As an academic, beginning the year in the fall is a natural process: new courses, new students, new faculty, new possibilities, and new challenges. As a Jew-by-choice, and a lover of the December Año Nuevo, the New Year celebration in Puerto Rico, the process was less natural, more anxiety-ridden, and, well, religious.
My connection to Judaism was life-long, although not religious. Because my last name is Levy, my father would always say that we were "judíos perdidos" or Jews who had lost our way. Never mind that the Levys had been Catholic for hundreds of years: as far as he was concerned we were Jews, by name if nothing else.
It wasn't until I met my husband Ben, and years after I had stopped practicing Catholicism, that I was exposed to Judaism as a religion and a way of life. I loved that it provided an historical connection to my past, that it made me think about how I lived my life, and that, together with Ben, it would provide a solid foundation for our future family. The ethics, the history, the lifestyle; no problem for me. The religious practices, especially the rituals of the High Holidays, with their lengthy services, the fasting, and the repenting; not so easy for me.
As an interfaith couple, the High Holidays brought the largest share of stress, even more than the December holidays. I could argue that the way my family celebrated Christmas was secular instead of religious, that we were going to Puerto Rico to celebrate, which was neutral territory, and that it required no time commitment, other than one family party. In contrast, the High Holidays were purely religious, required days of sitting in synagogue (definitely not neutral territory) and the preparation of elaborate meals, followed by a long fast. But, as people are prone to do when they are madly in love, we negotiated, tried and tested different arrangements that would make both of us comfortable. Ben needed to have the space to pray and to fully participate in the holidays, including the fasting. I needed to be supportive of him, while allowing myself the space to opt out of what made me uncomfortable.
The first year, I stayed in the Bronx while Ben went to spend the holidays with his family in upstate New York. This worked only because we could both do what we wanted. But we were miserable, missed each other, and knew that we were going to have to come up with a better solution if we were going to develop a life-long relationship. The second year, I went upstate and participated in everything: the services, the meals, the fasting. It was a shock to my lapsed-Catholic, non-Mass-attending system! Clearly, this was the other extreme, and although we were able to spend time together, my participation was not religiously sincere, which made me uncomfortable. The third year, I went to Rosh Hashanah services on both days and went to the beginning and ending services to Yom Kippur. This compromise worked. I had some time off, but I still enjoyed the beautiful liturgy, and felt close to Ben during this important time of the year. In fact, it was this feeling of finally being at peace with the holiday that allowed me to explore its religiosity and deeper meaning. What began as a compromise has now become a choice, since I now participate in the High Holidays as a Jew.
I still struggle with the High Holidays, although my Jewish New Year now has the same meaning as my Año Nuevo: an opportunity to think about the year behind, the decisions I have made, and the people who have touched my life. Did I live my life ethically, lovingly, and generously? Did I make the right decisions? Have I told the people I love that I love them? Did I apologize?
I also think about the year ahead and recommit to both my Puerto Rican roots and my Jewish way of life, which I now have the joy to teach to our son, Ari Miguel. And, best of all, I get to plan some yummy meals that bring the family around the table, where we can share stories, discuss the High Holidays, and where my two worlds, the Jewish religion and Puerto Rico, happily converge. Feliz Año Nuevo and Shanah Tovah: a good year regardless of the language!
I like recipes that are simple, that can be mostly made ahead, and that require minimum kitchen time once the guests have arrived. Sharing a meal with loved ones is the most joyous occasion for me, and a simple menu allows me to enjoy the company as much as the food. The recipes below are perfect for making ahead of the holiday, as they are meant to be eaten at room temperature. I love having the bacalao for a lunch after Rosh Hashanah services, when everyone is hungry and not feeling very patient to wait for an elaborate meal. The tortilla Española is perfect for the break fast meal after Ne'ilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur. Both of these recipes are pareve. Enjoy!
Bacalao "a la Georgina"
My great-grandmother Georgina, who lived a wonderful 102 years, was famous for this dish. Every time I make it, I think of her and connect with the very large extended family that she headed for many years. I am the oldest of forty-one great-grandchildren, so I feel that by making this dish, I honor her memory.
