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A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah

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.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. A Hebrew term for a doughnut, often eaten in Israel during Hanukkah. They are usually filled with jelly and covered in sugar. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "eastern," the term refers to Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Benjamin A. Maron

Benjamin A. Maron was the Director of Content and Educational Resources (formerly, the Managing Editor) here at InterfaithFamily.

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