My Jewish identity has always felt a little complicated. While the majority of people I know who share that sentiment grew up as the only Jews in majority-Christian towns where Yiddish wasn’t common parlance—and the closest thing to a good bagel came courtesy of Starbucks—my reasons are somewhat different. I grew up surrounded by Judaism on New York’s Upper West Side, a mere mile from the hallowed ground of Zabar’s. Yet still, somehow, I always felt I wasn’t quite Jewish enough to cut it.
In mid-aughts New York City, nearly all the kids I knew attended Hebrew school and could recite all their Hanukkah prayers by heart and got their parents to throw them lavish bar and bat mitzvahs when they turned 13. I, on the other hand, grew up relatively faithless, attending my classmates’ entry fetes into Jewish womanhood with envy and occasionally even going to church. (Only on Christmas, and only because my mom likes the music, but still.)
Technically, I am Jewish, in the sense that both my father’s parents are Jewish, but on my mom’s side (the one that “counts,” according to adherents of matrilineal descent), things start to get weird; my maternal grandmother was born to a Russian Jewish father and a non-Jewish Italian mother and was raised in a Catholic orphanage after both her parents died. She essentially passed as a gentile for most of her life, even marrying a textbook White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Growing up, my mom hewed closer to the WASP side of her upbringing, while my atheist dad would still let the occasional “Oy vey is mir” fly. Every Yom Kippur, we’d go to our closest family friends’ house to break the fast we hadn’t actually kept the day before, and I was always in awe of the delectable piles of food that covered every available surface.
I used to have a more-than-slight chip on my shoulder about the perception of my Judaism as insufficient, but these days, I’m coming to terms with the idea that I don’t have to be descended from four 100-percent Jewish grandparents in order to give Judaism—and spirituality more broadly—a place in my life. And lately, like so many Jews before me, I’ve been doing that with food. I left most of my Jewish community behind in New York when I moved to Austin last September, but this Yom Kippur, I was determined to break the fast with friends, even if they weren’t Jewish. (In fact, all the better if they weren’t Jewish; I know how much it’s meant to me when friends have included me in their religious or cultural celebrations, and really what could be more fun than introducing someone to their first kugel?)
I had a vision of myself preparing my very first break-fast in my own apartment, and naturally, it bore no relationship to the cook I actually know myself to be. I pictured myself as a chill, serene domestic goddess with a sense of humor—half Nora Ephron, half Laurie Colwin—ready to greet her guests at the door with an excellent bottle of natural wine in hand, imploring them to make themselves at home on my heartbreakingly well-curated furniture, and lighting a Byredo candle before sauntering into the kitchen to “check on the tzimmes.”
I told myself I’d make a nontraditional menu of the Jewish foods I loved best, culled from various holidays—latkes, matzo ball soup, and, for the first time, my very own challah, under the YouTube tutelage of Semitic angel Claire Saffitz—and I imagined the food being so delicious that everyone at my table converted on the spot. (Just kidding: To quote one of my favorite unconventional Jewesses, Charlotte York-Goldenblatt from Sex and the City, “There’s more to being a Jew than jewelry.”)
As you might imagine, my vision quickly fell apart. Ten minutes before my guests were due to arrive, I was sweating profusely from the exertion of trying to put together three main courses simultaneously, my makeup running off my face from the heat of the frying oil for the latkes, and my hands bleeding in three separate places from a failed attempt to shred onion on a box grater. If I had only had to braid the challah six times, dayenu. (Yes, I know, wrong Jewish holiday.) Ultimately, it took a total of seven tries before I shoved the braided behemoth into the oven, feeling totally certain that something would go wrong in the baking process. I had to 86 the matzo ball soup at the last minute when the matzo balls disintegrated in the broth, feeling very much like Carmy from The Bear—if Carmy were terrible at his job and a failure of Jewish womanhood, that is.
As my friends Hannah and Marshall filed in, drank wine, and let their curious dog Merle sniff around the living room before settling next to me on the couch, I began to relax. Maybe it was my friend Amalie’s generous hostess gift of a bottle of my favorite Hendrick’s gin, or maybe it was the tantalizing smell of the latkes topped with sour cream, dill, and lox, or maybe just the comforting knowledge that even I hadn’t managed to fuck up potato pancakes—but I started to get into something approximating a festive spirit. (Even though Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, so, as usual, I was off-script.)
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The thing that really clinched the success of the evening, though, was the challah. I’d proofed and mixed and braided and prayed and swore and cried over it all afternoon, sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, and yet, when I opened the oven door, there was a gorgeously burnished loaf winking up at me, covered in poppy seeds and ready to be torn into. I supported it like a newborn baby while making the delicate transition from pan to plate, and indeed, there was something charmingly infantile about the loaf. It was warm, it was mine, somehow of me; and then all of a sudden, it was everyone’s.
By the time my friends left my house, my kitchen looked roughly like it had been the site of a CIA enhanced interrogation. Flour was everywhere, scraps of fried potato lined the counters, dishes were piled up in the sink, and I somehow looked less camera-ready than I had at the start of the night, my hair falling out of its messy bun and my cooking wounds announcing themselves even from beneath Band-Aids. I didn’t care, though, because my house smelled like fresh challah, a scent I won’t even bother attempting to describe for fear of botching its essential goodness.
By the time I heaped the last of the dishes back in their cabinets and went to bed, I was full of warmth, realizing that I’d broken my non-fast on Yom Kippur with friends, light, food, and laughter. Ultimately, even if it hadn’t looked picture-perfect, even if I wasn’t a 100-percent Jew or an A-plus hostess, the mere fact that it happened—that I’d made it happen—was good enough for me. Maybe one day, my kids will remember their mom crashing around the kitchen before Shabbat dinner, cursing a blue streak and still messing up the matzo balls, and maybe that memory will make them feel connected to their Judaism. I know it makes me feel connected to mine.