At sundown on Sept. 4, Jews everywhere will observe Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, by attending synagogue, gathering with family and, of course, with food.
From matzo ball soup to honey cake, food is an intrinsic part of Jewish culture. The Jewish Museum of Florida celebrates that with its upcoming exhibit, Growers, Grocers and Gefilte Fish: A Gastronomic Look at Florida Jews and Food, which opens Oct. 15.
The story starts with Moses — Moses Levy, who began the state’s first agricultural colony, Pilgrimage Plantation, in 1822. Then comes 190 years of delis and dairies, restaurants and ranchers, right up to today.
The exhibit embraces 250 Florida individuals, families and business with ties to food and to Judaism. We spoke to two of them about Rosh Hashana.
As a child, caterer Sarah Davidoff cooked with her mother, making classic boeuf bourguignon and buttery Parker House rolls. By her teens, she was catering parties. “I could make $3 an hour babysitting or a couple hundred dollars on a Saturday afternoon,” she says.
Food is a business for Davidoff, 43, but it’s also personal. From hitting the deli “to get our corned beef fix” to preparing and sharing holiday meals, “my Jewish identity has always been strong,” she says. And Rosh Hashana has always revolved around family, friends and food.
When she was growing up, her grandparents would fly in for the holiday, her mother, Judith, would invite “an eclectic group of guests,” and mother and daughter would cook together, baking challah and a turkey stuffed with challah, apples, and nuts.
“My mother would make a potato kugel with the most amazing crust on the bottom,” Davidoff recalls. “We waited all year for it.”
Davidoff opened her catering business, Fare to Remember, in 1997. When she married David Goodman eight years later, she got new insight into the food business from her father-in-law, Artie Goodman, manager of the legendary Miami Beach deli Rascal House.
“That place pumped out more food than any restaurant I’ve seen in South Florida,” says Davidoff. “… They made everything old-school, from scratch. It was just as busy at three in the morning as it was at ten in the morning.”
Goodman worked long hours, holidays and weekends, and Davidoff does, too. In addition to doing private parties and corporate functions, Fare to Remember is the anchor caterer at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, so weekends are often filled with bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings.
But even after 25 years in the business, she still delights in how food brings people together.
“I have gotten teary standing in the corner of a ballroom at the temple, watching everybody eating and drinking and dancing and enjoying their evening,” she says. “It’s one of the best parts of my job.”
Davidoff will be working during Rosh Hashana, but a few days later, she, her husband, their 6-year-old son, extended family and friends will have a do-over “when we can do it together.”
Their belated holiday meal is guaranteed to be “crazy, loud, boisterous, with dogs running around, jokes being told” and plenty to eat, she says. “Spectacular.”
Zak H. “Zak the Baker” Stern grew up in Pinecrest, “a rebellious punk kid” who attended Bet Breira Hebrew School but “didn’t connect to one single bit of it.”
Not in temple, perhaps, but he connected at the kitchen and the table.
“I happen to love this food,” he says. Especially at Rosh Hashana. “My mom makes awesome matzo ball soup. And chopped liver — I love chopped liver. Stewy, meaty cholent, I can’t get enough.”
At the height of his wayward teens, Stern wanted something more. “I wanted a wise old rabbi to sit and explain things to me, a bunch of fiddlers on the roof — Jewish, old, wise, hairy men in vests drinking lots of whiskey and singing songs together. I found nothing like that.”
He left Miami and Judaism after school, with no plans to return to either. He apprenticed abroad, learning to bake sourdough in Sweden and make cheese in the south of France and Israel. He opened a bakery in Tuscany. He fell in love. The romance fizzled. He took off for India.
It was there, of all places, that he reconnected with his faith by way of Chabad, a Hasidic branch of Judaism that delivers the sense of community and “spiritual connection” he’d always craved.
Since returning to Miami two years ago, Stern, 28, has become part of the Chabad community here. He also finds a spiritual component in baking bread the old-school way, waking when it’s still dark and making everything by hand.
“We use a sourdough mother,” a cultured starter that gives the bread its distinctive tangy taste and significant crust. “You have to respect the mother, flow with her. She’s the driving force of our bakery,” he says. “My purpose in Miami is to offer more tradition, to brings things back a little for the sake of balance.”
This Rosh Hashana will be a special one for Stern: He will celebrate it with his bride and bakery assistant, Batsheva Wulfsohn, whom he married two months ago.
Stern, whose bread is served at a dozen restaurants including Michy’s and The Local, is finalizing plans for a kosher bakery in Wynwood. “We’re quality first and we happen to be kosher,” he says. “We want to have a bread accessible to everybody.”