I’m the daughter of a cantor. For those of you who don’t know, a cantor or hazzan is like a singing rabbi. Obviously, the High Holidays—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—were a big deal in my family but not for the reasons you might think. For my Dad, the High Holidays were a command performance, there was nothing spiritual about them for him—it was intense work.
Before my father became a cantor, he was an opera singer. He sang with San Francisco Opera Company and at the Hollywood Bowl, so performing was nothing new to him nor were crowds, but the High Holidays were the one time a year that he had to be at his best.
No illness could keep my father from the bimah or pulpit, not even a funeral could stop him from leading services unless it was his own. So, my father, who was always a bit of a diva (remember he was an opera singer) followed a specific ritual every year. Windows in the house could not be left open, (godforbid a draft) and we had to eat dinner on Erev or the eve of Rosh Hashanah by 5 pm because the show went on at 8 pm and he needed time to digest. Though my mother worked, she would rush home to set the table with a white cloth and brass candlesticks and put out a round challah studded with raisins, plus apples and honey. The foods at the New Year are symbolic, representing the circle of life or the cycle of the year and the sweetness of that to come. The meal was rich but not heavy in deference to my father who would pick at it with a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck (the drafts). After the chicken soup, roast chicken and honey cake, we would all rush upstairs to get ready.
The New Year was not only a performance for my father but one for my mother and me as well. I was dressed in the finest children’s clothes when I was little, usually purchased at a deep discount (Never pay retail!) from a shop on the Lower East Side, and my mother never left the house without a hat and gloves.
Just as my mom was putting the final touches on her makeup, we would hear an impatient honk from the driveway: my father was ready to go and the threat that he would leave without us never failed to motivate us right out the door.
The Jewish New Year is nothing like the Western New Year. Rosh Hashanah is filled with solemnity and joy tinged with guilt and sadness. We begin the process of remembering who we might have wronged in the past year and start to acknowledge those who did not make it into the new year with us. There is an old superstition that tells of the Book of Life opening on Rosh Hashanah and closing on Yom Kippur. That week in between kept me in check; I didn’t dare do anything wrong for fear my name would not be inscribed in the Book of Life.
My father had a beautiful, lyrical voice that I still miss. His voice filled the synagogue and even though he could not sit with me, I felt his presence next to me throughout the long services. When services were finally over the next day, we could not go right home. Instead, we had to stand in a receiving line greeting my father’s congregants as they passed by us, pinching my cheeks and patting my head. As I got older, there was always talk of a shidduch, an arranged marriage between me and whatever boy also happened to be on display that year. I was a catch and we weren’t all that removed from Shetl life where for a cow and a couple of chickens, I would have been married off to the highest bidder.
Our hands reeking of Shalimar and our cheeks covered in lipstick kisses, we would finally manage to get away. My father by this point was starving; he had again just nibbled at his breakfast and not eaten all day. So, while other families were celebrating with friends and relatives, we just wanted to be alone. My mother, who had slipped home during a break in services, had already put the brisket in a warm oven and had set the table, once again with apples, honey and teiglach (honey dough balls, which sound much better than they taste). Again, we would rush upstairs and change — but this time it was into bathrobes and pajamas. We would wash the makeup from our faces and then we would sit down to our first real holiday meal. My father would say a prayer of thankfulness, we would dip our crisp apples into the sweet honey and wish each other a Shana Tova, a good year. Then my mother would grab the brisket from the oven where it had been patiently warming and we would eat. I’m sure there was salad and maybe even a vegetable but all we cared about was the tender brisket stewed with prunes and apricots. With our bellies full, we could once again laugh and perhaps even start looking forward to the next holiday a mere ten days later.
I had just finished telling this very story when my therapist interrupted me. I, like, every other New Yorker had a shrink. Mine was a classic model: Viennese and shaped like a dumpling. “Your mother put prunes and apricots in her brisket?” Did she ever try Dr. Pepper?” I was describing what it was like to grow up in fishbowl and she wanted to know whether or not my mother used Dr. Pepper in her brisket? “No,” I said, “though my cousin uses ginger ale.” Only in New York could a therapist interrupt a patient’s monologue to find out how their mother cooked brisket, but I knew she understood. Brisket was a Jungian symbol of my unconscious. Food in my family wasn’t just nourishment, it was love and it was the love that kept my family together—at the table arguing and laughing and then arguing some more.
To make a brisket, all you need to do is put one in the oven in a covered pot for 10-12 hours at 250 degrees, with or without dried fruit. If you need more instruction than that, try this recipe, by Arthur Schwartz, an old family friend and the ultimate maven. Or try Joan Nathan’s Friday night brisket from her cookbook, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen.