Apple and honey, kosher traditional food of jewish New Year Rosh Hashana / via Getty Images.
Artillery Row

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah in lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the traditions of Jewish festivals

Last night, for the first time in my life, I baked a cake on my own.

Unlike the rest of the nation, I failed to join the lockdown baking craze, and have used the oven purely for the purposes of entertaining children. But today I needed a honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, to celebrate Jewish New Year.

Sourcing a tropical fruit in the UK used to be an epic quest rather than a quick dash to Waitrose

Traditionally this is the purview of my mother. Allergic to the kitchen 364 days a year, she makes one heroic exception and digs out her own mother’s honey cake recipe for Rosh Hashanah. As with all the Jewish festivals that underpinned my childhood, the idea was to substitute food for religion. Whether or not we actually believed in any kind of deity was an afterthought, secondary to the potato latkes at Chanukah, matzoh at Passover, triangular fruit-filled hamantaschen pastries at Purim.

The symbolism of the food ranges from fairly self-evident to so obviously contrived it has become a family joke (“we must have horseradish with our latkes, to remind ourselves that there is sharpness even in the most delicious of God’s creations – and also because that’s how your grandfather liked them!”), but Rosh Hashanah is one of the more straightforward: apple dipped in honey – to symbolise a sweet new year – and extra honey cake on the side, in case God didn’t get the message with the apple.

Pomegranate also features heavily, produced proudly at our table each year by my mother who remembers the days when sourcing a tropical fruit in the UK in autumn was an epic quest rather than a quick dash to Waitrose. My sister and I used to pick out the seeds and promise to do as many good deeds in the year ahead as there were seeds in the pomegranate – the first one being keeping quiet about the fact that we didn’t actually like pomegranate so as not to spoil my mother’s excitement.

It’s hard to be joyful when the traditional means of celebrating are banned

There is no avoiding spoiled excitement this year. For our family and Jews across the world, the start of lockdown six months ago was marked by the realisation that Passover was cancelled: we would not be able to celebrate the Jews’ exodus from Egypt with the usual epic meal, tabled crowded with extended family members sharing plates of food. But that was spring, and this is autumn. After a summer of gradually relaxed restrictions, we were looking forward to saying farewell to the old year in style tonight, ushering in the new with all the family, singing, and honey we could muster.

Thanks to travel restrictions, ever-changing quarantine rules, and the new Rule of Six, I find myself flying solo this year. I don’t know the words to the songs on my own (none of us do), and even if I did, singing them alone feels eerie. A family Zoom call doesn’t cut it, it just emphasises what we are missing. And it would be a waste to buy a pomegranate I won’t even eat.

It’s a depressing thought – especially because I desperately need this new year to be sweet. We all do. Death, fear, disappointment, uncertainty – these are the themes that have dominated the past six months. Rosh Hashanah is meant to be a celebration, but it’s hard to be joyful when the traditional means of celebrating are banned.

Well, if old traditions are impossible, we will just have to make new ones. This year I have done two things for the first time.

First, I have actually opened a prayer book to read the Shehecheyanu – the Hebrew blessing recited at new or special occasions, including Rosh Hashanah – and translated it. “Blessed is the Lord who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” I hadn’t realised a prayer could be so fitting.

And I made honey cake. Yes, I could have bought some (I live in north London, after all), but if my mother would brave the kitchen to make something so important to her, I reckoned I could do the same. Tonight, I will call her, we will sing as much of the songs as we can remember and eat honey cake together miles apart.

And though neither of us has ever really believed in God, we will recite the Shehecheyanu, and pray that next year – which is now this year – will be sweeter.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover