Working with interfaith couples for the past 19 years, the question I have been asked the most is, “How do we know what to make for the holidays?” Yes, there are many cookbooks available, but what I am really hearing is, “Please share your recipes and what you do at home with us.”
When I think of celebrating past Jewish holidays with my immediate and extended families, I think of the food we ate, how beautiful the table looked, remembering the specialness of the occasion. Both my husband’s family and mine had the tradition of gathering the family together to celebrate the Jewish holidays.
Since we both come from Ashkenazi backgrounds, the food was similar. Each of our mothers loved to cook and entertain, But each kept their recipes very differently. My mother-in-law had most of hers on 3 x 5 index cards in a box with the name of the person from whom she got the recipe. My mother kept hers in a loose-leaf folder.
I have adopted a combination of both. I keep a loose-leaf folder and label all the recipes with the name of the person from whom I got the recipe. I have three folders, and all are pretty much a mess. One is for desserts; another for meat, fish, pasta and vegetables; and the third is for Passover, a holiday with such different food traditions that it warrants its own folder!
Some of my recipes are traditional while others are new and contemporary. I find that when rituals are repeated in their entirety exactly the same way, year after year, they become stale. My preference is a combination of the old and the new, breathing new life into past traditions.
With this in mind, holidays such as Rosh Hashanah are wonderful opportunities for interfaith families to include both parents’ culinary heritage and experiences. While it is worthwhile to pay attention to the Jewish dietary laws, recipes associated with other religious celebrations can make for an exciting meal. Just take a look at the new cookbook, Jerusalem, co-authored by a Jew and an Arab both from Jerusalem, and see how they discuss similarities and differences around the foods they grew up with.
My Rosh Hashanah recipes are typically what I serve for Shabbat dinner as well. For the new year, my mother always served brisket. While she was a superb cook, I really didn’t like her brisket. It was too grey, and the gravy wasn’t thick enough. I also don’t like the kind of brisket that is surrounded with vegetables. It lacks heft! My recipe for brisket is rich and very tasty. I know the ingredients are a bit dated—the recipe originally came from the back of a dry onion soup package—but the merger of savory and sweet flavors gives it a distinctive taste.
While my mother usually prepared green beans and some sort of potatoes, I prefer to serve my foolproof corn pudding, an all-time favorite of my family, especially my youngest granddaughter Tess. It is her most frequent request for Shabbat. Quickly steamed broccoli sprinkled with slivered almonds is an easy vegetable to prepare and complements the plate beautifully.
My mother often made apple strudel for dessert on Rosh Hashanah. Not only did she “pull” dough herself on the dining room table, but she also made batches of it to give away to friends for them to enjoy. Not being adept at making strudel dough, I have made the dessert using store-bought filo dough, but, alas, it doesn’t taste like my mother’s. So now I usually make some sort of fruit tart, pie or crumble.
My favorite is the blueberry tart recipe from Helen Gougeon, a wonderful Montreal cook. It was published in The Montreal Star, a daily newspaper that no longer exists. I think I first started to make this over 30 years ago. It really is quite easy after you try it once. It is delicious and definitely worth making.
I encourage all of you to think about what you are going to cook for the upcoming holidays. Traditional dishes are important and expected as are some new and different ideas. Surprise your family with a gluten-free, lactose-free, protein-packed quinoa salad that everyone can eat.
Wait and see. Whatever the backgrounds of your interfaith family, you and your children will begin to create your own wonderful memories of being together, enjoying each other and feasting on the delicious food you can all help bring to the table.
As an interfaith family, you are creating your own new rituals and traditions. As you assemble to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays, each occasion is an opportunity to express what the gathering means to you. For the Jewish parent, tell a story, serious or funny, describing a family occasion so your children learn about your history. For the parent who is of another faith, you can share how you have experienced this particular holiday. For example, you could say how doing the blessings before a meal is familiar to you if that was what you did at a certain time as a child.
In all religions we choose many ways to show our gratitude. Being and creating is a blessing for us to use well.
I look forward to writing about my family recipes on a regular basis. Look for my latke recipes for Chanukah. I use many different vegetables! I might even decide to share my old-fashioned apple cake recipe from my Auntie Beattie. It’s a winner!