Letter from London – My Proustian, honey cake moment
By Antony Lerman | 05/09/2010
Not quite the same as Proust's madeleine, the soft, fluted pastry that triggers memory in Remembrance of Things Past, the texture, aroma and taste of my mother's dense honey cake nonetheless unfailingly flood back as Rosh Hashanah approaches. Since my mother died over 30 years ago, the image of that dark, rich sweetness speaks of an era well and truly gone, all the more so given that the closest I have come to feeling those delectable crumbs melting on my tongue is the honey cake I've made myself on a few occasions. The recipe has much to commend it, as you would expect from a Claudia Roden number, whose Book of Jewish Food, from which it comes, whisks me off on a literary, historical, folkloric journey whenever I open it. And yet it's not the cake of my childhood (not least because I always bake it too late, failing to leave time to wrap it in tin foil or cling-film for a minimum of three days to allow the flavour to develop).
Even as a child, I found the emphasis on food from Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur rather incongruous. Weren't we supposed to be concentrating on expiating our sins, repenting, averting the awful decree? As far as I could see, all the adults around me were fixated on the coming pre-Kol Nidrei final meal, how to survive the fast and what to eat or drink first when it was over. Much as I loved some of my mother's cooking, awareness of food at this time was not prompted by the emergence of a special new year cuisine, a host of dishes of great variety that excited the tastebuds and made fasting that much harder. For me it was the honey cake that took centre stage. The fare in our household was relatively plain. It wasn't until I started frequenting Indian restaurants that I encountered garlic, chilli, cayenne or even aubergine, capsicum and courgette.
So when the final blast of the shofar marked the end of the fast, no one in our family was craving anything hot and spicy. There was always someone in the vicinity of my father's seat in the synagogue who required a whiff or two of smelling salts in order to keep going—and that was the closest I ever came to any aroma vaguely exotic. On the brisk walk home, my father would occasionally produce a sweet for us from his pocket. But the favoured fast-breaking food, after the obligatory apple and honey, was a cup of strong tea with milk and slices of bread and butter. From then on I'm sure that some of the meal was hot, but an essential component was cold fried fish in a limp batter—made in advance of Kol Nidre so that my mother could spend as much time as she wished in shul rather than stand at home preparing hot dishes for her hard-fasting males.
With all the factionalism and fundamentalism—political and religious—in the Jewish world today, I miss the tolerant, if somewhat bland Ashkenazi yiddishkeit of those times. Perhaps there was even a spiritual logic to it in that the prevailing blandness stood in stark contrast to those awesome moments in the Yom Kippur service, when a packed and stifling congregation rose to its feet, heads covered with talitim, and chanting reached a crescendo and a ten-year old boy, fearful and dumbstruck, imagined they were hammering on the gates of heaven, pleading with the faceless, all-powerful and angry God to be inscribed in the book of life. This wasn't like chewing your way through an overdone piece of bloodless kosher beef; this was hot, palate-searing stuff.
Nothing can replace a cherished parent or a tradition that lives on only in the memory, but what has come into my life since then and is still present to this day has its own authenticity and validity. And in contrast to the one dimensionality of my Polish-Ukrainian family, the centrepiece of Rosh Hashanah these days is a meal with close friends which brings together the Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe, the Indian B'nai Israel, Persian Jewry, Sefarad and more. Younger members of our families have been—and have clocked up Jewish experiences—in Israel, China, Australia, the Andes, Brazil, Tangiers and some are still wandering in those parts. So with this mix there's no cold fried fish, but there could be seared tuna and tangy herring, home-made chicken soup with farfel, chicken curry, lamb Middle East style, a sumptuous Persian pilau with a golden crust, salads combining spinach leaves, oranges, avocado, seeds, and all manner of desserts: fig cake, putizza di noci (Trieste yeats roll), chocolate mousse. And all those who can, bring a contribution to the table.
These days we publicly revel in our diversity, while displays of religious observance and spirituality have become increasingly privatised (I'm talking just about our religious backyard). There's enough shock and awe beyond synagogue walls to remind us of God's power, or powerlessness—you take your pick. If we Jews are one people—an unavoidable question at this time of year—there is little of a positive character to reassure us of this today. Perhaps we need a revolutionary re-imagining through madeleine- or honey cake-like moments to rediscover what being Jewish is for.