How I Connect to Judaism at High Holidays Through Food

published Sep 25, 2022
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Handing reach out with a plate to a Table With Cheese, Fruits, Crackers And Wine
Credit: Tatjana Zlatkovic/Stocksy

I grew up Catholic, a religion that’s grounded in tradition and ritual, and I converted to Judaism, a religion that’s also grounded in tradition and ritual. Despite going to church religiously (no pun intended) every Sunday growing up, it never clicked for me. My mom required that I attend confirmation classes every week in high school, but didn’t argue when I informed her that I had no plans to go through with the actual confirmation. For me, I didn’t find connection in formal mass or hymns. I listened to others talk enthusiastically and passionately about their faith and wondered where the missing link was for me.

When I met my husband, an observant Jew whose religion is a large part of his identity, there were holidays and ceremonies to attend, all of which were new to me. Growing up in the South, I’d never even attended a bar mitzvah (which, from what I’ve heard, was a highlight of many middle school experiences). Yet, as I sat in services, I felt a sense of familiarity with the tradition, storytelling, and ritual. 

For me, however, there was something else that drew me to one of the world’s oldest religions. It was the sense of community and millennia-old connection to generations and generations of Jews who have celebrated the same life events with the same rich food traditions, continuing to dip apples in honey at the start of every new year and braid challah before Shabbat each week. So much of the Jewish religion happens at home, with family and friends lighting candles and gathering around well-acquainted dishes rather than sitting on pews (though the rush for tickets for High Holiday services in a big city might have you believe otherwise).

While I was in the process of converting, I started writing for a Jewish food website, where I explored traditional Jewish recipes. Sometimes, I went totally by the book, aiming for an exact interpretation of a recipe as it’s been prepared for decades, if not centuries. On other occasions, I took creative liberties with traditional dishes, adding a spin that paid homage to my own cultural upbringing, whether it was a Southern spin on rugelach with bourbon and pecans, or adding Mexican spices to the now ubiquitous brunch dish, shakshuka. 

Food is a huge element of culture and culture is the ties that bind a group of people together. And it’s certainly what binded me to the Jewish religion. Experimenting with recipes provided my own meditation on religion, but cooking for others at the High Holy Days is what fostered a true sense of connection to Judaism for me, as a convert. 

I remember the first time a friend invited me to her home for a Jewish celebration. There had been plenty of occasions with my husband’s family, but this was my first time participating in a Jewish holiday because of the community I’d found — as a Jew. I fretted over what to bring, unable to rattle off dishes like kugel and latkes with the ease of someone who’s celebrated for years and learned to cook under the tutelage of a seasoned older relative. But an internet-approved recipe for a Rosh Hashanah salad did the trick, and I felt like the care I’d put into it made up for still tripping over the right time to say phrases like “shanah tova” and “chag sameach.”

Hosting my first break fast after Yom Kippur felt like another symbolic step. There’s no true cooking involved, which is a plus, but there’s also a little more pressure to pull together just the right menu when your guests haven’t eaten in almost 24 hours. I filled the kitchen table in our tiny apartment with an abundance of bagels with all the fixings, chicken salad, quiche, and breakfast casserole. It lined up almost exactly with the menus I’d found online and, as everyone dug in, I no longer felt like a sideline observer in a religion I’d been steeped in for the past few years, but an active participant bringing together others in community. 

I may still struggle with my Hebrew pronunciations and remembering exactly the right prayers for Shabbat but, in the kitchen, I know how to connect with a feeling of togetherness, tradition, and community — and I like to think that’s what is at the core of any faith.