When Ziva Naumann's family gathers for her annual Rosh Hashanah dinner, each of her children and grandchildren expects to be called upon.
Not to burn the eggplant for a half-hour on each side for the babaghanoush. Not to add the olive oil in a slow steady stream to the taramasalata. Not even to sauté the onions until golden for some of the best chopped liver in the country. Even though on most holidays cooking is a group effort, this Rosh Hashanah feast is Naumann's gift to her family. Of course, she expects something special in return.
For on the evening of Sept. 20, before they go to temple to celebrate the Jewish New Year, each person will recount his activities of the past year -- rejoice in what he did right, reflect upon what he did wrong. Analyze, in the warmth of the family, how he might have done it differently. Then he'll take a moment to give thanks and set goals for the upcoming year. Which might include asking for help.
"We recently found out that one of the grandchildren needs open heart surgery," Naumann says. "We're all looking for the best doctor in the country, no matter the cost. Because we're together, we don't panic. Adversity brings you closer together."
As Naumann pours the kosher wine and passes the Moroccan chicken, she scrutinizes her Rosh Hashanah table, smiling at the various configurations -- who's there, who's in New York or Israel, who's having dinner with their in-laws. She realizes how much she has to celebrate. But Naumann never celebrates. She revels and kvells in each accomplishment of every member of her family.
And when it's Naumann's turn to talk about her year, where does she begin? Selfless acts, circumstances changed, lives saved. For this is no ordinary woman. In many ways, her life is like her Middle Eastern meal -- bitter and sweet, multitextured, with a large dollop of love in every bite. Most importantly, she is a role model.
Not only is she a meritorious matriarch, the attractive adhesive that binds her family together, but she founded a law center for the working poor with her own money. When the non-profit law firm needed money to keep going, Naumann organized fund-raisers -- rummage sales, barbecues, buffet dinners -- and catered them herself, to help pay the rent. She also used her cooking skills to cater fancy Hollywood parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs to supplement her modest income.
When Naumann had leftover food at the end of the party, it went straight to the homeless.
Naumann's catering business, began "as a complete fluke" when her friends desperately needed a caterer. "Most caterers were exorbitant, and in a moment of brilliance -- or desperation -- I said I'd do it," says Naumann.
"From that time on, my phone was ringing off the hook. I always loved cooking, especially Middle Eastern food," says the Israeli-born Naumann.
"One man tasted my chopped liver and had to have some for a party," she says. "I tried to dissuade him -- he wanted such a large quantity. First I told him I charged $25 a pound. He said 'No problem.' Then I said, 'I don't deliver.' He lived across town so I thought surely that would discourage him. He actually drove 60 miles to pick it up.
"That chopped liver is my signature dish -- it's always on my holiday table," Naumann says. "But I don't do just one hors d'oeuvre -- I have a whole spread so everyone can take what they want. In Turkey and many parts of the Middle East, they give you all these little dishes and you think it's the meal. And then they give you the meal," she says, laughing.
"On Rosh Hashanah there's a superstition that whatever you're doing at the beginning of the New Year will forecast what you'll be doing all year long. So naturally I want this to be my best meal of the year. Everything needs to be sweet. ... Our challah is round, which gives everyone the same shot at having a good year. That way everyone can be at the 'head' -- not at the 'tail' of the bread."
Below are Naumann's recipes for having a successful Rosh Hashanah dinner. We'll worry about saving the world tomorrow.
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