So here we are in the thick of the High Holy days, between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and I’m confronted with my annual religious ambivalence. Year after year I go to services with my father (my mother having handed in her resignation from organized religion 25 years ago) and year after year I wonder why. How do you explain to yourself why you enter a house of worship if you are unsure whether or not you actually believe in God?
When I was a child I hated anything to do with fantasy, magical places or whimsy. I refused to read the Chronicles of Narnia, thought Alice should not have traveled Through the Looking Glass and didn’t understand why Wendy, Michael and John got out of bed to join Peter Pan in Neverland. I think that same thinking is what has kept me from connecting to anything spiritual; I’m just too pragmatic. From yoga to Judaism, skepticism and a healthy dose of anxiety holds me back from considering the idea that there is something bigger out there. And don’t get me started on astronomy—I know I’d have a panic attack if I ever went to the planetarium because then I’d have to start thinking about infinity and might not ever recover.
I see all of this as one big character flaw. I know so many people who find real meaning in their lives through different faiths and philosophies and I wish I could join them. I just try to use morality as my guide, but I do feel like I am missing out on something I will never understand. And frankly, my angst is a luxury. I have relatives who went through hell to live in a country where freedom of religion is a right, not a privilege. In many ways, where would I get off not observing in some way?
So in the meantime, as I wrestle with my faith-based demons, I check in with my religion a couple of times a year when it seems most important to. As much as I complain about dressing like a grown-up, and shivering in our drafty, albeit beautiful, temple, I do have to admit that I enjoy the ritual of it. There is something comforting about the fact that I’ve been sitting in the same sanctuary since I was a child listening to the same rabbi (who was a seriously cute guy with the thickest head of hair in the 70’s and who is now completely bald and slightly stooped), the walk through the park afterwards and of course the people watching. (Last week there was a woman dressed from head to toe in bright red. And by head I mean she was wearing a hat so big, over her too-long, dyed yellow hair, she looked like she made a wrong turn on her way to Ascot.) Although I’ve never been among the people who chat and crowd the sidewalk before or after the service, it is indeed a feast for the eyes.
And speaking of feasts…of course food plays a part in all of this. My mother, despite her atheism, diligently makes matzoh ball soup (which I don’t eat because I hate chicken soup but which I hear is quite good), for the pre-fast, Kol Nidre dinner and I take care of dessert.
When we were growing up I don’t remember us making a big deal out of breaking the Yom Kippur fast. I know my father fasted, and there was always a big glass of orange juice waiting for him at 6pm, but then we just had dinner. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I heard “break fast” being used as a noun. But when I was invited to one, and witnessed the bountiful spread of bagels and smoked salmon, cheeses and noodle pudding, I couldn’t believe I had been living in a Zabar’s-less world for so long. Where had I been and how could I make up for lost time?
I’ll tell you how: by insisting that my family step it up and join the rest of New York’s Jews by going to carb-town. Now every year my mother handles the bagels and bialys, smoked fish, white fish salad, egg salad, an assortment of cheeses, more breads and a few pieces of smelly herring for my father while my sister takes care of the fruit salad and I bake the kugel and the rugelach. Somehow we are incredibly traditional in this area with none of the men (all of whom know how to cook and cook well) in our lives doing a thing. Hmmmn.
This year I’m actually looking forward to fasting, not only because I’m a fan of all the foods that await me, but also because my parents’ prodigal son has returned. My brother hasn’t lived in New York for five years and he is finally coming “home.” This will be his first break fast watching our nieces lick the cream cheese off their bagels and attempting to unfurl their rugelach. Although Niece 2 has decided she doesn’t “yike him because he’s a boy,” I’m sure he will be able to win her over. And I guess this is exactly what the high holidays mean to me. With apologies to God (if there is one), it’s all about family.
This rugelach recipe is just perfect, no surprise since it belongs to Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa—a nice Jewish girl herself. The pastry is so flaky and the filling has the chew from the currants (I use them instead of raisins because it makes life easier when you cut the dough into wedges), the crunch from the walnuts, the sticky, sweet-tart from the apricot jam and the warmth from the cinnamon. There is no reason to starve yourself all day in order to enjoy one (or three) and in fact, you don’t even need to be Jewish. As, yes, my people say, wishing you a good year—“Shana Tova.”
NOTE: If this sticky dough becomes hard to work with at any point, pop it back into the fridge for a few minutes to firm up. Be sure to liberally sprinkle both your rolling out surface, as well as the rolling pin and the dough.
You Don't Have to Fast to Love Rugelach
From Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa Parties!, 2001
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8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2-pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar plus 9 tablespoons, divided
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
3/4 cup raisins or currants
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup apricot preserves, pureed in a food processor
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash
Cream the cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light. Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar, the salt, and vanilla.
With the mixer on low speed, add the flour and mix until just combined. Dump the dough out onto a well-floured board and roll it into a ball. Cut the ball in quarters, wrap each piece in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
To make the filling, combine 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar, the brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, the raisins, and walnuts.
On a well-floured board or piece of parchment, roll each ball of dough into a 9-inch circle. (Keeping each ball of dough in fridge till you are ready to roll).
Spread the dough with 2 tablespoons apricot preserves and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the filling. Press the filling lightly into the dough.
Cut the circle into 12 equal wedges—cutting the whole circle in quarters, then each quarter into thirds.
Starting with the wide edge, roll up each wedge. Place the cookies, points tucked under, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350
Brush each cookie with the egg wash. Combine 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon and sprinkle on the cookies.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove to a wire rack and let cool.
Yield: 4 dozen cookies