Food plays a significant role in the history of the Jewish people, from why we eat matzah at Passover to the reasoning behind fried foods at Hanukkah. At Rosh HaShanah, an apple dipped in honey represents a sweet new year, and there are numerous reasons for eating dairy during Shavuot. (Some believe it relates to our dietary laws and the Torah as well as God’s promise in Exodus 3:8 to deliver the Jewish people unto a land “flowing with milk and honey.”)
At my synagogue, food is essential in nearly everything we do, including as tikkun olam, the repair of our world. In the lobby entrance from our parking lot sits a large box for people to donate non-perishable items to a local food pantry or temple members in need. A number of years ago, when a local food pantry, just days before Thanksgiving, didn’t have enough turkeys, a teen congregant organized a successful turkey drive. A small dedicated group of women deliver “Jewish penicillin” to congregants who are under the weather.
Food also plays a key ingredient at Shabbat. I am watching my waistline, but because the oneg is an extension of Shabbat, I think I can, for religious observance, stop counting points for one night each week! The Sisterhood does a yeoman’s (or is that yeowoman’s?) job of setting up our oneg, the meal after services. A large challah augments the one that sits on the bimah, and because man cannot live by challah alone, the bread is supplemented by black and white cookies, Danishes, special-occasion cakes, and even sugar-free Jell-O. Family services usually have brownies, and sometimes, there’s ice cream.
On occasion, someone will make a dessert to share with the congregation. The best homemade dessert is congregant Stan’s rice pudding, which no diner can come close to replicating. It doesn’t even need whipped cream! Stan, however, is very modest. He’ll smile and acknowledge the hard work that goes into preparing the rice pudding, but he has yet to give up the recipe – other than to tell us that it needs rice.
The “pre-neg,” a sort of appetizer to our once-a-month Kabbalat Shabbat service, consists of crackers, hummus, fruit, veggies, dip, and bow-tie cookies. For our winter picnic, congregants bring big pots of homemade soups. Last time, Stan’s wife Jan made a mushroom barley soup from scratch!
A secret-recipe meatloaf, corned beef and cabbage, and other specialty dishes rotate our congregation’s monthly Brotherhood dinners – and the brotherhood chefs are responsible for Sunday morning breakfast, too. While Hebrew school is in session and the kids are in class, the adults hang out in the synagogue social hall. Chefs whip up omelets (both egg and Egg Beaters versions), home fries (spicy ones with a kick, as well as milder ones without) and, from time to time, pancakes or oatmeal. Parents utilize the peace and quiet to socialize, whine not included.
Our children learn about holidays through food, too. Shabbat dinners are offered when our congregation’s students run the occasional family service; at Passover, our youth group hosts a “chocolate seder.” At our third-graders’ Sunday “family class” the week before Hanukkah, families come together to make batches of latkes from one congregant’s home recipe. And, of course, the most popular elective in our Monday evening Hebrew High School program is the cooking class! Participants have made everything from sufganiyot (jelly donuts) to matzah pizza.
In June our director of religious education will mark 35 years as an educator and administrator. Since no Jewish holiday or celebration is complete unless we have a feast (seudah) we are asking everyone to bring their favorite dessert for a special oneg. Stan, start buying the rice!