It's the afternoon before Rosh Hashana and once again I'm spooning an odd assemblage of fruits and vegetables into the clear glass bowls I keep just for this purpose. These special foods are called simanim, or signs because their Hebrew or Aramaic names allude to blessings we would like God to give us in the new year.
For the most part this display of pomegranate seeds, black eyed peas and beet greens has nothing in common with the Rosh Hashana table I experienced as a child. Only the apple and honey and the tzimmes come from my past.
In a way, it's odd that I've clung to the tzimmes. As a kid I never liked it. My mother, a Holocaust survivor and a Hungarian, was a great cook. Her palachinta, Hungarian crepes stuffed with ground almonds and raspberry jam, were superlative, her chicken soup golden and heavenly, her stuffed cabbage wonderfully sweet and sour; but her tzimmes was not on the hit parade for me.
Tzimmes was part of the holiday, but its reason for earning this coveted spot was never discussed. Not that I ever thought to ask. Explanations weren't part of our family culture. For survivors existential inquiries were just too painful. As my parents saw it, our lives were best conducted by staying firmly anchored in the here and now. Neither of my parents liked to talk about their younger days before the war. We had no family myths, no stories, no religious traditions, not even any physical heirlooms.
The only place where my parents dared to venture into their former lives was through their taste buds.
The only place where my parents dared to venture into their former lives was through their taste buds. Every night my mother performed a seance recreating the flavors of her former home in the Carpathian Mountains: dishes like mamliga and rumpl krumpl (a layered potato, sour cream and egg casserole), kraut pletzl and in the summer, sweet cold soups made of frothy whipped eggs combined with stewed apple, canned sour cherries or gooseberries, if they were available.
I didn't always appreciate this culinary richness. I would have preferred to be ordinary, to eat fish sticks, mashed potatoes and steak, not unpronounceable foods whose names were sure to provoke a fit of giggles from my Americanized classmates.
Then in my mid twenties I unexpectedly fell in love with all things Jewish and moved to Israel. During that first year, I ate Rosh Hashana dinner with a family who had the custom of serving as many symbolic foods as possible. Their table was overflowing with agrarian oddities: gourds and leeks, beet greens and black eyed peas, even the head of a sheep. Much to my surprise, included among this colorful display was a plate of cooked carrots which looked suspiciously similar to my mother's tzimmes.
What was my mother's tzimmes doing here in Jerusalem? As we dug our forks into the tzimmes the father, who also happened to be a rabbi, recited a prayer and explained the meaning of eating carrots at the Rosh Hashana meal. I could hardly believe it! My mother never said anything about a prayer. To her, tzimmes was just another dish in her Hungarian Jewish repertoire like goulash, flanken or Hungarian cheesecake.
But my host was saying something else. He was suggesting that by making the tzimmes and serving it on Rosh Hashana, my mother was performing a religious act, unconsciously carrying on a sacred tradition that may well have been in my family for centuries.
I was beside myself with glee, like an orphan who had suddenly discovered her pedigree. Before this experience I never thought that my family had any religious customs at all and now I'd discovered one, and a rich one at that.
"It's a word play," my host said, "The Hebrew word for carrot, gezer is phonologically linked to the Hebrew word gezeira, which means evil decree." The prayer said over the carrots asks for God's protection from any manifestation of an evil decree. It all fit so well.
My mother got to Aushwitz so late in the war that the Nazis didn't even tattoo her. They thought they'd just kill her right away.
I thought to myself, "Was there anyone on earth who'd get this better than my mother, who got to Aushwitz so late in the war that the Nazis didn't even tattoo her. They thought they'd just kill her right away."
But that was only part of it. In Yiddish carrots are called mehren, which means to increase. Tzimmes carrots are sliced into rounds resembling gold coins. Eating them was a segula, a good omen for prosperity. Right away I thought of my mother at the helm of a successful family business dressed in silks and wools instead of concentration camp rags.
A few months later I got married. One of the first things I did as a new bride was to call my mother in New York to get her tzimmes recipe. Although my cooking style leaned towards improvisational, with this recipe I was determined to be exact, to prepare it just the way she did, and her mother before her, and her mother before her.
I'm reminded of a story of the Ba'al Shem Tov. He used to go to a special place in the forest, say a prayer, light a fire and somehow convince God to perform a miracle and save the Jews.
Years passed, the Ba'al Shem Tov had died and the Jews were in trouble once again. His students approached the Ba'al Shem Tov's grandson who was now their Rebbe. "I can't find the place in the forest, I can't light the fire, I don't know the prayer, but I can tell the story and that is enough," he answered.
And so it was for my mother. She didn't know the words of the prayer or even that it existed, but she remembered the recipe and when to serve it and somehow that was enough.
My Mother's Tzimmes Recipe Here is the recipe if you want to give it a try. Peel a dozen or so carrots -- only fresh, never frozen or canned. Hand slice them into rounds. Don't use a food processor. The slices will be too limp and thin. Combine two heaping tablespoons of flour and a quarter cup of oil into a thick brown paste (roux). Add the carrots and gradually drizzle in up to a cup of honey and a third of a cup of water. Cover the pan and let it simmer until it's soft and sweet.
A version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post and in House and Garden.