For our first foray into Jewish cooking, Mom and I picked Rosh Hashanah. Following my father’s death in April 2017, taking a teaching job at yeshiva and signing up for an introduction to Judaism class, I found myself propelled towards Judaism and what better time to reconnect with our Jewish heritage than through the New Year?
Aside from having no idea what we were doing, Mom and I felt confident.
We started with the menu: challah, brisket, green beans, kugel (a nod to my mother’s childhood) and the one dish we were sure to master) and new fruits. We decided with little to no discussion that we’d skip the fish head. Additionally, we decided to throw in deli rolls as a friend had tipped me off that she couldn’t keep them on her Shabbos table.
Our first issue arose when trying to select the brisket.
“What kind of animal is it, anyways?” asked Mom in a loud whisper at the grocery store.
“A beef?” I said unconvincingly.
“But what do I ask for?” Mom answered back.
“A neck?” she said desperately.
The butcher took pity on the two of us former vegetarians, handing us a heavy package, blood seeping visibly through the paper.
“Yuck,” said Mom unnecessarily.
We avoided the brisket by throwing it unceremoniously into the slow cooker with salt, pepper, and a rub I avoided actually rubbing onto the meat.
The kugel took no time at all, Mom stirring in sticks of butter and cheese to a large pot of egg noodles while cheerfully proclaiming the Liebenson family motto, “more fat the better!”
The beans we did Sephardic style: our own version of fasoulia with generous amounts of garlic, onion, and tomato. The deli rolls provided an unexpected challenge as we’d forgotten to thaw the pastry; mom stabbed at it with a fork, determined to make it melt faster.
“But if we add cheese to the turkey then it’s not kosher, right?” I asked, uncertainly.
“Add more mustard!” Mom exclaimed, furiously rolling out the partially thawed pastry.
By this point most of the day had evaporated.
We were exhausted by our newfound Jewishness.
“I’ll handle the challah,” said Mom stoically.
About an hour later I heard her voice from the kitchen.
“The challah is rising!” she shouted as if we’d discovered a new form of life on earth. Mom, like all good Jewish mothers, is an overachiever. Instead of making our challah into a neat roll, she decided we should disregard tradition and double braid the loaf using an ancient bread book leftover from her back to the land days.
We struggled to understand the diagram, gently holding the strands of challah.
“So if A goes here … then F goes here?” I said gingerly.
Mom wiped an overheated brow.
After much muttering and by the grace of God alone our challah looked halfway decent as we slid it into the oven, brisket bubbling away in the crockpot.
We sat around the table, faces lit by glowing candles. I watched her triumphant face even as she attempted to saw through the brisket.
As we ate, I wondered about my great-grandmother. Did Pearl ever sit around a table similar to this one; reviewing in her mind all she had to say sorry for, everything she wanted to take back, everything she was looking forward to?
Although our brisket was a bit tough, and our beans a little overcooked, our challah was fluffy and light, leaving a lingering sweetness to carry into the new year.
Kelsey Liebenson-Morse is a writer and teacher living in New York.