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At the Rosh Hashana table: Honey, there’s symbolism in fish heads

The traditional foods served Rosh HashanJewish New Year symbolize hope for coming year. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

The traditional foods served at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, symbolize hope for the coming year. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Editor’s note: After the story on Rosh Hashana was posted at Tuesday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s spokeswoman Tarrah Cooper provided these items on his holiday menu:

Pot Roast and Green Beans


Apple and Honey Cake

Challah Bread

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Updated: September 28, 2011 10:21AM

Will Rahm Emanuel eat fish heads for Rosh Hashana?

We can’t tell you. Despite weeks of exchanges with Emanuel’s press secretary, Tarrah Cooper, we weren’t permitted to speak to Emanuel or given any answers as to what the menu will be when Chicago’s first Jewish mayor celebrates his first Jewish New Year in office.

We did, however, talk to his rabbi.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, begins at sunset, commencing the most solemn and awe-filled days of the Jewish calendar. Rich in symbolism, traditional foods serve as good omens for the coming year.

Sweet dishes, especially those made with honey, figure into most holiday menus, notes Rabbi Asher Lopatin, spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Lakeview, whose members have included such politically connected local Jews as the late Richard J. Daley crony Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, as well as the new mayor.

“Many people don’t even allow salt or chrain (horseradish),” Lopatin says.

Perhaps Emanuel will dip apples and challah in honey from the beehives atop City Hall, reciting the prayer that pleads, “May it be your will, Eternal God, that we are renewed for a year that is good and sweet.”

The challah served at Rosh Hashana is not the typical braided loaf, but a round one formed in a spiral, studded with sweet raisins.

Like many things about Judaism, the symbolism of its food depends on who you ask. For some, the round challah represents fullness, completion and the unending cycle of life. It can resemble a royal crown, a reference to God as ruler and to Jews’ belief in one indivisible God.

The round shape also recalls that “Rosh Hashana” translates from Hebrew as “head of the year.” Hence fish heads. “Or a lamb’s head, if you’re really adventurous,” says Lopatin, who admits he hasn’t tried the latter delicacy.

“It’s to show that we should be leaders and not followers — we should be the head and not the tail.” Fish also signify fertility, abundance and purity.

Customarily, the head of the family portions out the head to the rest. We don’t have any word on whether Emanuel’s children — Zacharias, 14; Ilana, 12; and Leah, 10 — like fish heads.

But the kids probably would enjoy kreplach, meat-filled dumplings usually served in soup. These also have a variety of attributes. In one explanation, the meat represents heart and the dough intellect, and the dumplings stand for hopes that God’s loving kindness shines through one’s knowledge — a reason you should roll out your kreplach wrappers as thinly as possible.

Will Dad make them eat their carrots? Carrots cut into coin-like slices — often served in a sweet vegetable stew called “tzimmes” — represent prosperity. Also, the Hebrew for carrot sounds similar to the word for “decree.”

“Break a carrot, break the decrees against us,” Lopatin says.

Other Rosh Hashana foods include pomegranates.

“Not only is it a fruit that Israel is blessed with but tradition holds that it has 613 seeds, the number of the commandments,” Lopatin says. Pomegranates frequently fulfill a custom that one should eat a new fruit — not tasted before in the season — at Rosh Hashana.

Emanuel, however, might not opt for a traditional menu. Reportedly, he and his wife, Amy Rule, who converted to Judaism at their marriage, take their religion pretty seriously and have regular Friday-night, family Sabbath dinners.

Stuart Morginstin, owner of Danziger Kosher Caterers in Lincolnwood, which feeds such celebrities as Ivanka Trump and Steven Spielberg, notes that his customers who seek old-time dishes at Rosh Hashana tend to be those who don’t observe Jewish custom much throughout the rest of the year.

Nevertheless, when we spoke, Morginstin was searching for enough salmon heads to feed a Rosh Hashana banquet for 2,000. “I think we’re going to poach them in a vegetable stock,” he said.

He says he doesn’t get a lot of requests for fish heads — “In all my years of catering, this is a first” — or even traditional desserts such as lekach (honey cake) or teiglach (honey-glazed dough knots). He’d more likely offer an apple tart with a honey glaze or a salad with pomegranate vinaigrette.

Morginstin, whose company’s practices include washing produce in ozonated water and refrigerating dishes in a blast chiller, is a big believer in innovation. “It’s nice for families to create some of their own traditions,” he says. “It’s nice to come up with a lot of new dishes and new things.

“It’s not anti-religion that you didn’t have gefilte fish.”

“You can make it up,” Lopatin says. Jewish propensity for puns — in Hebrew, Yiddish and English — lead to all kinds of new customs, such as eating raisins and celery in hopes of a raise in salary.

“My rabbi, Rabbi Aron Soloveichik, used to say you should eat an ugli fruit and say, ‘May your enemies be ugly,’ ” he recalls.

What symbols might the mayor add to his Rosh Hashana table? Lettuce, in hopes of filling up empty city coffers? Licorice, to put the bottom line in the black?

One convention the mayor might well follow: avoiding nuts on the holiday. In Jewish numerology, Lopatin says, the value of their name in Hebrew, “egoz,” adds up the same as the word for sin.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.

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