Traditions flavor the foods of Rosh Hashana

Like all new year celebrations, the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, marks a time of beginning. The holiday foods enjoyed in Israel, however, have their roots in ancient days.

During a recent visit to Israel, I saw an excavation of a 2,000-year-old market by the shores of the Dead Sea at Qumran, which was home to the Essenes, an ancient community that existed during the time of Jesus.

The pottery shards came from pots that would have contained such things as a gruel of lentils and bulgur and soupy stews of chickpeas, lentils and cut-up bits of meat, most likely goat or lamb. Archaeologists have also found evidence of chickpeas ground with a mortar and pestle into a paste with sesame seeds and garlic, much like the falafel eaten in the Middle East today.

Guides at the site point out petrified date and olive pits, as well as a press that was used to heat the dates and press them into a honeylike syrup. This is the biblical honey of the land of milk (yogurt) and honey.

The modern seaside resort of Ein Bokek sits nearby. More than 1,500 Israeli Jews and Arabs congregate at the hotel during any weekend or holiday. They include groups of Indian Jews in saris, Russian and Persian Jews, Orthodox Jews dressed in black and Arabs in traditional flowing robes.

To feed such a sizable crowd, hotel chef Motti Azoulay marshals a kitchen staff that mirrors the diversity of the guests. Six hundred Bedouins, Arabs and Jews work together to produce meals that reflect the microcosm of Israel today.

At Rosh Hashana, fresh dates are eaten from the date palms lining the shore. These symbolize hope for a sweet New Year. Because many of the chefs are of Moroccan background, they may add North African touches to the food. Soupy stews with chickpeas and meat are similar to the stews that the Essenes ate at Qumran. A typical North African fritter, probably one of the oldest desserts known to mankind, is made by the Moroccans and the Tunisians. This easily prepared dessert is shaped like a rose and then dipped in a honey and sugar syrup. As chef Azoulay said, “We are all here to have fun. Food is part of it.”

JOAN NATHAN’S MANY COOKBOOKS INCLUDE “THE FOODS OF ISRAEL TODAY” (KNOPF, 2001).

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