Talk about “kitchen debate.” Over the years, I’ve heard women discuss which holiday season is more demanding, the eight days of Pesach in the spring or Tishrei’s month-long “season of rejoicing” in the fall. When I first became observant, I thought it was understood that Pesach loomed larger for Jewish women, with all the unavoidable cleaning and cooking. But I was comforted on those Tishrei mornings when I woke up in a daze (“wait, are we feasting, fasting or cooking and doing laundry?”) knowing that some women actually do find the Tishrei holidays to be beautiful and meaningful — and the most exhausting time of the year as a Jewish woman.
My husband and I became observant very quickly and after we already had children, so when it came to making food for Yom Tov, the holidays, I wanted to make meals as elaborate and delicious as my friends who had been cooking for years. There’s no mitzva to make so much food that people can’t move after the meal, but that’s what I saw and that’s what I wanted to imitate. But, as a neophyte cook, I needed shortcuts.
When our kids were young, I would start baking challah in late summer so my freezer would be stocked; that way I could smile at any Tishrei guests who wanted more bread after a loaf was finished. (On Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, it’s preferable to use two whole challahs for “HaMotzi,” the blessing on bread; the two challahs commemorate the fact that the Jews in the desert received a double portion of manna every Friday in honor of Shabbat.) But for Tishrei, I made all the challah I thought I’d ever need — and then some. (Eventually I made the soothing discovery that leftover challah made delicious salad croutons.) Still, it took years before I found into my own style as a Jewish balabusta, a homemaker.
I eventually learned that honey cake was not worth the effort no matter how “good” the recipe. Then there were those lessons that took only one year to learn — like making sure before the two-day holiday of Sukkos starts that my food for the second night isn’t frozen solid; I forgot that I couldn’t prepare for the second day while it was still the first day, which meant I couldn’t put anything in the oven until after nightfall on the second night. I don’t remember if we ate late or we ate leftovers; I just remember thinking how hard Tishrei was. In retrospect, I made it harder than it had to be.
But that was many years ago. Today, everything about Tishrei is different; it’s just plain easier. I don’t have to buy my children new yom tov clothes. I don’t have to return my children’s new yom tov clothes either. Before the Internet, you could only buy appropriate holiday clothes in cities like New York or Baltimore, places with large numbers of observant Jews. Half the outfits would invariably go back — didn’t like, didn’t fit, liked until sister said she looked like a nurse in it — but I still needed enough clothes for all of yom tov, keeping in mind there were days when doing laundry wasn’t permissible and that if there was any possibility of my kids getting dirty, they would.
Now my adult children and I share the cooking responsibilities — and they do more than I do. Unlike me, they grew up cooking for yom tov, so it’s part of their lives; our daughters and even a couple of sons actually enjoy cooking. But no matter who does the cooking, in typical Jewish style, rejoicing means eating and there are ample eating opportunities in Tishrei. There’s also a sukkah to build, and a lulav and esrog to shake.
On some Tishrei mornings back in the day, the garbageman would look at the size of our pile by the curb and ask my husband if our house was a hotel. I had been told that a yid’s gashmius is ruchnius, a Jew’s material “stuff” is actual spiritual stuff, so I appreciated that my garbage testified to the meals, the guests, the rejoicing of the holidays. I knew I wasn’t close to being the person I wanted to be spiritually, but it signified to me that I was on the right track.