For some, Break-Fast means breakfast: bagels, lox, blintzes and coffee cake
When I was growing up, Yom Kippur, which this year begins on Wednesday night, Sept. 15, was definitely not my favorite holiday. Even as a little girl, I remember spending hours in synagogue with my parents, who seemed more serious and tense than usual, and grew less talkative and grumpier as the day wore on.
When we became bored with services and went outside to play with the other kids, the usual distractions weren’t available. No white linen-covered tables bearing miniature Dixie cups of grape juice and wine, platters of cookies and giant challahs awaiting blessings. No women bustling in the temple kitchen curating the goodies and shooing us away. Even the water fountains were covered and elaborately taped so you couldn’t get a drink or splash your friend.
On Yom Kippur, usually translated as the Day of Atonement and considered the most important day of the Jewish calendar, adults--by definition, those past 13, bar or bat mitzvah age--aren’t supposed to eat or drink for the whole day. When I was old enough, I was told, I would be expected to fast too--from sundown on Yom Kippur Eve until an hour after sunset the next day was the prescribed period, about 25 hours. It was part of a ritual of demonstrating to God that we had repented our misdeeds and should be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life to live another year.
Much later I learned there were other things you weren’t supposed to do-- bathe or wear leather shoes, use deodorant or perfume, or have sex. But at 7 or 8, the only thing I knew was that you weren’t supposed to eat or drink. The whole thing seemed mysterious and also a bit of a challenge.
Competitive girl that I was (that came with having two older brothers!), it wasn’t long before I also wanted to try fasting just to see if I could do what the big kids did. Eventually, I did.
Years later, the whole ritual of depriving myself of food and other worldly pleasures in order to look inward became a bit mixed up with the notion that maybe I should use the occasion to shed a few unwanted pounds and begin a self-improvement regimen. I don’t think the losing weight notion was part of the biblical reasons for the fast, but what did I know?
Why do we fast?
Since I was still a little shaky on the theological reasons for fasting on Yom Kippur, I consulted our rabbi, Joshua Kalev, of Congregation Tikvat Jacob Ben Torah.
Though not generally discussed, there are aspects of Yom Kippur that are a bit like “rehearsing for death,” Rabbi Kalev explained. We don’t eat or drink, and some people dress in a kittel, a white linen or cotton garment similar to a burial shroud.
“The idea is I’m going to remove everything from the world that usually makes me feel good,” he said. “I’m going to focus on my soul and repenting.”
“It’s about realizing that we are here for limited time,” he said. In our everyday lives, “we don’t think about our own mortality, but on Yom Kippur, we realize that we’ve been given another day and that every day is a miracle.”
A little depressing, to be sure, but honestly, after more than a year and a half of a deadly pandemic, some of us feel we’ve already been wrestling with our mortality, so this isn’t such a giant stretch.
Fasting begins at the age when a child is considered able to understand and take on adult responsibilities--around 13, bar and bat mitzvah age. Those too young or old, frail or likely to be made sick by the fast aren’t supposed to do it. When I consider this, I remember my father telling me that for Jews, actions that support life always take precedence. (Cue up “To Life!” from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” a welcome respite when contemplating mortality!)
‘Look at me! I’m fasting!’
If someone is fasting just for bragging rights, but without a commitment to live a better life, the meaning of the holiday is lost, Rabbi Kalev said.
“One without the other, doesn’t make sense,” he said. On the other hand, a perfect fast isn’t required.
In the course of leading five prayer services and delivering multiple sermons in a single day, the rabbi sometimes runs out of steam himself.
“For me around 3 p.m. is when it finally gets to me,” he said. “There are years when I’ve had to have sip of Gatorade or a banana, because I’m working 24/7. I don’t feel bad. I’m being human.”
And now, let’s eat!
And finally, after all that fasting, it’s time to eat. But what?
For my friend Judy Bonn-Smith, Break-Fast has always meant breakfast--bagels and lox and sometimes a blintz soufflé, a well-known classic made with store-bought Golden Blintzes, usually either cheese or cherry, topped by an eggy sour cream mixture. In years gone by, other egg dishes were sometimes on the menu at Judy’s house, but the fare has always been light. The reason lies in family lore, she said.
