The Symbolism Of Rosh Hashanah Foods Is Especially Poignant In 2020

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I have always been quite loud about my Judaism, though I’ve also always made attempts to tamp down how deeply being Jewish is ingrained in me. “Haha, my hair!” this and “my mom makes so much food around the holidays” that—you know! The kind of joking about something really important to you that you feel endears you to others.

Something I’ve also been quite loud about is my love for the high holy day of Rosh Hashanah, which is the celebration marking the beginning of a new year per the Jewish calendar. I’ve never really understood what it is that connects me so much to this particular holiday. (I am, after all, a big proponent of being in bed by 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s—it’s really just a ploy to keep Ryan Seacrest rich, you guys!). But I have always rushed home to help my mom prepare absurd amounts of sweet food for the dozens of guests we unfailingly have over, and I earnestly wish all of my friends a happy new year around this time while asking if they have apples and honey on hand. I never understood why I cared at all…until now.

As you may or may not have heard, 2020 isn’t great! None of us are sleeping because of the continued political, social, and economic crises our country is facing and—on a more micro, and, somehow, a more macro scale—I can’t go home to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my family this year for fear of transmitting a crazy killer silent virus to my parents.

And yet I found myself this week planning a very extensive and extremely rooted-in-tradition holiday meal with my husband in an attempt to combat that heavy sadness. Round braided challah! Pomegranate seeds that are way too expensive to justify buying otherwise! And so, so many apples and honey.

The food of this holiday is entrenched in the idea of moving forward (again, as you may or may not have heard, Jews are pretttty intent on living in the past a lot of the time, so this is huge!) and of providing hope for what’s to come. Every part of the meal is coated in an extra layer of sweetness for the sheer positivity of it all. A clean and optimistic edible slate for a new year, if you will! And I’m going all the way in.

I just now started with a challah, which I’ve somehow never attempted before in my life. Jews typically eat that straightforward braided challah you saw all over Instagram in weeks one-through-eight of the pandemic, but on Rosh Hashanah, the sweet bread is meant to be braided into a round loaf. The circular loaf is meant to be a reminder of the unending cycle of life—life begets more life, etc., etc. (Oh god, I don’t know, I’m not that Jewish!!) You wrap it all up into a beautiful dough ball so that you can’t tell where you began and where you ended, but you do have to stop and think about how you’re affecting the rest of the loaf (and the people who also want to eat it) when you dive right into the middle.

I have spent so much time thinking about how my actions affect others this year, and somehow even more time being upset about how others’ decisions, particularly in the middle of a fucking pandemic on a burning planet, affect mine. It’s enough to make you want to rip right into the middle of a gorgeous lumpy bread you just spent hours baking…until you remember that the way out of *gestures helplessly* all of this is through it with the help of those around you. We can only continue perpetuating that whole cycle (I guess by this point I’m talking about life on Earth?? I’ve lost track of the metaphor honestly.) by taking a beat and thinking about others. Big round challah energy 2020!!!

The dumb-expensive pomegranate seeds are also meant to be an ingestible way of reminding us to think outside of ourselves. Jews who paid attention in Hebrew school will tell you the reason there are 613 mizvot (good deeds commanded by the Torah) is because that’s how many seeds were found in pomegranates way back in…the days? Either way, the modern-day interpretation is that if you eat pomegranate seeds now, at the beginning of a new year, you’re literally absorbing merits moving forward. And while that’s all well and good, it’s also an acknowledgment that you want to do better and be better, yeah? Like, I spent all that money I could have used for more black & white cookies on gritty little freshly oxidized blood-colored seeds because I want more than just the anti-aging properties. I want to know that what’s coming in the days, months, and oh god, years, to come is as good as it can be because I did all I could to make it that way, not because I sat back and watched it happen. I want to eat those fucking seeds and do some fucking good, not eat those fucking seeds and continue to complain about how much fucking money I spent…which is probably how I behaved until late 2019, to be honest.

Which leads me to what most other casual Jews (and casual gentiles, I guess?) know the holiday for: the drenching of sweet apples into even sweeter honey, a tradition I will never not associate with my dad and his lopsided kippah yelling “TO A SWEET NEW YEAR!” Oh god, I’m going to cry now. Because there have been fleeting moments of sweetness this year, but they’ve mostly been borne of luck and the new perspective I continue to work toward. They’ve not really been borne of the consequences of my behaviors which all of these other foods I’m now sitting in a pile of remind me I would like to change. Many point to the relationship between bees and honey (as in, bees can sting and hurt, but they can also produce the joy that is honey) as another example of how the choices we make can impact others so hard that it’s imperative we think about even the smallest of things before making decisions. Like, I don’t know, wearing a fucking mask or doing the bare minimum and being kind to someone who doesn’t look like you.

…I told you it just hits different this year!

I didn’t mean for this to turn into a How Jews Do New Years 101 explainer or for it to be an overly emotional plea to just be a better person because, if not, I’m pretty confident we’re all going to die. I really didn’t! But maybe you’ll get something out of it either way and be nicer to…Jewish people? I don’t know. All I know is I am wishing everyone a safe and healthy new year (no matter when you celebrate) filled with overly sweet food that’s practically nine months pregnant with heavy-handed symbolism. It’s the very best kind.

L’chaim! Shana Tova! Do you.

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