My family never really had any holiday traditions that were unique to our family.
When I was a kid, my mom would make me an Easter basket full of small toys and chocolates. I did Trick or Treat for Halloween. On Christmas we’d have a tree and open presents. Neither of my parents are religious; my dad practices Islam and doesn’t celebrate holidays like Christmas or birthdays. He went along with it to make my mom happy, but also because he rarely forced his religious choices on us. But there wasn’t anything that was particularly sacred to just our little family. When I had my son, I made the decision to not celebrate holidays like Easter, it just created clutter in the house. As a single mom, we had small Christmases with a few presents and nothing special.
My partner grew up practicing Judaism; her mother’s family was quite observant, and as a result, so was she. Holidays were a big deal for them, as was preserving traditions. While she no longer actively practices, the cultural traditions are still important to her. So when we started dating, I made a conscious effort to not only understand, but try to incorporate her traditions into our family.
As someone with minimal family traditions, I loved the idea of preserving some of her cultural traditions, while creating some new traditions for our family. Since she’s not religious, it changes the way we celebrate Jewish holidays, but I don’t really mind. We may not go to religious services, but there is food, which is something that excites me. I bookmarked recipes in anticipation, and pumped my partner for any traces of memory to the holidays she grew up with. What did your mom make? I would ask, keeping a running list in my mind of what her mom used to baste the brisket, or what kind of seasoning her grandmother would put on the chicken. She wanted to give me my own space to try things as well, to take these sacred traditions and make them my own. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate a holiday (for the most part!) and she wanted me to feel ownership of creating our new way of celebrating.
Cooking and preparing food is something I’ve loved to do for most of my life. As an adult, making food for the people in my life became one of the easiest ways for me to show my love. Food is comfort, food is community. When I invite people over to my house for dinner, it’s because I am trying to connect with them in a more intimate way. Sitting around the table, sharing a good meal — people are at ease and can connect with each other in a different way. Your guard is down when you’re eating, you tend to be more yourself. So the fact that so many Jewish holidays include some sort of big meal was a perfect way in for me. I can replicate old traditions while making them new traditions for us.
Because my partner isn’t particularly observant, Jewish holidays often sneak up on us. Last year, I threw together what turned out to be a beautiful Yom Kippur dinner for us and some friends to break the fast (if she fasted, that is). With less than 48 hours notice, I had to haul ass to the kitchen, but I thankfully work well under pressure. I roasted a chicken because it’s something I can do in my sleep at this point, and threw some potatoes in the oven. Of course, the kids ate a few bites of chicken and the leftover mac and cheese I had made, but us adults partook in a tasty meal (if I do say so myself!). I made my first ever noodle kugel — my partner decided on a more traditional recipe for next time. (She made me buy the wrong kind of egg noodles).
This year, we’re trying to be more on top of our holiday plans. Purim snuck up on us and while I did make hamantaschen, I was about a week late. We decided that I could give a Passover dinner a try. Since it’s a holiday with no bread, it feels less daunting. I’m determined to make a challah, but if I’m being quite honest, bread scares me. Every time I think about it I get anxious; my partner found me one night hunched over my laptop watching a video on how to braid your challah. My eyes were round as saucers as the person making the bread described how each plait had to go a certain way. I know my way around buttering a piece of matzo, so I’ll stick to the rivers and the lakes that I’m used to for now.
Passover falls between both of our birthdays and this year it’s during spring break, which means it’s the perfect holiday to have friends over for. Since our friend has a kiddo as well, weeknight holidays are always a little trickier. Between work and school, it’s a late dinner, but then it can’t be too late because the boys have school the next morning. But they have fun together and don’t want to go home and it becomes a whole thing. At least this year we will be able to relax and enjoy and be a little more loose with bedtimes. We still haven’t decided if we want to do the seder, but I also suggested this year we start small. There’s plenty of time for something more elaborate next year.
My search for the perfect recipe began in early January, when on a whim I typed “Passoverwp_postsinto the search of the New York Times food section. My mouth watered as an array of brisket and chicken recipes presented themselves to me. We will likely invite over our same friends, which means we will probably have chicken. Between her five-year-old and our nine-year-old, I don’t want to have to make two dinners. Something with a more Middle Eastern flair is where my mind first went because it’s different and a little more special. Of course I could make chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, but I can also make that for a typical Wednesday dinner. Something that takes more time and care seems fitting for such a day.
I’m also really excited about making coconut macaroons for the first time. I used to work for a cupcake bakery that had Jewish owners, and that’s where I first fell in love with them. They’re chewy and a little dense, and of course I will be dipping them in chocolate because chocolate makes everything better. Again, they’re a low stakes dessert — it’s more about the science of assembly. If I screw them up, I can just dip some matzo in chocolate and call it a day.
Since most of our early relationship was during the height of the pandemic, we hadn’t really celebrated Jewish holidays with anyone in person until last year’s Yom Kippur break fast dinner. Our first Hanukkah, we did a Zoom with her family and I made a brisket in my Crock-Pot. It was deliciously intimate, but as someone who loves to host dinners, I was disappointed. I longed for the day it was safe enough to have friends over to partake in a holiday meal and begin to create those new family traditions I was craving.
This year feels like the first of many years where I begin to truly incorporate my partner’s cultural traditions into our family. I’m already looking forward to the years where we have more of her family over to partake in a roast chicken or brisket or pot roast. For family and friends to mingle around my table sharing stories of their own childhood observances. Maybe even for my own parents to come over and learn more about her culture.
Most importantly, I’m excited for the food. Because food is love, and love is what tradition is all about. And now, I finally have the chance to create unique holiday traditions for our family.
Passover begins at sundown today, on Wednesday April 5, 2023.