With Jewish New Year just around the corner, I feel a bout of phantom nostalgia coming on. Why phantom, you may ask? Because my family never really kept any of the Jewish traditions. Sure, my aunt made Gefilte Fish every fall, along with some other staples of classic Jewish cookery. She’d invite the family over, and we would earnestly stuff our cheeks with savory goodness liberally slathered with beet horseradish sauce. We’d raise a small glass of sweet Manischewitz, we’d say l’chaim! and some other necessary things to appear thoroughly Jewish, and then we’d go home to our very non-Jewish lives and move onto another perfectly non-Jewish year.
Yes, we had always been pretend Jews. We never observed shabbath, never prayed in Hebrew or otherwise, never lit candles, unless it was in memory of someone who had passed a long time ago. The few times you would see us in synagogue were before Passover, when matzoh was being sold — large four-pound packages wrapped in brown paper and tied with strings. We loved our matzoh — it was worth pretending being a real Jew for a day to get it. We stood in long line of other pretend Jews for hours and proudly carried our spoils home. Other times we were there to obtain some religious documents. It was kind of ridiculous that my parents, perfectly secular, who married at the Department of Citizens’ Civil Status Records had to go to the synagogue to obtain some strictly religious divorce scroll in order to prove they are *really* done with each other.
Our only synagogue at the time was located in a bleak part of town behind the sea port. Traveling across town to get there was a chore. The street was gray and dusty, peppered with industrial buildings, dilapidated garages and shabby dimly lit courtyards in permanent disrepair. Street dogs and cats seemed particularly prolific and equally ugly in the area. On the corner opposite the synagogue, a large statue of Lenin was erected. The Great Revolutionary Leader stretched his gigantic socialist realist arm out, as if pointing to the promised land of Bright Future. We giggled and said he was secretly sending everyone to the synagogue across the street.
To me each visit to synagogue was an unpleasant reminder that I was not doing things I was supposed to be doing, that I was a pretend Jew. I always had this eerie feeling that I don’t belong in either Jewish or non-Jewish world fully. I didn’t understand the tradition, was spooked by long black coats and hair locks dangling from under black hats of stern looking real Jews. Women praying separately was always a sore point with me. I was always feeling small and guilty when coming there.
Even when I became a part of the Jewish experience of our town by joining a Jewish Theater and teaching music at Jewish Community Center, I still felt that I wasn’t fully invested in being a real Jew. Being real required dedication, self-denial, constant sacrifice, full abandonment of secular ways, observing numerous and, frankly, sometimes completely ridiculous traditions, altering one’s looks, environment and nutrition, picking and choosing one’s friends and significant others based on certain criteria that had nothing to do with personal compatibility, etc. This I couldn’t do. It didn’t add up in my head that I had to be and do things certain way to pay my eternal debt to the six millions and those before them, who died just because they were praying certain way or simply were ethnic semites. Attending a synagogue during High Holidays, I never had the feeling, that special revelational experience that would change my life forever. Nope. I never got it.
So why is it, that every year around High Holidays I get this phantom nostalgia? Why do I miss the never-kept tradition, the never-celebrated culture, the never-observed ways, the never-koshered food? Is it possible that I carry some special code in my genes that constantly reminds me of who I am? Is it possible that I tapped into some collective Jewish conscience? Is it possible that years of guilt-tripping by real Jews had done their job? I don’t know. All I know is that somehow, my nostalgia always manifests itself in cooking something essentially Jewish, something that makes you feel right at home no matter where you are. Something that creates real memories. And memories are very real. There is nothing phantom about that.
As a side note, I’ve been listening to an old disk by Brave Old World, called Blood Oranges lately. Brave Old World is an awesome modern Klezmer group, which has recorded numerous albums. One of the songs I am particularly partial to is called Homeland. It conveys my feeling of phantom nostalgia perfectly — it’s a feeling of soft but persistent longing that’s always subtly there, but flares up occasionally. I love this song.
Traditional Apple Challah With Raisins
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2-1/2 tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- 2 tbsp dry yeast
- 1/2 cup melted butter
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ~ 5 cups of all-purpose flour
- 3-4 large tart apples, preferably Granny Smith or similar
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- 3/4 cup raisins – I like mixed varieties, such as golden, black, currants, etc…
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- zest of 1 whole lemon
- Make the dough by whisking all the ingredients but flour together in a large bowl.
- Add flour little by little and knead 8 minutes by mixer or 10 minutes by hand. The final dough should be quite soft but no longer sticky
- Transfer the dough into a greased bowl, cover with plastic and let if rise for 1 hour or until it doubles in size.
- Make the filling. If apples’ skin is not to rough, you can leave it on, it’s full of fragrance and flavor. Quarter and core the apples, slice each quarter into 3-4 slices and cut crosswise into small chunks.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the apples, and toss together lightly.
- When dough is ready, transfer it onto a floured surface and gently stretch into an oval, about 18″ x 15″.
- Place the filling onto the oval, roll the dough up into a roll, not too tightly, and seal the edges.
- Let the roll rest for about 10 minutes.
- Prepare the cake form or a large cast iron skillet by placing a round of parchment on the bottom and greasing all surfaces.
- Preheat the oven to 350F (160C)
- Using a sharp knife, cut the dough roll into slices about 1.5-2″ thick.
- Transfer the slices one by one into the skillet and arrange like petals of the flower, slightly turning the open filling sides towards the top (see photo)
- Place the last slice in the middle of the “flower”
- If some of the filling spills in transition, don’t despair — it will make your challah even prettier
- Cover the challah with plastic and let it rise for one hour.
- Before setting challah in the oven, whisk a bit of sour cream and water, or an egg with a pinch of sugar and salt and coat challah with that using a brush.
- Bake for about 50 minutes, or until challah is nicely browned all around.