Finding My Religion in a Bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup

SONY DSCIt’s Passover, and sadly, I won’t be able to celebrate with some of my family.  I’m not Jewish, but I married into a Jewish family, and have long loved the traditions of the faith — including the Passover Seder. No, I’m not crazy. I have experienced a full-fledged, several hour event, as well as abbreviated versions when my late mother-in-law would say,” Aren’t we done? Dayenu, already!”  Though I never ate matzoh ball soup or charosset before I was an adult, I love these culinary traditions.

So does fellow blogger and business woman Rebecca Levey, who wrote the following ode to her own roots for the Jewish New Year.  Even though it’s not the right holiday, I thought her reflections would resonate for this time of year, regardless of which traditions you observe. — JB

It’s Rosh Hashanah– the Jewish New Year. For those of you non-Jews out there Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make up the High Holidays. Basically the one time of year that most Jews go to some sort of service and feel officially Jewish. I grew up secular to a fault. We did not even go to services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur unless we were in Michigan with extended family and shamed into it. But, we did eat.

Somehow even if none of us fasted we managed to have a break-fast for the end of Yom Kippur and some sort of Rosh Hashanah dinner. We always had a Passover Seder even if it was very light on story and heavy on the matzoh balls. This past year as my husband and I have searched for a Hebrew School for our daughters, feeling like we wanted them to be connected to their heritage and history, but not wanting any teaching of a patriarchal “God” we have had to try to define what kind of Jews we are. And I have concluded that I am not Conservative nor Reform nor even Recontructionist (though the temple we ultimately chose is) but that I am at heart a Culinary Jew.

I believe in the power of brisket. I believe that when I combine sour cream, eggs, cottage cheese and noodles into a kugel I honor my grandmother. I believe that gefilte fish connects me to my ancestors in a way The Torah never could. (Though I can’t imagine keeping a carp in my bathtub.) And I believe that sitting down to the holiday meal is far and away the most important lesson of the High Holidays.

My bible is Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America. It is my staple filled with recipes that bring me back to the sweet kugel, chili sauced brisket and sweet and sour meatballs that remind me most of my childhood holiday meals. And I don’t care how many recipes The New York Times publishes year after year, nothing beats Manischewitz mix for making perfect Passover matzoh balls. Don’t mess with my grandma on this point.

Last summer when we spent a month in Italy and visited the town of Pitigliano, which was once teeming with a prosperous lively Jewish community that is now only remembered by the eerily empty cliff-side synagogue, we wandered into the old sanctuary, felt the rough rock walls of the fabric dying room and the ritual baths and contemplated the etched Stars of David and Hebrew letters. But it wasn’t until we went to the Jewish bakery and ate the centuries old Jewish treat Sfratti that I really felt connected to the Jewish people who came before.

In many ways I’ve come to realize that my faith in the culinary is a matriarchal faith. It is the flip side of the Hebrew chanting and reading of The Torah that dominates the services of the High Holidays, which for centuries was the exclusive purview of men. In the kitchen, mixing, chopping, frying and stewing like generations of women in my family tree have always done to mark these momentous Jewish holidays is the best way I can imagine to honor those who came before me and pass on the essence of Judaism and tradition to my daughters. And while we don’t have ancient family recipes passed down through the years we do have that box of Manischewitz mix that I will be sure to tell my daughters they must use in order to make matzoh balls just like their great-grandma did. (And add your own carrots, that’s the secret!)

Guest contributor Rebecca Levey is co-founder of  KidzVuz. KidzVuz is a media company focused on user-generated videos by and for tweens where they create reviews and comment about the products and media they love via the web or our mobile app. She is a monthly contributor to where she writes about family technology and parenting. She is the founder and co-host of The Blogging Angels Podcast, a weekly radio show about women in social media and the blogosphere. For the last 5 years she’s been a blogger and freelance writer. Her personal blog, Beccarama, is where writes about parenting, travel, technology, education, and all things NYC.

Image via iStockphoto/Elzbieta Sekowska

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    Ah, Joan Nathan, the source of my (and my younger daughter’s now) highly praised charoset. The only thing we cook that is considered at the same level as my gourmet in-laws’ cooking.
    I love what Levey said: “I am at heart a Culinary Jew.”
    I am more broadly Jewish than that, but there’s no doubt that food is a terribly important part of how we are Jewish.
    Taking my Chinese-born daughter to the Jewish deli where she asks for chicken soup & knaidlach, and the waitresses don’t know what she means.
    Every Sunday, after Sunday school, getting bagels & lox — the Orthodox owners love my Chinese daughter’s connection to Jewish ethnicity. They and we relate over food even though my family is Reform Jews and theirs is way way religious (and I’m sure we wouldn’t agree with each other about Israel).
    Remembering my mother’s stuffed cabbage (procos), her hard-as-golf-balls knaidlach, her big pots of soup, the time she asked me if my friends and I wanted ham & cheese sandwiches for our road trip. We said yes – so she fixed sandwiches: ham sandwiches. cheese sandwiches, because, of course, you don’t mix meat and milk (even thought the meat in this case nullified any attempt to be within the Jewish framework).

  • Aliza

    I love this VERY much. I’m also a secular Jew married, and I married a Catholic man – who is the youngest of 8 siblings. For the first time in 22 years, his sister is not hosting Easter and we stepped up to help out and host at our house. My son, who is a freshman at a Catholic school, upon finding out we were hosting Easter, said, “You should serve all Passover food on Sunday.” I laughed at the notion of offering matzoh instead of rolls with the Easter ham, but decided instead to do what he said to a lesser degree. Chocolate covered matzoh, and Knedelach soup will be on the menu along with the Easter ham and lamb cake.

    Honestly, I was about to troll sites for a good matzoh ball soup recipe, thinking I should make them from scratch. Then I read this. Maneschewitz all the way, baby!!! Thank you!

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