Passing the Rosh Hashanah baton
Next generation

Passing the Rosh Hashanah baton

When Jessica Abelsohn's mum passed away in 2014, the 27-year-old found herself faced with hosting Rosh Hashanah dinner, alongside her sister. She shares how it felt to take on the responsibility and how she is teaching the next generation the special family traditions.

Jessica, with her niece Poppie, teaching the next generation how to make chicken curry.
Jessica, with her niece Poppie, teaching the next generation how to make chicken curry.

For as long as I can remember, my parents would host Rosh Hashanah dinner. When I was young, all the furniture would be shifted in our long formal lounge room, and the tables would be brought in so we could seat up to 30 members of both sides of my family, and some friends, all together.

Each year, my sister and I would painstakingly set the table while the scent of chicken soup wafted through our home. And each year, there was always the same food – chicken soup from my mum, chicken curry and special sweet rice from my nana, meat roast from my great aunt and honey cake from my aunt, among other things of course.

As a child, I remember passing the various brachot around the table with each Sephardi blessing. I also remember being starving by the time soup rolled around because the process took so long. I remember being so full I could barely move by the time dessert was served. But, like all kids, finding my ‘second tummy’ for honey cake and ice cream.

As we got older, my sister and I would take on more of the responsibility. We’d help with the potatoes and the side dishes, we’d move the furniture with my dad, we’d cut the fruit. We also started setting the table with individual ‘brachot plates’ to make the prayers a more streamlined process.

As we got older, we also obviously began to realise just how much effort went into preparing for our mammoth Rosh Hashanah dinners.

In August 2014, my mum passed away from pancreatic cancer. It was seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. I was 27 years old. My dad held my sister and I in an embrace as the Chevra Kadisha left our home, and I remember making him promise that we could still have everyone for dinner in our home – because that’s what she would have wanted.

Rosh Hashanah has always had a special place in my heart. Maybe it was ushering in the new year or maybe it was simply because we would all sit together in my home around the same table.

Whatever the reason, it took on extra sentimentality and importance that year.

Because that became the first year that my sister and I took on the responsibility of hosting our new year meal, without our mum.

We’d had years of practice. After all, we’d been helping my mum for decades. But that didn’t make it any easier to take on the job. It was her job, her chag.

That year, my nana came to our home and showed us how to make her chicken curry. She brought her spices and her pateela (special Indian pot). She showed us how to grate the onions so they’d cook nicely, made us promise that we’d always use a wooden spoon to stir, and revealed that she never actually used the same amount of spices each time, merely estimated as she went along – something we always suspected.

My sister made my mum’s chicken soup. My great aunt brought the meat roast, and my aunt brought the honey cake. I made the other main and the side dishes. And together, we sat around our large dining table for the first Rosh Hashanah without her.

Jessica’s son Rafael helping to bake honey cake for last year’s High Holy Days

By the following year, my nana had also passed away. So, I was left to make the chicken curry and special sweet rice.

And every year since, that has been my job. My sister makes the soup. And together, we do the rest. What’s even more special is that now, the kids are starting to help too – mixing the honey cake ingredients, helping to make the curry, setting the table and making the smashed avocado.

We host Rosh Hashanah dinner in my dad’s home.

The family still come together and while we’ve lost some people, we’ve also gained a few extra children. Their loud laughter and play fill the home while we race against the clock to lovingly set the table, sort out the last-minute dinner preparations, bath and feed the kids, fill the kiddush cups, place the brachot around the table settings, light our candles and gather everyone to say prayers.

It’s chaos in the lead-up and throughout.

But truthfully, that’s exactly what my mum would want.

And once everyone has gone home, we breathe a sigh of relief.

Until next year!

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