Praying with dates and chard at Rosh Hashanah and breaking Yom Kippur’s fast with quince jam allows me to keep my French habits in Atlanta and respect the traditions of my Judeo-Sephardic family.
Let me share with you more about these holiday rituals:
This celebration marks the beginning of the year, and we hope that this year will be full of colors. My Rosh Hashanah table is therefore joyful, abundant and fragrant, marking the intent for a joyful life. As part of this tradition, we do not eat fish because the word dag, (fish, in Hebrew) is close to de’aga, (concern). It is also customary not to eat nuts during the Jewish month of Tishrei because the word egoz (nuts in Hebrew) has the same numerical value as the word het (sin).
In Atlanta, my guests are mostly American Ashkenazi Jews and therefore, descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe. Being used to only dipping apples in honey to celebrate a sweet new year, they are surprised to discover on my white tablecloth so many dishes waiting for a prayer. I am delighted to give them an explanation of all these symbols which remind us to:
1- Multiply Our Merit
Pomegranate: This fruit supposedly contains 613 grains – nobody counted! – like the number of mitzvot. I suggest perfuming them with orange blossom water. It’s divine. We recite the prayer in which it is said that we hope that our merits will be as numerous as the grains of the pomegranate.
Sesame: The same idea as the pomegranate, to see our merits increase like sesame seeds. Some families prefer beans.
Jujubes: Same idea, that our virtues will be multiplied because more than a thousand of these tiny apples – the size of olives – are harvested on a single tree. While it is impossible to find jujubes in Atlanta, in France, they are everywhere on the street markets during Rosh Hashanah.
2-Keep Our Enemies Away
Here is the tradition that surprised my friends in Atlanta the most: prayers on chard, squash, garlic … cooked as fritters and dipped in honey. Why these vegetables? Because their translation in Hebrew or Judeo-Aramaic is phonetically close to words meaning to avoid, to destroy, to move away. Our hopes and wishes for this new year. These traditions find their sources in the Talmud, written in Hebrew and Judeo-Aramaic. By eating them, we eat the words in order to dominate them. Eating becomes a spiritual action.
Chard: In Aramaic salka, is close to the word ystalkou, in Hebrew, which means “disappear.” We pray that our enemies will disappear.
Squash: In Aramaic, kra is close to kara, which means “tear.” We pray that all the bad decrees against us will be torn.
Garlic: In Hebrew, choum, close to the word choumdava, which means “nothing.” We pray in the hope that our enemies will be destroyed and reduced to nothing.
I like to relate that the late French Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi, full of humor, used to eat a banana because of the phonetical similitude between banana and bonne année, good year, in French.
3-Find Our Place
The fish head: We do not eat it. It serves as a symbol of blessing to ask to be placed at the top and not at the bottom of the list of nations. Among Jews from Kurdistan, Morocco and Tunisia, it can be a sheep’s head that is placed on Rosh Hashanah’s table. Of course, it is not put with a sprig of parsley in the nostrils (as some butcher shops do in France). It is cooked in the oven, with vegetables, often including beans, once again to evoke multiplicity.
In Atlanta, brisket is “de rigueur.” This is absolutely not the case in France, even in the Ashkenazi families. For me, this is the time to take out my salads cooked with all sorts of vegetables; I love for them to be very colorful. Men wear white kippot.
My challah is round and sometimes I make it in the shape of a pomegranate. All I have to do is make a little ball of bread and place a crown on top, and then to the oven. But the highlight of the dinner is this incredible dish: the pkaila.
So delicious that the renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi presented it as a culinary marvel and gave the recipe for it to The New York Times in September 2018:
“Tunisian Jews make a condiment called pkaila or bkeila, which is extraordinary. It is prepared by cooking down plenty of spinach for hours in a generous quantity of oil. The spinach – Swiss chard is often used as well – loses all its water, and very slowly fries in the oil, resulting in a small amount of greasy paste as black as crude oil, which is used to flavor all kinds of soups and stews.”
Everywhere in the world where Jews celebrate Yom Kippur, this day of fasting is dedicated to prayer. The fasting is not a goal in itself, but a way to surpass oneself, to overcome one’s weaknesses and to primarily reconciliate with oneself.
I frightened more than one friend in Atlanta by speaking about the kapparot. Oddly, many people were unaware of this rite, even though it is still practiced by thousands of Jews in Israel, as well as by some people in France. And one quickly understands why this ritual has been abandoned: it consists of sacrificing a chicken as a sign of atonement. Historically, the kapparot consisted of rotating a white bird over someone’s head three times while reciting prayers. This ritual, which dates back to the Middle Ages, has sparked anger among animal rights activists. And this is completely understandable. It was therefore abandoned as a sanctioned practice. However, many Sephardic Jewish families continue to buy as many roosters as there are males in the family and as many hens as there are females in the family. For my part, I‘ve never agreed to this tradition, neither have my parents, but we have the habit to cook all Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s main dishes with chicken: roasted chickens, stuffed chickens, chicken soups …
We usually have seven meals all day long, and I keep doing it because it amuses the kids. Breakfast begins with sandwiches, then a snack with lemonade and cakes, and we end with a wonderful main dish called the “Bride’s Couscous,” which features chicken. We listen to the Kol Nidré at the synagogue, and back home, my father tells the story of Moses, as he does every year in front of his grandchildren because it is the most fascinating character for him.
The custom in Tunisia, which we kept in France, and which I continue to practice in Atlanta, is to inhale the scent of the quince perfumed with cloves, which we prepare the day before. In small damp cloths, we spread crushed cloves, place the quince on them, and wrap them in the cloth so that they soak up the smell all night long. Breathing in the fragrance of the quince helps overcome headaches and dizziness, it is very efficient.
Break the Fast
In most synagogues in France, there is a magnificent tradition at the time of the kohanim prayer: the head of the family joins his loved ones in the courtyard of the synagogue. He gathers under his tallit all of his family to bless them while the shofar sounds. It looks like a sea of white tallit. It is beautiful.
Once, at home, everyone has his traditions. My sister-in-law, whose family is from Turkey, breaks her fast with a pepitada, a milk beverage with melon seeds and vanilla, then, as a main dish, an egg and lemon soup called avgolemono, in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language.
In my country, Tunisian Jews prefer to drink lemonade, flavored with orange blossom, a calming post-fasting drink. Then, quince jam and cakes satisfy the connoisseur’s palate, as well as biscotti dipped in zabayon (2 egg yolks and 2 ounces of powdered sugar beaten until a smooth cream is obtained). Then we serve a rishta soup, with pasta … and chicken again!