HAPPY NEW YEAR!
The majority of you, on reading that, will worry that I’ve lost the plot entirely. But those among you who happen to be Jewish or have Jewish friends, will know that today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a major festival, and heralds in ten days of reflection for Jews, in which we attend synagogue, review the past year, consider our actions, cast away our sins and then on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we ask for forgiveness.
At least, that’s the theory. And indeed, many Jews do precisely that. For others, it’s a time for feeling vaguely guilty, to turn up at synagogue not quite sure what to wear and not knowing what page we’re on in the prayer book, and then going home to do the one thing that Jews always do at all religious festivals without fail – eat. On Rosh Hashanah we dip apples in honey to usher in a sweet New Year. And we also eat honey cake. And apple cake. And we have lunch with our families – a big lunch, with a groaning table and success is only achieved by the caterer if there’s masses of food left over. Because food is love, right?
Yom Kippur is slightly different, and majorly scary. Just before the day we eat a big meal – naturally – and then in the evening, the fast begins. A 25 hour fast with no food or water. It’s tough. But finally the shofar (ram’s horn) sounds and we can go home – and eat!
Seriously, though, Judaism is a religion which you can experience through food. Growing up in Jewish north London in a partly assimilated family, my Jewish knowledge was acquired through taste – the bittersweet tang of chopped herring, the texture of a chewy, sweet bagel, the comforting fragrance of chicken soup with morsel of toothsome chicken and strands of golden lockshen (vermicelli.) And then there was the cheesecake. How can I possibly do justice to my mother’s cheesecake in words alone? Eating it was a transfiguring experience. It transfigured itself on to my hips, my tummy and thighs. At the tender age of 15 I joined WeightWatchers, together with my Auntie Sylvie. Interestingly, the leader of the group in South Tottenham was herself Jewish.
I am fascinated by the importance of food for Jews, and in particular, for women. My novel Good Recipes and BadWomen explores this head-on.
Many Jewish families are matriarchies. Although the men go to synagogue and are nominally in charge, the Jewish mother is control central. She rules the roost. She has in fact become a stereotyped figure in much literature, a figure feared, loved, rebelled against. But my mother was nothing like that! In Good Recipes, I wanted to work with a Jewish family that partly defied the stereotyping. Dorrie, the mother, is put-upon rather than dominating, with a secret inner life. However, the same cannot be said for Miriam, the grandmother! Rather than exotic, the Good family is quite Anglicised, juggling the demands of Jewish religion and culture with the exciting new world of the 60s. I wanted to try to recapture that sense of being apart but part of, different but the same, that is for me the core of being Jewish in England both then and now.
But I also wanted to pin down the tactile nature of being Jewish – the eating. Food – provided by women – is not just fuel, but nourishment for the soul. It’s symbolic. It comforts. Providing it both demonstrates love, and is a way of exercising control. And when life gets demanding, women turn to food as a source of comfort – and then dieting becomes a way of exercising control when you feel you’ve lost control. I explored all that in my very first novel, A Matter of Fat (sadly out of print, but still very relevant.) Good Recipes is both a celebration of food and the autobiography of a serial dieter.
A very happy new year to all of you – Jewish or not – and may you know only happiness, creativity and fulfillment.