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The Great Divide: Rosh Hashanah My Way

By Tina Traster

September 15, 2009 -- I watched him braid the dough and I am 10 again in the humid kitchen peering over my grandmother's dexterous floured hands. My husband's strong hands are not as limber as hers were but he started baking only recently. I remember the first time he plaited the moist dough it looked like an uncooked chicken. But it plumped into a honey-hued loaf of challah after 30 minutes in the oven. When my husband slid the bread gingerly from the oven and placed it on a rack, we bent over together, as if in prayer. We felt like we were looking at a newborn.

The sweet yeasty aroma rising from the blessed creation stimulated my salivary glands and my memory. As I reached toward the loaf to tear off an end my husband tapped my hand as though I were an impetuous child: "No," he said, "You've got to wait for it to cool." I really was back in the kitchen with grandma, being taught the virtue of patience.

Grandma lived with my family in Brooklyn throughout my childhood. My mother, a teacher and part-time czar of my father's carpet business, abdicated home-making to my stout Polish grandmother. Grandma ran the kitchen with a clock-maker's precision, skills she perfected in earlier years when she and her late husband ran a delicatessen. Nothing was more impressive than watching her prepare a Rosh Hashanah dinner for 20 in our cramped kitchen. She'd pull the turkey dripping in its juices from the oven and slide it onto a platter while candied sweet potatoes simmered on the stove and noodle pudding cooled on the Formica counter. She'd lay doilies on a large plate and place the challah on top as though she were putting a baby in a crib. After it cooled, she'd slice it with machine precision. Knowingly she'd hand me an end before setting it down in the middle of the holiday table. "Just one piece or you'll spoil your appetite," she'd say.

That we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays with feasts is a quirk in my upbringing. I never went to Hebrew School or got bat mitzvahed. My parents avoided synagogues and shunned religious practices. But my mother needed to celebrate the holy days with a family meal. I think it gave her a feeling of continuity. She always missed her father, who died suddenly from a heart attack at the delicatessen one day when he was 56 and she was a teen. Holiday meals comforted her loss.

For me the Jewish New Year was a chance to model fabulous fall fashions and to become inculcated in the culture of raucous political debate. Israel may have been occasionally mentioned but not as vociferously as who was doing what to ruin the plight of middle class Jews in New York City in the 1970s.

When my grandmother died in 1998 Rosh Hashanah as we knew it died with her. I was recently divorced. My sister had married a non-Jew and was not raising her two children with religion. My mother still did not know how to boil an egg. The other matriarchs in my family were passing and cousins were dispersing around the country. Over the years my mother did what she could to get our immediate family to gather even if it meant ordering in Chinese food and eating on paper plates. "The important thing is that we are together," she'd say.

During my first marriage I never got to make a warm nest. We were young, preoccupied with external pleasures. There was no talk about settling down and starting a family. I got a second chance to know domestic bliss when I remarried an old high school friend in 2001. With this man, who bakes bread, I know the pleasures of tending to the hearth, just as my grandmother did. While I do the cooking, he is the baker. Home is the center of my world.

I keep a picture of my grandmother on a bookcase in my office. I thank her often for her lessons. I've been telling her I'm planning this year's Rosh Hashanah dinner. She is not disappointed that the menu includes mozzarella, tomato and home-grown basil or a shrimp and salmon pasta with cream. I think it comforts her that there is a table my mother can sit at for the holidays even if turkey and candied sweet potatoes are distant memories.

In finalizing the details for the dinner I asked my husband to make focaccia, a good complement for my Mediterranean menu. "Sure," he said. "But if you'd rather I will make challah."

"Good idea," I said. "Good idea."

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