The Fast & the Feast

A Star of David hanging off a tree branch with a blue sky in the background.

Despite talking constantly, I’m always pretty hesitant to talk about my Judaism. I suppose in part because I’ve spent most of my adult life minimizing it. Whenever somebody’s ears perk up and they exclaim “oh! You’re Jewish?” I tend to respond with some kind of self-deprecating “oh but I eat pork / have tattoos / don’t go to synagogue,” etc. etc. As if any of those things make me less Jewish. (Pro Tip: they don’t).

A salt pig, container of sugar, and small bowl of red peppercorns on a marble counter with tile background. Also, a garlic bulb and a small metal spoon.

In the last year or two – that’s several long ones into the deep social and mental isolation I felt in Oregon – the lack of Jewishness in my life began to feel substantial. I’m sure the 2016 election had absolutely nothing to do with this, right? I grew up on the east coast, mostly in Philadelphia and a little in New York, literally surrounded by other Jews – in school, among my friends, and at every major holiday spent with my sister, parents, grandparents, and extended family friends. In Oregon, I was almost always the only one.

When Nick and I moved to Austin in December and I finally, as an adult, found myself with easy access to fellow MOTs (that’s Members of the Tribe), friends – people I actually like! – I had to figure out how I wanted to interact with what is simultaneously my religion and my culture. The cool thing about making this decision as an adult – after six years of private Jewish day school and another six of weekly Hebrew school / Hebrew High until my confirmation at 16 – is that it is entirely up to me. The Jewish I choose to be is much more about how I want to move through and participate in our society, how I want to honor and observe meaningful moments – both good and bad, and not very much at all to do with God, or following rules that [to me] make a proud heritage feel like a dreaded obligation.

An overhead shot of a lamb leg in a large metal pot with a light brown brine and whole red peppercorns on a marble grey counter.

All that to say, I’ve clearly done some thinking in these ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting and self-reflection. I still remember the song from elementary school that told us all the things you couldn’t do on Yom Kippur, and that you should really just spend the whole day at your synagogue praying. I can no longer tell you the meaning behind the prohibition of leather shoes or showering on this day, but the fasting part has been something that always sort of stuck with me. I didn’t actually do it at all for many years, due to health issues – or, more likely, being in my early 20s and using health issues and my dad’s very proud atheism as an excuse. (If I had to label myself, I suppose I am more agnostic.)

As an adult, I’ve learned to hold [a little more] space for my health and respect that it is a thing that impacts my ability to fast. This year I opted to participate with a modified approach: one non-dairy protein shake in the morning, and water as needed. I know this decision came as a surprise to my father (remember, the loud atheist) and maybe a little to myself as well. Why, with no firm belief in the whole higher power aspect of religion, would I choose to fast on a day of atonement?

A head-on photograph of Kasandrinos olive oil, O pomegranate vinegar, and Date Lady date syrup on a marble countertop with tile background. In the foreground of the image are two small ceramic pinch bowls - one with zaatar and the other with dried garlic and dried shallots2019 was a very difficult year, for myself and some of my loved ones. We came into 2020 preparing for all the flowers to grow after a year of planting seeds. Instead, 2020 has turned into another year of poking holes in the dirt. Admittedly, I don’t really see a future for myself where I regularly attend services, stop eating pork, or stop getting tattooed (I actually have an appointment in two weeks, sorry mom). That said, having this intentional connection to my Jewishness, on my own terms, and having the opportunity to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year and earn a “clean slate” – however metaphorical that may be – has made this time just a little more bearable.

So, Nick* and I decided to fast. Come sundown though, Jews across the world broke a 25-hour hold on food and drink with meals relating to their cultural, geographic, and religious heritage. Growing up, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur took place at my grandparents’ house and the table was mostly a mix of Russian and Ukrainian food, with a finger or two dipped into Ashkenazi hand-me-downs. Nick’s favorite game to play, when we first started dating and still lived in Philly, was “how many jars of pickled things will be on the dinner table?” (I think the record was 13.)  *Nick isn’t Jewish, but he still chose to participate in fasting with me.

