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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Rosh Hashanah's Sweet Symbolism

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | September 8, 1999

If ever there was a holiday for those with a sweet tooth, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which begins Friday at sundown, is the one.

Meaning “head of the year” in Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah has developed over the years into a many-layered festival.

There are no biblical commandments to eat or refrain from eating certain foods on Rosh Hashanah, unlike during Passover, which is marked by fasting and solemnity. Yet sugary foods such as carrots, dates, apples and raisins are frequently tapped for the holiday menu, while honey plays the leading role — it appears on the table in everything from honey-glazed chicken to honey cake.

According to the book of Exodus, when the Hebrews wandered the desert for 40 years they ate “manna,” which was like “honey wafers.” Israel itself, of course, is a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Honey cake, traditionally called “lekakh,” which means portion in Hebrew, is also evocative of a goodly portion in the new year.

“It was traditionally thought that what you ate would influence your year,” says Cecille Asekoff, wife of Rabbi Stanley Asekoff of B'nai Shalom, a synagogue in West Orange. “It's a folk custom. People stay away from salty, bitter and sour foods, and there is an emphasis on sweetness.”

Asekoff, who is coordinator of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of MetroWest and Central New Jersey, says, “On Rosh Hashanah I try to wrap up themes from the course of the year — sweetness, abundance, continuity, renewal and new. It may sound philosophical for a menu, but that's what goes through my mind.”

For sweetness and abundance, Asekoff serves a variety of sweetened foods and desserts. For newness, she selects a new recipe to try each year. For continuity, she recreates dishes that late family members once made.

“I make cinnamon twists, because my Auntie Shine used to make that as part of our family tradition,” she says.

Every year, Asekoff's mother, Betty Allman, also bakes her specialty, mandel bread, a confectionary filled with candied fruits. “All peoples have traditional foods,” Asekoff says. “What we're trying to represent is not just hope but optimism that the future will be sweet.”

Asekoff has also hosted Tashlich at her home for the last 22 years.

Tashlich, usually held the first day of Rosh Hashana, means “you will cast” in Hebrew. During Tashlich, Jews symbolically cast off the negative parts of their year, sometimes called sins, by throwing bread crumbs into a flowing stream.

Asekoff, who happens to have such a stream in her West Orange backyard, invites the entire B'nai Shalom congregation. About 200 people show up, and Asekoff serves more sweet stuff — brownies and chocolate-chip squares — which are not traditional Rosh Hashana foods, but have become traditional for her to serve on Tashlich. Because the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on the Jewish Sabbath this year, Tashlich is postponed to Sunday.

“Not everyone can plug into ritual,” Asekoff says. “Sometimes food becomes ritual, and if that's what people can plug into, it's an okay start.”

Apples dipped in honey symbolize a sweet year. Apple- and honey-based desserts at Rosh Hashana often complete the sweet symbolism. A legendary honeyed dessert traditionally served on Rosh Hashana is teiglach, “doughies” in Yiddish, which are small balls of dough glazed with honey, covered with nuts, and formed into a pyramid.

Helen Mattson of Pattenburg has been making honey-sweet teiglach for almost three decades. “My grandmother’s were like rocks,” she says. “You had to be careful not to break your teeth on them. Mine aren't so hard, but they're sweet and sticky.”

Mattson’s mother used to buy teiglach at a Jewish bakery rather than prepare them herself. “They weren't as good as grandma’s,” Mattson says of the store-bought kind. “They were expensive too.”

“It’s a fun thing to serve,” Mattson adds. “I put it out on the table and people just pick at it.”

Abby Meth Kanter of West Caldwell prepares the same sweet menu every year. “I didn’t have enough foresight to stand at the elbow of my grandmother when she cooked the traditional foods,” she says, “but my husband gave me a wonderful cookbook whose recipes come very close to the dishes my grandmother used to make.”

Meth Kanter, former copy editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, a weekly in Whippany (Full disclosure: Friedman is also on the staff of New Jersey Jewish News), takes her entire holiday menu from that cookbook, from soup to the nuts in her honey cake.

“Of course we like to have the traditional desserts,” she says.

The honey cake she bakes is “very delicious and very moist.” A surprise ingredient, warm coffee, gives it “a really nice flavor.”

Then there are the legions of apple-based desserts. Bracha Weisbarth of Morristown, a native of Israel who has lived in the United States for 12 years, has baked her apple surprise sponge cake every holiday year for the last quarter century.

“I usually serve sweet things,” she says. “We want our year to be sweet, not bitter or sour. I also play with honey a lot.”

Weisbarth, director of library services at Waldor Memorial Library of the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest in Whippany, is so familiar with her cake recipe that she can recite it by heart. It is, she says, a basic sponge cake baked with sweetened apple slices.

“My favorite part is the preparation,” says Perla Weinberger. “I love to cook.” Weinberger, assistant to the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, has been hosting Rosh Hashana festivities in her Livingston home for 19 years. This year, she's expecting 22 people, which represents a slight decrease in the guest list from the days she used to feed 36- plus people at her dinners.

“My children say it doesn't feel like a holiday unless I cook,” she says. Weinberger always serves a wide assortment of desserts. “I get teased that I make one dessert per person.” For Rosh Hashana she may make a traditional apple cake or such nontraditional desserts as flourless chocolate cake and strawberry mousse.

“One of the things I like about Rosh Hashana is that you can make basically anything,” she says. “There are no restrictions on what you can do, like at Passover.”

Jill Granik of Randolph gets downright creative with her apple-based desserts. Her most cherished recipe is apple pizza, which she describes as “so, so good.” Granik, operations director of Randolph’s Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County, keeps a meticulous file of Rosh Hashana recipes on her computer. “It’s one of my favorite holidays,” she says.

Others take the symbolism part of the holiday even further. Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz plans to bake an apple honey cake this year as part of her responsibilities at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills.

“I’m going to tell a story about the world’s birthday at services and show the cake,” she says. “Then I'm going to take it home for our family dinner.” She explains, “I found a wonderful story about the world’s 5760th birthday and I thought I’d bring it to life with a cake we could all enjoy.”

It couldn't possibly get any sweeter than that.