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The Celebration Season


One of the best meals I ever had was just before Rosh Hashana (which this year begins Sunday evening) a year ago at a backyard barbecue while in production for a television series on American Jewish cooking. I was visiting Israel-born caterer Hava Volman and her husband, Greek-Israeli sculptor Artemis Schwebel, at their row house in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The dinner with Volman and Schwebel was just one visit in more than 80 days of shooting for the series. For filming, I visited chefs, home cooks, markets, kosher butchers and many more places and people as we traveled the country exploring the culture and history of Jewish food in America.

This has been a year of cross-cultural culinary exploration for me. I learned in Miami, for example, that Cuban Jews originally from Poland make a holiday mandelbrot with guava; and I learned from Volman about the flavor explosions inspired by the food of Israel.

"This food is part of my history. It is part of what I am," Volman said. "When I came to America, I needed to use these ingredients to help find my own identity."

The fall holidays provide a wide spectrum of Jewish customs to explore--all linked with food. A few days before the fast of Yom Kippur (Sept. 29), for example, we visited Crown Heights in Brooklyn to watch the custom of kapparot. We saw members of ultra-orthodox families swinging a live fowl around a child's head three times, repeating the following words in Hebrew, "This fowl is my substitute, this is my surrogate, this is my atonement."

The ancient custom of kapparot replaces the Temple Yom Kippur sacrifice in which a goat, bearing the sins of the nations, was sent out into the wilderness to die. Like so many other traditions, kapparot came to replace a tradition lost with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. After the chickens were swung, they were slaughtered and given to the poor.

The fall holidays are an especially busy and rich time for Jews all over the world, coinciding with the ancient harvest time. In the ancient world, the fall harvest culminated in Sukkot (which starts the evening of Oct. 4), one of three pilgrimage periods when Jews brought fall crops to the temple in Jerusalem. One of these very important crops is the pomegranate, considered the new fruit of the fall in the Middle East and often served in huge bowls. Volman used its juice as a splash on her eggplant salad, a sine qua non in Israeli homes.

The Grilled Quail With Poached Quinces, sometimes served over the Egyptian frik (a burnt wheat-like bulgur), is as biblically rooted as a dish can be. When the Jews were wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, God sent quails for food as a sign that they were a chosen people.

Volman made a marinade that included a dry rub of za'atar, a spice combination of hyssop, sesame seeds and sumac. It is mixed with halek, the biblical jam made by slowly reducing dates to their essence. This is probably the way date jam, a common sweetener before sugar and considered the "honey" from the land of milk and honey, was made in the ancient world. Today you can buy halek or dibis, as it is called by Syrians, in Middle Eastern stores in the United States.

While Volman cooked in her Greek-inspired stucco kitchen, Schwebel broiled the quails over an Argentine grill that he designed and built himself near their lone mulberry tree in the backyard.

After Yom Kippur, many Jews throughout the country gather together to assemble the lattice walls of their Sukkah or huts for Sukkot, the biblical fall harvest festival that marks the first rains of the season.

We visited Mort and Miriam Steinberg of Highland Park, Ill., who dine in their 15-foot by 23-foot sukkah, the kind of hut in which the children of Israel dwelt for seven days "in order that your generations may know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in tabernacles when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:42-43).

In 1982, Mort designed and built the collapsible structure. Its roof is covered with evergreens open to see the sky, according to the biblical injunction. Outside, the Steinbergs arrange cornstalks; inside, they hang strings of plastic apples, pears, peaches and grapes, wooden cranberries and walnuts, all reminders of the harvest period in ancient Israel.

At their synagogue, the Steinbergs hold the four species mentioned in the Bible, which include the palm, the myrtle, the willow and the etrog (citron), representing "the fruit of a goodly tree." The etrog, according to Leviticus 23:40, must be in perfect condition, with the stem attached.

"In addition to being a time of thanksgiving for the produce that has been harvested," said Mort, "Sukkot is probably our most family-intensive festival. In our home, everyone gets involved in some aspect."

Like the Steinbergs, other families have harvest customs which they shared with us. Here are some of the recipes learned coast to coast, which I now use not only for holidays but year round.

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