In our house now, you know that we were going to do something a little… louder. Israeli food wasn’t really something I grew up with, outside of the occasional falafel at school, but it is a cuisine I have fallen deeply in love with. This meal actually started on Sunday with defrosting a 3.5-pound pastured-raised boneless lamb leg. Listen, I’m no Michael Solomonov, but Nick and I had the lamb shoulder [at Zahav] several years ago with both our families and we still talk about it.

A photograph of lamb leg in a glass dish with the marinade being poured over it from a glass measuring cup held above.

On Monday morning, despite being in the middle of the aforementioned fasting, Nick brined said leg of lamb for a few hours in a salt-sugar-peppercorn mix. I then put together a rub that ended up being more like a marinade, but it was absolutely delicious regardless. I combined Kasandrinos olive oil with Date Lady date syrup, O pomegranate vinegar, roasted garlic powder, air dried shallots, ground white pepper, and my current fave Z&Z za’atar. We smothered the leg in said concoction and then – you may have already guessed where this was going: we smoked it. There must be some kind of joke here about Texan Jews being better prepared for fasting since smoking takes so long, but at the time of writing this, I am too hungry to think of the punchline.

While we’ve mostly been smoking briskets this summer, the lamb leg was much smaller and more tender so it only needed to get up to about 138*F before resting for an hour (which ended up being more like 15 minutes because…hungry). I know I’ve mentioned it before, but the Thermoworks Signals “BBQ Alarm” has been a fantastic investment for use with our smoker (even though I mocked Nick relentlessly when he first ordered it). For daily use, I’m all about the ThermoPop.

An overhead shot of a glass bowl on a marble counter. In the bowl is yogurt, za'atar. sumac, and cherry tomatoes. You can see an open jar of za'atar with a small metal spoon inside and a jar of sumac on its side, both behind the glass bowl.As the sun began to set, it was time for the veg. I drained and rinsed two cans of chickpeas (rinse until it stops foaming / the water runs clear and free of bubbles). I kept debating between roasting and sauteeing and ultimately, I don’t know the right word for how I cooked them, but it was fantastic and I will do it again. Plenty of Kasandrinos olive oil, roasted garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and these incredible, smoky black Urfa chili flakes that were very kindly sent over to me from Burlap & Barrel. I cooked the chickpeas over medium heat with all of the above in my favorite Staub Cocotte with half a can of water and, near the end, chucked in a few handfuls of spinach. If you try this and have leftovers, you can always use it for hummus, falafel, or spicy tomato magic.

Finally, a little salad – or, more aptly, salatim which is basically the Israeli version of banchan: small, typically vegetarian side dishes, and usually lots of them. Since it was just the two of us, I only made the one, but it was so good and I am getting more yogurt today so I can make more. I used the unbelievably magnificent Plain & Simple unsweetened non-dairy coconut yogurt from Austin-local Culina – an accidental find that I am now entirely obsessed with. To the yogurt, I added some equally addicting ground sumac from NY Shuk, another little scoop or two of Z&Z za’atar, a Beka-style pinch of salt (that means a lot), a generous glug of Kasandrinos olive oil, and finally, an overflowing handful of sliced cherry tomatoes. Oh I want more of this immediately.

An overhead shot of a white plate on marble background. On the plate is smoked lamb, chickpeas and spinach, and tomato yogurt salat. Next to the white plate there is a white oval serving platter with more lamb and chickpeas and a metal spoon.

Dinner was delicious, as was the cocktail (rye, ginger beer, frozen sour cherries), and Nick and I spent the rest of the evening in some combination of talking, watching TV, and looking at our phones like the other great millennial couples of our time.

If you fasted, I hope it was a meaningful day and easy fast for you. If you didn’t fast, I still hope you had a meaningful and reflective day. If you just learned about Yom Kippur for the first time and are only now discovering that Judaism really is not the same thing as Christianity, welcome.

 

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