Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, is the saddest day of the Jewish year. Here’s a short list of catastrophes that happened on that day:
1. Both Temples were destroyed. The first Temple was burned down by the Babylonians. On the very same day 655 years later, the Second Temple was torched by the Romans.
2. Betar, the last city to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kokhba revolt, fell.
3. In 1290 the Jews were expelled from England.
4. In 1306 Jews were expelled from France.
5. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain.
6. In 1914 Germany declared war on Russia, which started World War I, the prelude to World War II.
Tisha b’Av ends a three-week-long period of mourning. During the last nine days before the fast, wine and meat, foods associated with joy, are banned from the menu. For the pre-fast meal, the menu is pared to the minimum. That meal consists of bread dipped in ashes, and hard-boiled eggs, and it’s eaten in solitude while sitting on the ground.
But the sadness doesn’t last for long. There is a Talmudic teaching that the Messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av.
Rice and Lentil Pilaf: Majadarah
Majadarah, the Arabic name for a delicious rice and lentil pilaf, literally means “having smallpox.” The brownish lentils allegedly resemble the disease. Don’t let that put you off. Majadarah is incredibly healthy, full of fiber and iron and low in fat.
Majadarah is eaten before Tisha b’Av and also after funerals, because lentils are closed spheres without an opening or a mouth, and under Jewish law a mourner lacks a mouth; mourners aren’t allowed to initiate a conversation, although they can respond. On Tisha b’Av all Jews are mourners.
Use brown or green lentils only for this—red will turn to mush.
1 cup brown or green lentils
1 1/2 tablespoons plus ¼ cup vegetable oil (olive oil is fine)
2 cups basmati rice
6 cups boiling water or stock
3 medium size Vidalia onions, sliced into thin crescents
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Greek yogurt for serving, optional
Cover lentils with water in a saucepan and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes until tender. Drain.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan over a medium flame and sauté rice briefly, stirring. Add lentils and 2 teaspoons salt. Pour boiling water or stock over rice and lentils. On a low flame simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in a skillet over a medium flame and sauté onions, stirring frequently, until dark brown, about 10 minutes. Add pepper, cumin and salt to taste.
To serve, spoon rice and lentils onto a serving platter and top with the fried onions. Serve, if you wish, with Greek yogurt. Can be frozen, but better fresh.
As warm as a mother’s embrace, as soft as a baby’s blanket, mamaliga, a cornmeal mush that is a close relative to polenta, is the ultimate comfort food. In Romania, mamaliga was eaten round the clock, and in the early twentieth century immigrants from that country brought it to the U.S. and sang about it in the Yiddish theater. Since it’s meatless, it’s great for the pre-Tisha b’Av period, though you can eat it anytime.
This recipe comes from my mother, who still remembers her own mother standing over the stove and stirring the mamaliga carefully for 20 minutes or more, to make sure that it was velvety smooth. For a more solid mamaliga, cook longer, then spread it out on a board and cut it into slices.
3 cups water
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon butter
Salt to taste
1 cup best quality cornmeal
Sour cream for serving
Bring water, milk, butter, and salt almost to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Lowering flame to keep at a gentle simmer, gradually dribble in cornmeal, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to avoid any lumps. Continue stirring for 10 to 15 minutes, until you have a thick pudding that tastes cooked. You can add more water if it feels too thick.
Serve immediately, with a dollop of sour cream. Doesn’t freeze well.
Serves 3 to 4
Excerpted from Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What it Means by Carol Ungar, published by Brandeis University Press. Used with permission.
Carol Ungar’s writing has appeared in NextAvenue, Forbes, NPR, the Jerusalem Post Magazine, and Fox News. She also leads memoir writing workshops on Zoom.