One thing that I can firmly state about my Jewish identity is my love of food. Throughout the year, Jewish holidays are wonderful times for gathering with family and friends. A huge plus for me is that favorite holiday memories and traditions are often centered around food- a win-win.
There is something so familiar and vivid when it comes to the smells and tastes that we associate with memories from our childhood. I know for my husband and our family we look forward to the crispy potato latkes at Hanukkah, the tender matzah balls at Passover and, to this day when I smell gefilte fish I think of my grandparents.
I will never forget when I went away to school in New York and got sick for the first time my mom had Second Avenue Deli matzo ball soup delivered to my dorm room and I felt instantly cured.
Who can forget the classic scene of Meg Ryan in the Jewish deli and the director Rob Reiner’s mother turned to the waiter and said, “I’ll have what she’s having” (a line that was improvised by the way!) It’s in our DNA—it’s just what we know: comfort, food and laughter.
When I spent some time in Israel I remember loving the fact that Shabbat was so important and everything was actually closed and almost forced everyone to relax, spend time with family and friends and recharge for the week. Every Friday morning I would wake up smelling the freshly baked challah and I would look forward to gathering all the groceries from the shuk and making a home-cooked meal.
I wanted to continue the tradition of Shabbat and share what it meant to me. My first Friday back in the states, I invited a bunch of friends over and we dined and drank wine and lit candles, it was such a special and relaxing evening. This past Hanukkah my one-year-old son kept shouting “Lights! Lights!” when we lit the menorah, and I couldn’t help but think about how special it is that every Jewish person around the world is coming together with loved ones and continuing the tradition (don’t make me sing “Fiddler on the Roof,” because I will).
Holiday foods enhance and elevate our festival celebration. By reserving certain distinctive foods for special days, each holiday meal takes on its own joyous and familiar character. Festival foods reinforce the meaning of the holiday and add to the celebratory mood of the diners. Every Jewish family has its favorite holiday foods. They have acquired a uniqueness and even a sanctity of their own which are handed down from generation to generation. These special recipes are part of our rich cultural and religious heritage.
As I start to form a little family of my own the more I recognize how important it is to continue the traditions your family taught you. The neat part about it is I can still hold tight to the foods and celebrations I remember as a child, and now I’m a part of my husband’s family who shares all their wonderful traditions with me and then we can blend the parts we love to teach our son and continue in our own way for our family. I really do feel lucky because sometimes I know we’re all exhausted and “holiday’d” or “family’d” out, but then I’m reminded we are making memories and how important it is to keep these traditions alive.
I also really like that there is meaning behind every meal and holiday celebration. If you don’t know as a child you are encouraged to ask why? The curiosity and questioning is another thing I love about my heritage—it’s important to question everything, someone is always more than willing to tell you all about it if you ask (and even when you don’t).
Whether you decide to hold an informal rooftop Shabbat for some girlfriends, or light the menorah in the middle of dinner while your baby throws applesauce on the floor, or choose to make cauliflower latkes, or hold tight to the traditional way of celebrating the holidays—it’s all meaningful and it’s a way for your family to keep their loved ones memory alive and make new ones too!”
TANYA FEIN IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER & EDITOR TO JLIFE MAGAZINE