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August 28, 2013

High Holy Days: Eating Holy

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/high_holy_days_eating_holy

Here in Pico-Robertson, we’re bracing ourselves for the annual onslaught of kosher calories known as the Holy Month.

Some people think that this time of year calls for only a few big meals. Not quite. If you’re a stickler for tradition, the actual number of Thanksgiving-level meals over the next month is closer to — I’m not kidding — about 18. And that’s not even counting the Yom Kippur pre-fast and break-the-fast meals.

Trust me, I did the math.

Right off the bat, we start with six big ones in a row, as this year the first two days of Rosh Hashanah (four meals) lead right into the two big meals of Shabbat. And, just when you think you’ve recovered, a little over a week later comes the holiday of Sukkot, which also runs into Shabbat, with another six Thanksgiving-style specials.

But here’s the real killer. If you follow tradition, there’s what are called “the second holidays.” Food-wise, this basically means that during the last two days of Sukkot (again followed by Shabbat), you’re right back to the brisket-and-sweet-potato marathon, with another six supersize meals in a row.

That’s a grand total of 18 opportunities to malign your intestines as you celebrate godliness and spiritual renewal.

So, to help relieve all this caloric heaviness, I thought I’d muse this week on the lighter side of holiday rituals in my haimish Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

First, I’ve noticed over the years a certain obsession with soup, especially among Ashkenazim. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in an Ashkenazi home for Shabbat, or any holiday meal, without being served something hot and liquidy. Ashkenazim also love, by the way, those tiny yellow cracker things they throw in the soup — I’m assuming to add a little crunch to the slurp.

It’s not that I don’t like soup. It’s just that soup often reminds me of those depressing black-and-white British movies with kids in boarding schools who slurp without saying a word. 

That’s the other thing — slurping. Not my favorite melody. If and when I hear it, I usually bring up the name Barack Obama, so that the heated discussion that follows will drown out any slurping sound. 

Another quirk of holiday eating is how long it can take to complete the silent ritual of blessing, slicing, salting and distributing the challah. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, there is a tradition not to speak after you do the ritual washing of the hands and before HaMotzi (blessing over bread.)

That silence can last a century.

Just imagine a whole bunch of grown-ups sitting around a long table studying every move of the host as he carefully and methodically works his magic on the challah. No one is saying a word. All eyes are fixated on a loaf of bread, everyone in some kind of holy trance.

One way to get around that uncomfortable silence is to quickly throw a piece of challah to the table’s best shmoozer. That way, he or she can entertain the table while the rest of us are still in our challah trance.

Speaking of entertaining, you never know when the host will ask if you have any words of Torah you want to share. This can get nerve-wracking. I always try to have something ready in case I’m asked, but if the wine flows too freely, those perfectly crafted words of Torah that took me hours to prepare can easily flow out of my brain.

A question I’ve never been able to answer when I invite someone is, “Can I bring anything?” What should I say? Lamb and couscous for 20? A turnip soufflé? Seriously, the whole point of my family hosting is that we want to take care of everything — food included!

Of course, it’s perfectly polite to bring a little something — such as wine, flowers or even a dessert — but then, why ask? 

I’m sure there’s something I’m missing about this local custom, so if I’m offending anyone, please let me know, and I can suggest exactly what to bring to my house next time you come over for Shabbat. (A bottle of Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon 2010?)

A hot issue at the end of every holiday meal is whether to do the melodious or quiet version of the bentsching (the long blessing after the meal). The melodious version takes a little longer, since you sing it all the way through, but because that melody can get somewhat annoying, most people now just sing the fun short intro (the one we all learned in summer camp) and give the rest the silent mumbling treatment.

Attention, all Jewish musicians — please work on a better bentsching melody.

Frankly, though, I’m not sure that would help. By the time the end of the meal rolls around — especially if we’re nearing the end of the Holy Month of 18 Epic Meals — most of us are thinking less about melodies than about antacids.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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