipping apples in honey, symbolic of a sweet new year. But is there really more to it?
Enter Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah, by Rahel Musleah, and likely based on, or inspired by, this article she wrote for us in 1999. Borrowing heavily from traditions found around the Jewish world, especially those with roots in Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East — the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities — Musleah introduces readers to the concept of a Rosh Hashanah seder, easily adaptable and customizable for any family.
The Rosh Hashanah seder doesn't demand erudition or expertise. It is accessible to young and old, observant and secular. This version of the seder is the one my family conducted in our native Calcutta. We trace our ancestry to Baghdadi Jews from Iraq.
If you want to follow Musleah's seder, she's made it rather simple. Included in Apples and Pomegranates is a shopping list: mostly seasonal produce, plus some staples of the Middle East, like dates and figs. And there are suggestions for how to prepare each food item, with recipes at the back of the book. They are just guidelines, however, in case you have a favorite recipe on hand already.
Similar to a Passover Haggadah, Musleah's book is meant as a guide for the Rosh Hashanah meal itself. As such, most of the pages are devoted to the seder, the blessings and stories told as you make your way to dinner.
Seder means "order," so we eat the traditional foods in a prescribed order, offering the blessing specific to each food. The blessing may come from a characteristic of the food we would like to emulate, such as the sweetness of the apple. Other blessings are based on word play, using words that sound like the Hebrew name of the food.
This is a custom that I have come to enjoy at many a Rosh Hashanah dinner, as friends show off their linguistic prowess, explain puns in languages few others understand (in my circle of friends, we include all of the languages we know, not just Hebrew) and share etymological discoveries. For example, pomegranates are seasonal autumn fruit, often enjoyed at Rosh Hashanah meals (and again during Sukkot). Musleah features them in her seder, focusing on their seeds: "May we be as full of good deeds, as the pomegranate is full of seeds." My friends have been quick to note that the grenade, a weapon, was named after the pomegranate. One once spun a slightly silly blessing, with a more serious message at heart: "May we only be hit with red juice this year."
Whenever blessings are offered, Musleah includes Hebrew, transliteration (Hebrew written out in English letters) and translation. Stories add insight to the customs, history of each food item is provided, and, in case that still isn't enough to spark conversation at your table, there are "think" cues throughout, offering points to ponder (alone or with your dinner companions). If that's all a bit too cerebral, there are also activities scattered throughout, especially helpful for the children at our tables. Some can happen at the table, like cutting an apple in half to find its hidden star, but others should happen in advance, like making stamps out of roasted beets — and turning them into holiday cards.
Apples and Pomegranates concludes with two additional features: an abbreviated version of the blessing customarily said after a meal, birkat ha'mazon, and food-related customs from around the world. Symbolic of New Years' celebrations from Japan, Latin America, China, Persia, Greece and the American South, similarities and trends will emerge not only to the seder your family has just tried out, but to your extended families' customs and food traditions as well.
Musleah's book can help bring this synagogue-centric holiday back home to your kitchen and table. Whether you follow her seder exactly, or just use her ideas as a jumping off point, you're sure to find inspiration between the covers.