Seeing Rosh Hashanah through Greek eyes

  • HarrySideropoulis
The months of September and October have always been a busy time for me. And if I don’t plan, my life spirals into a dense fog of chaos.
by HARRY SIDEROPOULOS | Sep 14, 2017

This period is also complicated because it coincides with Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot and I have to juggle my commitments very carefully so as to ensure that I don’t double book my schedule, on this, the biggest celebration on the Judaic calendar.

I made this mistake many years ago, when I was still in my formative years of working the Jewish circuit.

“What do you mean you’re performing on first night of Rosh Hashanah, Ha?” asked my friend with disapproving eyebrows.

“It’s Rosh Hashanah, you can’t be doing a show on New Year!” 

“Exactly, YOUR new year. I’m Greek remember. My new year is only in January. We don’t rush to start off the New Year in September.”

This of course explains why so many Jewish folk are so successful – they get a three-month head start on everybody else.

Needless to say, I now place the September/October Jewish festivities in my annual calendar and set time aside for them as I would any of the Greek religious engagements.

With the Jews, it is slightly more complicated. First night, second night, fast, break the fast, atone, eat bread, don’t eat bread, oy vey and if you don’t plan, you’ll be left out sitting under the sukkah all alone.

So, I’m now part of my friends’ 1st night and 2nd night Yomtov preparation committee. I have successfully managed to incorporate some of my Greek dishes into the menu. If I’m going to be seeing in this New Year, I ain’t doing it eating the head of a fish nor chopped liver.

Sorry, please don’t shout at me, but I can’t. You cannot possibly have the head of a fish as your opening act. It’s your New Year! You are the chosen people! Eat like you are chosen.

So, I’m now responsible for the Rosh Hashanah starters and I was told not to interfere with the main meal. So, we open the table with a lemon chicken soup with pasta rice and shredded pulled roast chicken and for the vegetarians at the table, a fresh basil-infused chunky tomato soup served with a dollop of mint and olive oil puree.

I usually include roasted nuts in the puree, but when I mentioned that to the committee, they looked at me in horror…

“You can’t Ha. The numerical value of the Hebrew word for nuts is "egoz" and it’s the same as the Hebrew word for sin, which is "chet". So, no nuts…” Look, a small price to pay for not having to eat the head of ‘Little Nemo’.

All humour aside, though, I do enjoy learning and sharing customs and beliefs across a broad spectrum of religious and ethnic orientations. The similarities between the Greek and Jewish customs, yet again are not surprising.

Let’s look at the pomegranate for example. Since  antiquity, the pomegranate for us Greeks is also a symbol of good fortune, youth and fertility. In many homes, on New Year’s Day the head of the house stands outside the front door and breaks open a pomegranate by hitting it hard on the floor so that the seeds spread everywhere, through the threshold into the house to bring happiness, good health and abundance to the members of the family.

You eat apples dressed in honey, we make melomakarona; syrupy cookies made with flour, olive oil and honey and topped with crushed walnuts.

The use of honey has many primarily religious symbolic associations for the Greeks. Traditionally, it was thought to keep away bad luck and bring abundance, thus nourishing a household on a spiritual level as well as a literal one.

The dough is made from olive oil, flour, sugar, baking soda, orange rind, cinnamon and cloves. Etymologically the  “melo” of melomakarona, refers to the honey while the “makarona” is related to the Greek word for pasta and refers to the elongated shape of the traditional cookies.

Some Greeks also use grated carrot in their melomakarona. Look, as a general rule, I don’t eat carrots nor cabbage for that matter, both staple vegetables at every Rosh Hashanah table. I don’t eat carrots because look at what Donatella Versace looks like.As for cabbage, that is what I used to feed my pet rabbits at school.

Personally, I don’t chronicle any of them as joyous palate enhancers, no matter what dressing they arrive in. But then again, I also don’t enjoy traditional stuffed turkey over Christmas.

Look, whatever the final menu, your likes and dislikes, the bottom line – it’s about food. Religion and food are inextricably linked. Food for both our cultures is life. It’s the protagonist, it’s the symbolic glue that keeps us together. We break bread, we share, we celebrate. 

If a Jew and a Greek are in the room for longer than one minute, the issue of food and more importantly what food and how much of it, immediately arises. It’s what connects us. The phrase “are you hungry” is a rhetorical one. Of course you’re hungry, it’s only the degrees that vary.

As my mom once said to a non-ethnic friend of mine: “Please Nathan you are hungry, you just don’t know it yet!”

In a world of immeasurable virtual connectivity, where human interaction has been dumbed down to a tick, an emoji or a hashtag, we as the human race have never been more disconnected.

Through celebrations across tables, commemorating our traditions, our faith, our family, our history and yes, our cuisine we go back to what can never be replaced by any technological achievements.

We go back to talking, actual talking to one another. We connect across tables, share stories and find real solace in and with people. This for me, is the true origin and definition of being #soblessed.



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