Reflecting on Being Jewish on the High Holidays

“What does it mean to be Jewish?” Growing up, this was a question I faced from a number of different people, and at various times throughout the year. As one of five Jewish kids in my grade in high school, I was often the token Jewish friend, or the first Jewish person a fellow student had ever met.

Even within my family, the answer to this question was cloudy. We didn’t celebrate all of the holidays—just some of them. We weren’t religious. We didn’t keep Kosher. We made Jewish jokes. We opened presents at Chanukah, and we came together once a year for a Passover seder or two. We were Jew-ish, as my brother liked to say, and while I never quite knew the answer to the question, I always knew that Judaism was in some way a part of me.

I think there are a lot of other Jewish people out there like me: people who were raised Jewish, have had some exposure to a few of the holidays, and have kept up with some traditions, but have rarely been to synagogue or would never insist on marrying someone Jewish. I sometimes think about how I’m Jewish, or what elements of Judaism I would want to pass on if I were to have kids. I feel a glimmer of excitement when I meet another Jewish person, and I wonder about the origin of this deep-seated response. I have an urge to hold onto some of the traditions, particularly around the feasting holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah, but I don’t have a strong understanding of what it all means.

Enter The Jewish Reflection Journal. All of those questions about holidays and traditions? This journal has the answers, and simple ones at that. Space for me to write about the things I think about when it comes to my Jewish heritage? It’s got that too. Inspirational quotes? You bet. But the part that is most helpful is the gentle but encouraging prompts—questions that help me connect the dots between why a holiday or tradition is kept and what it could mean to me as a Jewish person, even if just culturally.

There’s a section in the introduction of the journal that stood out to me: “Before all the Jewish daily prayers were fully composed, individuals improvised their own prayers on specific themes, including health, unity, joy, forgiveness and empathy. . .While prayer can be a form of guided meditation, so too can the practice of journaling serve that meditative purpose.” Personally, this is what I love about being Jewish. There are choices. You can seek comfort through prayer or in the pages of a journal. I like that I can infuse the elements that resonate into my life while not having to integrate the ones that don’t. It feels like a choose-your-own-adventure model.

Jewish Reflection Journal: Rosh Hashanah

It’s Rosh Hashanah today (the Jewish New Year), and it feels like the right time to break into a new journal. It also is a time for enjoying the sweetness of life and coming together with friends and family over a delicious meal. I decided to try a few recipes from Modern Jewish Cooking, and I’m excited to share them here. I made my own hummus for the first time, and the recipe from this book is amazingly simple and equally tasty. My husband loves lamb, so he was excited when I piled a mound of warm savory and spiced lamb with onions and pine nuts on top of the aforementioned homemade hummus. The recipe is Hummus Im Basar, which I’ve shared below.

Modern Jewish Cooking: Hummus Im Basar

Hummus Im Basar from Modern Jewish Cooking

Serves 4 to 6


  • 8 oz/225 g ground lamb
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup/40 g pine nuts
  • Generous helping of hummus (homemade or purchased) – enough for 4 to 6 people
  • Za’atar for sprinkling
  1. Combine the lamb, garlic, paprika, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cayenne, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and mix well with your hands. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Add the onion and pine nuts and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens and turns light brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the lamb mixture and cook, breaking up the meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Spoon the hummus onto a serving plate and make a wide, shallow well in it with the back of a soup spoon. Fill the well with the lamb mixture, then top with a generous sprinkle of za’atar and a drizzle of additional oil, if desired. Serve immediately.


Supremely Creamy Hummus from Modern Jewish Cooking

Serves 8


  • 1/2 cup/120 ml tahini
  • 1/3 cup/80 ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 large garlic clove, roughly chopped
  • 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt
  • Two 15 1/2-oz/445 g cans chickpeas, drained through a fine-mesh sieve and liquid reserved
  • Za’atar for sprinkling
  1. Combine the tahini, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and 2 tsp salt in a food processor and puree until slick and smooth.
  2. Add the chickpeas and continue processing, using a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until a chunky paste forms, about 1 minute. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in 1/3 to 1/2 cup/80 to 120 ml of the reserved chickpea liquid to loosen the hummus. Continue processing until the hummus becomes whipped and very creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt, if desired.
  3. Place a fine-mesh sieve over a large bowl. Working in batches, press the hummus through the sieve with a rubber spatula; discard the solids. Serve the hummus at room temperature drizzled with additional olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.


To those of you celebrating, Shanah Tovah. And for those of you who aren’t, may you enjoy the sweetness of life just the same.

Alexandra Brown

Alexandra is the Lifestyle Marketing & Publicity Manager at Chronicle Books. She collects original editions of Hemingway books, owns far too many fleece onesies and aspires to be an accomplished gluten-free baker. She spent a year traveling around the world and documented the experience on her blog:
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1 Comment

  • Christyl December 15, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Hi Alexandra!

    I feel the same way about feeling a glimmer of excitement when I meet a Jewish person!!!
    The difference is that I am not Jewish.

    Maybe its because in the Bible the Jews are the Chosen Race!!! Kind of awe inspiring really! I love all the holidays and traditions. The book looks wonderful and I thank you for your delightful transparency!! In fact it made me want to buy the book for so many reasons, another being, the recipes look AMAZING!!!


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