Sarah Zadok is a Jewish educator and lecturer, and a freelance writer. I “met” Sarah by reading her work – her writing is helpful, inspiring, and funny. I am so thrilled she agreed to share her thoughts with us.
Let’s get to know Sarah and learn from her.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Jewish educator, lecturer, and writer. I’m a lover of good music, good wine and Ba’al Shem Tov stories (in any order). I am originally from Southern Californian; I now live in the Golan Heights with my husband and our five children.
How do you connect to Judaism?
Some folks may call me a “religious” Jew, but I really don’t connect with or relate to that word. I am a Jewess who’s very passionate about learning and sharing the inner-dimensions of Jewish life and living. It is the filter I run my life through, and the source from which many if not most of my daily choices are made.
If I was pressed to throw a label on my Jewish affiliation, I guess I’d call myself a “Jew on purpose” or a “Jewish human.” Or, better yet, “Sarah.”
What’s most exciting about having friends and family over for a holiday?
Great, homemade, fresh food. Local, free flowing wine. Laughter. Great discussion. Color. Collaboration. Unplugging from the speed of the weekday. Spontaneous song. Focused family time. Artistry. Atmosphere. That feeling when your head hits the pillow after an amazing dinner with the ones you love most. Was I supposed to pick one thing?
How does a perfect holiday celebration look and feel to you?
I remember being in Rebbe Meir Abehsera’s home as a young woman and hearing him say that “the presentation of the food is half of its healing.” My parents are both amazing cooks and masters of presentation so I had an early awareness about how the quality, aesthetic, and all-around production of a meal can make other people feel really cared for and loved. In our house a Shabbat or holiday meal is about the experience, not just about the food (although I must admit, we’re all fans of good food).
I guess a “perfect” holiday celebration happens when the stuff on the table inspires a really positive and joyful dynamic around the table; when the food and atmosphere serves as a connecting point between the energy of the holiday and the folks present. When guests are willing to really bring themselves to the table and share some good vibes, sweet Torah, and loosen their hearts with some good wine. That’s pretty perfect to me.
How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?
My hosting process usually begins with the guests. We figure out who’s coming (there’s almost always someone or many someones coming). Then I create a menu that I think they would really enjoy. I always try to keep kids with a simple palate in mind – we have a tendency to really live it up in the hot pepper and raw garlic department.
There’s got to be some kind of a game plan, because I can’t just wing 2-3 meals for 14 people (our average headcount). In terms of dishes, I usually stay within my wheel house, and stick with the things I know my family likes and the things I know how to do well without too much effort. Cost is a factor, too. I generally don’t use any processed food, so it’s a lot of chopping and peeling and last minute stuff but I try to keep good lists, and get the family involved.
I’d like to say that I always make sure I have all the ingredients in house before I start, but I’m not sure that has ever actually happened. Once the counters are clear and clean and the fridge is stocked, I crank up some great music and start rocking it. I prepare a lot of my dips and main courses the night before, and usually leave baking for the day of. Lately my kids have been stepping up in the kitchen and I’m learning to let them take on more; they get a lot of satisfaction from preparing something awesome for a crowd and I like to encourage that.
What’s your absolute favorite holiday dish?
My absolute favorite holiday dish? One of my favorites is a Passover dish we call Yemenite Soup.
While the rest of the Jewish world launches into a full blown, multi-course meal after the first part of the Haggadah, we serve a single, giant, hot bowl of beef soup, flavored with a traditional Yemenite spice mixture called “hawaij” (black pepper, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, and a pinch of ground clove). I add a ton of onions, garlic, a few potatoes for the kids, sweet potato and/or carrots, a head of cilantro, and a little tomato sauce. It’s a recipe from my husband’s grandmother that has evolved with some help from our friends over the years.
We crush our matzah into it, add lemon and “hilbeh” (another Yemenite standard: a fenugreek dip with hot chilies, garlic and cilantro). That’s how we do it. Everyone in my house goes nuts for that dish – it’s the quintessential taste of Passover in our house.
Dishes I could do without?
Kugel. If I was never served another kugel in my life I’d be totally fine with that.
What is one thing you hope to improve vis a vis the holidays?
I’ve been working over the years to not serve my entire self-worth along with my food. I want the holidays to be about family and togetherness and connection to the unique energy of the holiday: about connection to something higher than ourselves. I would love to keep my holiday spirit intact whether or not my brisket came out too dry. It’s a work in progress.
What’s one tip or trick you’ve discovered that makes the holidays smoother, easier, more fun?
When I am really clear about all the jobs that need to get done before Shabbat or a holiday – and I can give really clear instructions to the family about what their jobs are – that changes everything.
It’s not just the physical work load that we share but the team work and the “we’re-in-this-together” feeling that comes when everyone pitches in. As simple as it sounds, being organized is a big part of pulling off a big production like a holiday meal with style and grace (keep in mind this can mean a two to three day holiday with sleep-over guests). When Mama’s relaxed and organized and having fun during prep, usually everyone else picks up that thread. I’d add that a well-placed single malt tends to make things a little more fun too. Just sayin’.
Click here to read Chag Notebook: Kate Bigam.