“My grandparents got married after sundown on Yom Kippur, and they served a huge meal. Everybody got sick because they ate too much on an empty stomach. That’s the story. I don’t know if it’s true or not.”
Like Judy, Rabbi Kalev says he’s “a bagels and lox kind of guy” when it comes to Break-Fast. Instead of a large gathering, as there sometimes are for other holidays, he dines with his wife, Selilah (also a rabbi), his two children, Noa, 14, and Jacob, 12, and his mother Vivian. Sometimes his mom will bring a kugel or her rugelach, both family favorites.
Our congregation often serves a small Break-Fast repast following Neilah, the final service of Yom Kippur, but, with the second year of services delivered via Zoom, that isn’t happening in 2021, according to Executive Director Tamah Kushner.
“It’s just too complicated this year,” she said. “I tried to get people do it on Zoom, but for some reason people don’t like eating on Zoom.”
I kind of get that. Eating together on screen just isn’t quite as communal as breaking the fast shoulder to shoulder. Besides, it might be a little inhibiting to have to worry about minding your table manners on screen when your stomach is screaming for food.
Maybe by this time next year--5783 on the Jewish calendar--things will be different. We can only hope.
A few recipes
One thing it’s hard to do on Yom Kippur, especially if you’re fasting, is cooking. It’s almost impossible not to snatch a few mouthfuls or a gulp when you’re chopping and pouring. The best solution is to make as much as you can in advance.
I made the six-blintz version of the Golden Blintz Soufflé from a recipe Judy took from the back of the original package. I used the cheese blintzes and tried to lower the fat quotient with low-fat sour cream.
Later I doubled the recipe, using both blueberry and cheese blintzes, and used full-fat sour cream. Instead of mixing the eggs and sour cream by hand as I had the first time, I used the blender, as called for in the recipe, with a much better result.
Notes from Judy (and one from me):
To double the recipe, use two packages of the blintzes (six spread out on either side) to fill a 9-by-13 inch baking dish. The dish should be about half that size for six blintzes.
The large T’s in the recipe are tablespoons and the small ones are teaspoons, so 2 tablespoons melted butter, 4 tablespoons orange juice, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and 4 teaspoons sugar.
You can mix and match fruit and cheese blintzes if you double the recipe. Just remember which side is which (unless you don’t care!).
Whipping the egg mixture in a blender seems to be key to a light soufflé effect. And use full-fat sour cream for the best result.
I was also intrigued with a deconstructed blintz casserole recipe from a new book from Beth A. Lee called The Essential Jewish Baking Book: 50 Traditional Recipes for Every Occasion. Instead of making individually rolled blintzes (you can find my blog about making those here), Lee’s recipe calls for baking a layer of batter, covering it with cheese filling, then more batter, and baking it again, creating a kind of giant blintz. Who wouldn’t love that?
And then there’s coffee cake, a perennial at our Break-Fast when I was growing up, along with a pot of tea (my mother was a Scottish lass after all!) and small bowls of beef consommé that she made from boiled marrow bones. All were supposed to break the fast in the gentlest way possible.
Multiple sour cream coffee cake recipes also make an appearance in Mom’s dilapidated little marble notebook, which is filled with handwritten recipes, sometimes all but illegible. Here’s the one I picked, with a few modifications and suggested variations:
Sour Cream Coffee Cake
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Grated zest of one orange (optional)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour (I think 1/4 to 1/3 whole wheat would work well.)
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (or pecans, almonds or hazelnuts, if you prefer)
1/2 cup sugar (I used half each of brown and white)
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (I used 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 each ground ginger and cardamom)
Grease a round tube or Bundt cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Chop nuts and mix with sugar and spices in a small bowl.
Cream butter and sugar in a mixer or by hand. Add eggs one at a time and beat until light. Mix in vanilla and orange zest, if using.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Mix by hand into the wet ingredients, alternating with the sour cream. Take care not to over-mix.
Spread half the batter evenly on the bottom of the pan with a spatula. Sprinkle on half the topping. Then gently smooth the remaining batter on top, followed by the rest of the topping.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until a tester comes out dry. Cool on a rack.
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Are you fasting for Yom Kippur? Do you fast for other reasons? How do you break your fast? I’d love to know. And, if you’re observing Yom Kippur, please stay safe and well. Wishing you--and all of us--another healthy year. L’chaim!