Having lived abroad for the last 10 years, I’ve unfortunately missed out on a lot of family moments. Last Sunday, I could only “attend” my niece’s first birthday through a series of chaotic and turbulent FaceTime conversations (I think my niece grasped the concept of the video chat far better than my grandmother – a sign of the times).
And then there’s the Jewish holidays: the cost, the timing and the general toll of transatlantic travel mean I’m more often absent than present when my family sits down at the table together.
Passover remains the exception. When I left for Brussels, my mother and I reached an accord that I would make it home every spring to celebrate with them. I’ve kept that promise and next Thursday I’ll be boarding an Air Canada flight (well two) to Toronto. Truthfully, I wouldn’t miss my family’s seder for anything: the debating of the historical inaccuracies of the story, the good-humoured ridiculing (my late grandfather still gets the brunt of it) and the off-key singing are hard to substitute.
Passover aside, I’ve had to adapt and forge my own traditions – specifically when it comes to Rosh Hashanah. When I lived in DC, it was rather fluid. I joined a synagogue and celebrated holidays with others who, for whatever reason, did not travel to their families. It was beautifully simple.
Brussels is in some ways similar and in others rather different. Like DC, it is a city replete with young professional “orphans”. But the Jewish community within the EU bubble is rather small and most travel home. So I’ve become more industrious.
And so Jew Year’s Eve was born.
It started rather modestly: my Israeli flatmate and I invited ten friends – some Jewish, some not – for a home-cooked dinner and a fair bit of wine. In five years, the celebration has morphed into more of an extravaganza. Last year’s affairs (well this year if we’re going by the Jewish calendar) was attended by nearly 40 people, raging from one and a half to 55-years of age, and lasted until the wee hours. The simple dinner is now a vegetarian smorgasbord of traditional dishes and other culinary delights. There’s challah (affectionately known as Jewish brioche), soup with matzah balls, lokshen (noodle) kugel, tzimmes (roasted carrots, pineapple and prunes), and honey cake (paired with a salty cinnamon vanilla ice cream), to name a few. Still all homemade. It’s a two-day labour of love.
For my Jewish friends not able to make it home, it’s a comforting alternative. What’s most interesting, however, is how my non-Jewish friends – who comprise over 90% of those in attendance – connect to it.
One Greek-French friend noted it was the first Jewish celebration of any kind he had ever been to and was overwhelmed by the cultural experience (so much so that he washed all the dishes, bless him). Another friend of Korean heritage was surprised by how similar lokshen kugel is in taste to her mother’s yakbap, a sweet rice cake. And indeed they are, as I discovered a few week’s later when over at her place for dinner.
The best aspect of it all, however, might just be the curiosity my friend’s bring to the evening. They don’t just want to eat (and drink), but they want to learn more about how what is in front of them became a part of my tradition. It has wonderfully forced me to trace my history and I think I’ve learnt to appreciate it all a bit more.
I may leave Brussels before the next Jew Year’s Eve and if I do, I will truly miss this wonderful tradition. How I celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the future will depend on where I next land. But to keep the Brussels memory alive in some form, I think I’ll forego the lokshen kugel and serve yakbap instead.
Joshua Goodman is a Brussels-based radio host and an LLM candidate in Public International Law at the University of Kent, Brussels. Follow him on Twitter @lumber_josh.
(Image: The famous Jewish brioche. Credit: Joshua Goodman)