How a young Jewish woman found her faith, not in the holy book or at the synagogue, but in the kitchen while cooking a Rosh Hashanah meal miles away from home
Words by Sheri Lindner; Art by Sruti Menon
L’dor v’dor (From generation to generation)…
… they shall go forth from their native land, from the house of their father and mother, and go to a land that they will show us, and if they take with them the courage of their fathers and the wisdom of their mothers, we need not fear.
Twenty years ago, my daughter was initiated into our community as a Jewish woman. But she tells me that it wasn’t until one night 10 years later that she felt like a ‘real’ Jewish woman. And, this happened after she left her home’s hearth; in a home, she was creating for herself 11,000 miles away from her native land.
In her now defunct blog, she writes:
Ten years ago, when I became a Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish community accepted me as a woman. I led an entire service in addition to chanting from the Torah (the Holy Scroll). I particularly remember one speech in which someone I quite respected reminded me to remember always, always, that ‘home’ is more often about people than about places.
The Jewish holidays started this past weekend. This is not usually a big deal for me. I have certainly spent many a high holiday travelling in various parts of the world. But this year, having settled into a graduate school routine in Canberra, Australia, I, somehow, felt a little homesick.
Deciding to create a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) meal, she went on an urban hunting expedition, criss-crossing an entire city in search of a special cut of meat that we call brisket. There, she unearthed every appliance in her shared apartment kitchen, mixing together sour cream, vanilla and fruit for noodle kugel, using broken-up lasagna noodles, because I had forgotten to tell her to buy egg noodles.
There, like a potter molding her clay, she massaged the flour into matzoh balls and made chicken-less chicken soup for her Hindu vegetarian friends. There, because she had no electric processor or even a food mill grinder, she improvised, with mortar and pestle, like a medieval apothecary to make her great-grandmother’s healing potion–the liver of a chicken, mixed with other secret ingredients.
Kosher, sweet red wine (Manischewitz!) was impossible to find; Durkees French Fried Onions were nowhere to be found, and even toasted wheat germ needed to be substituted. And, right when I could have given up with half my ingredients evading me, people swooped in and made Australia seem like home.
Some spent far too much of their own time helping me secure a brisket cut by Googling it to figure out which part of the cow I was looking for and then calling around until we found it. Some came with me to retrieve the brisket. Some brought me milk when I ran out and couldn’t leave the house because too many things were cooking.
My roommates let me monopolise every appliance in the kitchen for an entire day. Some helped me carry the food from the apartment to the car, and some others from the car to the venue. Some brought serving spoons when we were short, and others helped me roll the matzoh balls out of sheer curiosity. Mostly people arrived to eat with wine, appetisers, and chocolates. Some brought me flowers, and still far more people simply brought themselves and enjoyed.
She shared the family challah (special Jewish bread) recipe with one of her more curious friends, Ross, who had volunteered to help her. Ross would bake his first loaves of bread and say the word challah for the first time.
She convened a ‘congregation’ of 25 fellow graduate students, representing at least five major religions, from all over the world–23 of whom had never tasted a morsel of Jewish food before–to share this holiday meal with her as she celebrated Rosh Hashanah.
She called us at 11 o’clock that night—her time—which was still the morning of erev Rosh Hashanah (the day before the holiday) our time—to report the meal’s huge success. Even the chopped liver, which she thought was an acquired taste, went right off the bat. Ross’s circular, braided, shiny-egg-brushed challahs were almost too beautiful to eat.
She said that she now understood that 10 years ago, as she chanted trop (the ancient musical notation of the Torah), interpreted Torah through the eyes of her dozen years and led the congregation in the melodies and words of a Jewish prayer service, she was “still a child who proved I had the dedication, the resourcefulness, and the motivation to accomplish big tasks. Little did I realise that I was really absorbing a community’s confidence in me”.
That night as she picked up the crumbs of what remained from the feast she had put together, she understood that someday, she would stand in a home of her own making, and celebrate a New Year, placing, as our ancestors did with the fringes of their tallit (prayer shawl), her own signature on the ritual. That was the night she felt like she had ritually become a legitimate Jewish woman.
She had understood, anew, the words spoken to her 10 years ago. That home is not about place, but about people. The food–the brisket, the matzoh balls and the challah–was just the starting point, the base metal. Placed on a table, alone, they wouldn’t become a Rosh Hashanah meal. And, she did not become a Jewish woman because she had made a brisket.
There was an alchemy that occurred, that transformed both the food and my daughter, Joanna, to embody the imprint of a Jewish identity that night. Though much time, effort and focus were placed on the meat, bread and soup, the meaning of that evening did not lie in what was eaten. It was but carried in the loving embrace of those whose hands reached out with enthusiasm to Joanna. In the desire of those 24 people–not one of whom shared Judaism as an indigenous tradition–to participate in the creation of that particular, religious moment. And, in finding within herself, the capacity to create home, wherever she was.
She did not go to synagogue that night. She stood in her kitchen, surrounded by a congregation of friends-turned-family, prayerfully invoking her ancestors in the form of those recipes, handed down to her through generations. Those texts became holy, as sacred as, perhaps, the Torah—parchment stretched lovingly like strudel dough, between two wooden rolling pins.