1 pound of boneless and skinless salted cod
1 ½ pounds of potatoes, thinly sliced
2 onions, thinly sliced
4 ounces of roasted red peppers, either canned or fresh, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon of capers, chopped
8 green olives, pitted and chopped
1/3 cup of raisins
3/4 cup of tomato sauce
½ cup of olive oil
1 cup of water
3 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced into rounds
1) You should have all the chopping and prepping done before you begin working with the cod.
2) Rinse and soak the salted cod in cold water for 2 hours. The water should entirely cover the cod. Rinse again. Place cod in a saucepan and add fresh water to cover the cod. Bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. Drain, and using your fingers, shred the cod into small pieces. Set aside.
2) In a large pot, layer one half of the sliced potatoes. On top, layer one half of the cod and one half of the sliced onions.
3) Add a layer with half of the sliced eggs. Scatter over the eggs one half of the capers, olives, red peppers, raisins, and the bay leaf.
4) Add half of the tomato sauce and olive oil.
5) Repeat with the remaining ingredients.
6) Add the water, and place the pot on the stove on medium high heat until it boils.
7) Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 30 minutes without stirring.
8) If I have to transport this dish, I will sometimes take it carefully out of the pot, keeping the layers as intact as possible, and put it in a baking dish. This dish can be reheated without any damage to it. You can also eat it at room temperature, but make sure you take it out of the refrigerator at least 3 hours before serving. You may also want to place a little olive oil on the table so folks can sprinkle to taste over the Bacalao. A hearty bread, a nice salad, a Tempranillo wine, and you are all set for an easy Rosh Hashanah lunch.
This Spanish omelet is present at every single celebration in Puerto Rico, from a baby's first birthday party to the fanciest cocktail party! I hope you make it one of your standards. There is nothing more satisfying than a wedge of Tortilla with a glass of good Rioja.
I have found that the best pan to make this in is a 9" non-stick sauté pan with high, straight sides and a lid. This recipe serves 8-10 depending on the size of the wedges.
1 1/2 pound potatoes, thinly sliced
1 pound onions, thinly sliced
salt and pepper
6 eggs, well beaten
1) Take the eggs out of the refrigerator so that they come to room temperature.
2) Peel and slice the potatoes. Heat up the pan on medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the sliced potatoes, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. You should have enough potatoes that they reach the top edge of the pan. If you don't have enough, cut up a few more until you do. Stir often to avoid browning. Cover the potatoes in between stirrings.
3) In the meantime, peel and slice the onions and set aside.
4) As the potatoes cook, they will become mushy and break apart. They will take approximately 20 minutes to cook. When they are done, give them a taste to check for seasoning. Adjust to your taste. Remove from the pan and place potatoes in a bowl.
5) Return the pan back to the heat and add another 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the sliced onions, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Like with the potatoes, you should have enough onions to reach the top edge of the pan. Stir often to avoid browning and cover the onions between stirrings. The onions should take another 20 minutes to cook. You want them soft and translucent, not brown. Give them a taste when they are done to check for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Remove from the pan. Put the cooked onions in the same bowl as the potatoes and give it a gentle stir.
6) As the onions cook, beat the 6 eggs in a large bowl with a bit of salt and pepper until well combined. You should not see any strings of egg whites.
7) Add the potato/onion mixture to the eggs gradually, about ¼ cup at a time, so that you temper the eggs. Continue until the entire potato/onion mixture is incorporated into the eggs.
8) Lower the heat to low and put the same pan back over the heat with another 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the egg mixture and shake the pan so that it is even. You may have to use the back of a spoon to even out the top. Cover and let cook about 10 minutes, until the sides look done. The Tortilla will look underdone in the middle. Uncover and give the pan another shake. The Tortilla should come off the sides easily.
9) Now comes the flip! Take a plate larger than the pan and place it over the pan face down. Grab onto the handle and, using a potholder or kitchen towel, place your other hand on top of the plate. In one movement, flip the Tortilla onto the plate. Go for it! Slide the Tortilla back onto the pan and let cook for another 5 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle of the Tortilla comes out clean.
10) Flip again using the same method and put the nicest looking side face up onto a platter. Tortilla is delicious eaten right off the heat, but it will hold up well for a few days in the refrigerator. Let it come to room temperature before you dig in. I always take it out of the refrigerator right before we leave for the last evening service of Yom Kippur so that it is ready for us when we get back.