There may be working rabbis who have time to cook when the Days of Awe roll around. I can't really imagine what that would be like. The days leading up to the chagim are always full. There's a near-limitless list of pre-holiday tasks, from making sure all of the honors were assigned, to rolling the Torah scrolls to the right places (ow, my wrists), to generating holiday songsheets and handouts, to making sure my own Torah readings are ready to go, to checking and double-checking that all of the pages of my sermons are printed and are filed in the right places in my machzor...
And I know it could be worse. I'm one of those people who's psychologically incapable of leaving a major writing assignment to the last minute. I know people who operate best in the eleventh hour -- who procastinate until right before a paper is due and then whip out pages upon pages of brilliance. Not I. The process would make me miserable, and the resulting text would reflect the tension and anxiety of its over-fast creation. Instead I wrote my High Holiday sermons slowly, over the summer. So at least I haven't been agonizing over those this week; they are as perfect as they are going to get, and that is all I can do.
It also turns out that life doesn't entirely come to a halt in order to facilitate high holiday planning. (You're stunned, I know.) While doing all of the above, all of us in this line of work are also preparing for Shabbat services, and teaching Hebrew school, and offering pastoral care, and rising to the occasion of whatever illnesses or funerals present themselves in the final days of the year. I don't have statistics on this, per se, but a casual census of my friends tells me that a surprising number of people seem to die during the last days of each year. And we need to care for, and be with, our families; they need us, too.
The point is, I don't cook grand festive meals anymore. This year Ethan is making our erev Rosh Hashanah dinner, which we'll eat early this evening with family before I go to shul for soundcheck. Before Yom Kippur I'll dine at the home of a congregant who has graciously offered a meal at 4:30. (Oy. But that's what one has to do, in order to get to shul before the violinist and cellist begin to play at 5:30, before Kol Nidre at 6.) I'm buying two round challot for Rosh Hashanah -- one with raisins, one without, just like my mother used to have -- from the A-Frame Bakery where Drew and I go every Friday for Shabbat challah. But the one thing I feel the need to make myself, with my own hands, is honeycake.
Although I only make it once a year, the recipe is so familiar I barely need to look at the page. This is the only recipe I cook from the Sisterhood cookbook of the synagogue to which we belonged when I was a kid. (Otherwise it's not really my style -- it's more a nostalgia item than a useful cookbook to me, per se.) The book opens naturally to this page, which is stained with coffee and smeary with honey. I no longer need the note I scribbled years ago in the margin, that two loaf pans work as well as a 9 x 9 square. The only thing I adapt is the kind of nut I use; I prefer pecans, because they were the native nut where I grew up, but if we don't have them on hand, I improvise.
The batter goes into the pans. It is smooth and slightly bubbly, thicker than syrup but thinner than dough, a brilliant honey-coffee color. This is a tautology, but it is a color I think of as "the color of honeycake batter." I can't resist licking the spoon as I scrape out the last bits of batter from the bowl after the two pans are full. It's the taste of proto-honeycake; the taste of the season turning; the taste of the new year that's almost, almost, almost upon us. The taste of this liminal moment, one year almost over, a new year almost ready to begin.
Have you ever wondered why the traditional greeting is the wish for a "good and sweet" new year? (Why both?) The traditional interpretation goes like this. Every year is a good year in the eyes of God. God can see the truest and deepest reality of all things. From God's high level of consciousness, it's quite literally all good -- even death, even suffering. But from where we sit, in our limited human consciousness, there's a binary distinction between good and bad, sweet and bitter. When we wish each other a "good and sweet" year, we are saying: I know the coming year will be good in God's eyes, even if some of it doesn't seem good to our way of thinking -- so may the coming year also be sweet in ways which we can discern.
Here's to a good and sweet 5773.