On the Jewish food scene: Holiday meals by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“You mean you’re not even having chicken?” That was the cry of a family friend almost 20 years ago after learning we were not having a typical Rosh Hashanah-style dinner. For many people, there must be certain foods on the table or it’s just not a holiday. Before Passover this year, a friend asked her children what they absolutely needed to make their seder festive since there would be no guests due to the pandemic. Her children requested everything they normally eat, except for the homemade gefilte fish. 

The reason our family friend was so distressed is that my mom and I were having a very atypical holiday meal: I believe that year it was a health-food pizza. There were several reasons for that. Pizza actually did feel festive to us. I can’t remember if my mom was already a vegetarian, but neither of us had the energy to cook a large, heavy meal. Plus, I’d gotten tired of having indigestion during the evening service. While I’ve enjoyed larger, fancier meals at friends’ homes over the years, you won’t find me making that type of meal for myself.

Is there actually a religious requirement to eat a large meal? Not exactly. We are required to rejoice on the holidays, as Deuteronomy 15:14 says, “And you shall rejoice in your Festival – you, and your son and your daughter and your manservant and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities.” While that verse specifically refers to Sukkot, it’s come to mean we should rejoice during all festivals. That is understood to mean we should have special meal. 

Why would a special meal help us rejoice? We need to remember that, in the past, food was not as plentiful as it is today. Few people ate meat every day or even every week, so meat was considered the perfect food for a celebration. Some families had more than one type of meat at a meal. (I remember at least two types – beef and chicken, at a minimum – sometimes in more than one format at my family’s gatherings when I was a child.) For Ashkenazic Jews, there also had to bread, even if it was not part of any specific dish. In fact, my grandfather – my mother’s father – expected there to be bread at every meal, no matter how many other forms of carbohydrates were on the table. It was simply not a meal otherwise.

For personal health reasons, I’ve moved away from those meat-based heavy meals. But that doesn’t mean I don’t plan to have a festive meal, even if others wouldn’t call it one. And sometimes the food matters less than the circumstances. Last Rosh Hashanah, my mother was in a rehabilitation center and I wanted to spend time with her before services. What I ate seemed less important than our being together. This year, I know I’m going to have to plan more carefully because the holidays will be very different due to the pandemic. But rejoicing should be less about the food we eat than an appreciation of having survived another year, something we should not take for granted. Whatever you choose to eat, may you celebrate the New Year with joy. Shanah tovah.