During the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin at sundown Sept. 4 with Rosh Hashanah, people have important things to think about. With the new year comes a solemn period of introspection and judgment. Will we be inscribed in the Book of Life once again? Will our collective prayers help fellow Jews in Israel and around the world?
And then we eat.
Beyond apples and honey and round challahs and other symbolic foods , there are practical matters. When the holiday falls midweek, a flexible open-house lunch satisfies the hunger after services that is immediate. It can feed the soul, too.
“When I moved to D.C. in 1993, I began hosting a lunch right away,” says Susan Barocas, director of the Jewish Food Experience, which since December 2012 has been building an online community that celebrates Jewish culture through essays, recipes and activities. “I think Rosh Hashanah lunch is one of those times when people really get together and relax.”
Casual invitations delivered on the steps of the synagogue or via e-mail can bring 40 people or more. But the numbers are seldom a problem, because guests tend to come and go at different times.
Barocas grew up in Denver, where the holiday lunch would start at her house — closest to the synagogue — and carry on to the neighbors’ and other family members’. Grape leaves stuffed with rice and beef, kugels (puddings) and salads, plus coleslaw and her father’s special potato salad would grace the table in addition to leftover brisket or turkey from the night before.
She would add a blintz casserole, quinoa salad and Joan Nathan’s popular savory cheesecake with smoked salmon and dill to her own spread. But she maintained ancestral links with dishes such as Sephardic leeks with tomato, and a spongecake whose recipe she has tweaked over the years to produce a tender crumb and just the right touch of citrus.
Leah Hadad was raised in Israel, where a Rosh Hashanah evening meal was the norm. The Chevy Chase resident negotiates a midweek holiday meal in September by baking and freezing in late summer. She enhances the flavor and nutrition of her savory kugel with caramelized onion and butternut squash.
“Kugels freeze well. Sometimes I even freeze chocolate mousse in goblets,” she says. Moroccan-style salads hold for several days in the refrigerator, and foods from her seder round out the next-day lunch buffet: “I up the quantities to make sure we always have leftovers.”
Neither organization nor culinary prowess is required when the Rosh Hashanah lunch is potluck. Lydia Kleiner has hosted as many as 110 guests each year since the mid-1980s. The Salzburg native moved to New Jersey with her family in 1953 and remembers her mother cooking well-attended Rosh Hashanah meals, arrayed on the best china and linens.
That experience fixed the tradition in her mind, but Kleiner’s own holiday lunches began “as a way to continue that sense of connectedness you feel after services,” the Chevy Chase resident says. As a member of Fabrangen, the Washington area’s leaderless group of Jews who gather for Jewish traditions, Kleiner invited her fellow congregants as well as old friends she knew were in town.
Kleiner has kept the lunch informal and easy: “I’m not that organized, and I’m not a giant cook. I used to try and coordinate, but we found that it always works out.”
As a retired USDA employee who worked in food safety, she requests dishes that can be kept at room temperature — none that are heated and then sit for hours. “I am very conscious of that, given my background,” she says. Grain salads and roasted vegetables are welcomed.
Because her guests arrive throughout the afternoon, Kleiner has apples and honey, hummus, herring, fresh rye bread and appetizer-size portions of baked, chilled salmon ready by 2:30. She offsets her so-called lack of cooking skills by focusing on presentation: something as simple as arranging cucumber and radish slices around the edges of a platter. The addition of new dishes to the table is staggered so foods are fresh for those who come later.
Her Rosh Hashanah potluck has inspired similar monthly meals after Saturday services at Fabrangen, which rents space at the Washington Ethical Society on 16th Street NW. And one of Kleiner’s neighbors paid her the ultimate compliment by hosting an open-house holiday lunch of her own.
Now many of Kleiner’s neighbors, Jewish and otherwise, embrace the tradition. Kleiner’s house is of modest size, so people often spill out onto the back porch and lawn chairs out front. “We invite anyone who’s passing by,” she says. “I sometimes say that even if no invitations went out, people would just show up.”
Susan Barocas and caterer Vered Guttman will answer questions about Rosh Hashanah cooking during the Free Range chat at noon Wednesday at live.washingtonpost.com.