Two years ago, I found myself in my first job—“real life” as my friends and I call it— and on my own for Rosh Hashanah, unable to go home to Massachusetts. This had never been an issue before. Even during college I was lucky to be able to go home most years for Rosh Hashanah or else to enjoy holiday meals with nearby relatives or friends at their parents’ houses (“real homes”).
Living and working on my own in DC, I found plenty of different kinds of religious services and organized events for the Jewish holidays, but I couldn’t imagine a holiday without a big, special meal.
More confusing, however, was the fact that unlike many other families, I didn’t have a special generations-old menu to latch onto. Over the years, my family and I often celebrated with other families and friends, making for ever-changing holiday food. My mom and I would often make a wonderful apple honey cake together, but some years we swap it out for a dense apple cake or something entirely different—new recipes for a new year.
So where others would have found comfort in making family dishes, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that everything was missing—from my family to long-standing traditions. I wanted a special holiday meal, but I couldn’t describe what it should look like beyond an elegant table with homemade food, fine china and my family’s faces.
I worried about it for weeks until finally my roommate, her boyfriend (now fiancé) and I decided to host our own Rosh Hashanah dinner at our apartment. And still, a few hours before the dinner was to start, I called my parents nearly in tears. “It’s not going to feel like a holiday,” I choked to my dad. “How will it be Rosh Hashanah if we’re eating on paper plates and sitting on the floor?”
By that point, it was too late to go anywhere else, so I collected myself and went back to slicing apples, reheating the store-bought rotisserie chickens and plating my own apple cake and a new dessert for me, almond cookies.
Our 15 or so guests started arriving with kugel, wine and more contributions in hand. I met new people, and we laughed and ate matzah balls spiced with cinnamon, per my roommate’s family tradition, in chicken soup prepared by her boyfriend. The soup nearly melted our disposable bowls (rookie mistake).
Last year, a different group of us gathered at a friend’s house for another potluck Rosh Hashanah. The host and another friend made a super quick and easy baked chicken with dried fruits and a salad with apples, a New Year’s touch. One girl brought prepared salads from Whole Foods, another brought a family almond cake and one guy brought champagne. (“It’s a new year, isn’t it?”) In hopes that home might be a few baked goods away, I made my family’s apple honey cake and apple cake.
Crowding around the coffee table, some people on the couch, others on the floor or hovering above on bar stools, the host asked us to share our reflections on the outgoing year—things that had happened, challenges we had faced, accomplishments we were proud of—and our hopes and goals for the new year. Many of us were wrapping up our first year as working professionals in DC with new jobs, friends and activities, while others had just graduated from college and were beginning their very first September out of school.
Without a table covered in linens and napkin rings—and my parents, of course—neither of the Rosh Hashanah potlucks felt like the home I came from, but suddenly last year it dawned on me that it made sense to be celebrating the holiday in DC, where I live my “real life” now and where I will spend most of the incoming year. It seemed right to usher in the new year around a table of food and friends who share my young professional life in this city—weeknight dinners, stressful workdays, weekend museum outings, dating dramas and, now, significant celebrations.
It turns out that this year I’ll be home with my family and our closest friends for Rosh Hashanah. And, honestly, I’ll be grateful for not having to figure out how to prepare food for 20 people in the middle of a workweek or seat all those bottoms in a 10-by-10-foot space. Whatever I contribute to the holiday meals this year will be entirely voluntary. But I’ll also know that if, for some reason, I can’t make it home next year, armed with our family cake recipes and some new ones, too, wonderful friends and an open mind, I’ll be able to make Rosh Hashanah special on my own—even if some food contributions are store-bought and there are no napkin rings in sight.