Jewish holidays always feature many special foods. Even amongst that crowded field, the Jewish New Year is unique. Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration filled with lavish dinners and post-services, nap-worthy afternoon meals highlighted with eating pastries.
For Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah (literally the head of the year), apples and honey are the most familiar and universal symbols, but that's just the start of symbolic foods for this holiday. Each is layered with meanings that have been honed, like a fine patina, over generations.
What also makes Rosh Hashanah so different is the singular focus on foods that are only sweet.
Sweetness for All
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews eat sweet food. Challah is extra sweet, studded with raisins or stuffed with honey-sweetened, cinnamon-spiced apples. Dried fruit spikes the couscous aux sept légumes and caramelized beet greens, chard, or leeks grace the Moroccan table. Families with Eastern European and Russian heritages feature sweet potato, carrot, prune, and brisket tsimmis followed by the fried pastry and fruit tower dripping in honey candy (taiglach) or flaky apple strudel.
Sephardic families start their meals with sweet pumpkin bread (pan de calabaza), serve up honey-touched dishes with black-eyed peas and poultry, and end with baklava and soaked semolina cakes. Every dish, every side, every course, and every meal, including meats to vegetables, is sweetened. I was taught that everything is sweet because we wish and hope for a sweet new year, so you quite literally eat that. The traditional greeting isn't just "Happy New Year," but "have a good and sweet new year." Simple enough, but there's more to it.
"Yet once a year come these days filled with hope that next year will be healthier and happier. The food is sweet because hope itself is sweet."
The foods Jews made reflected the complexity of their lives, their interactive relationships and cross-pollination with long-time neighbors, and their own historical rules and customs. It was always in flux.
One great consistency was that these foods were often sweet and sour, or bitter and sweet. In Western Europe, from Alsace-Lorraine to Italy, Jews ate sweet and sour foods and became known for that specific palate. These flavors are present in dishes like pesce al' Ebraica and carp a la juive. In Eastern Europe and Russia, their spins on favorites leaned sweet and sour, like stuffed cabbage. Even in the Middle East this palate thrived, when a group of Jews from Baghdad — one of the most ancient communities — moved to India in the early 17th century and took their strong tradition of sweet and sour flavors with them. The influence was so strong that it's still reflected in the foods of those Indian cities. In Calcutta, chittarnee, a sweet and sour chicken in onion sauce still carries these flavors.
More on Rosh Hashanah
Jewish history isn't exactly brimming with happiness and sunshine at every turn. It was marked with some good periods — sweet periods, really — when tolerance was the norm. More often, it's been scarred by bitter episodes or harsh descents beyond the imagination. Yet once a year come these days filled with hope that next year will be healthier and happier. The food is sweet because hope itself is sweet. Hope, unadulterated by the realistic undertones of sour past and possible future bitter times, is a sweet respite — and a delicious one.
For Rosh Hashanah the foods are untempered by any bitterness or sourness. That's all temporarily chucked out the window in favor of the sensation of joy on your tongue from absolute sweetness and the taste of hope in every bite.