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How to Celebrate Rosh Hashanah While Socially Distancing

Start a new tradition, try a new recipe, or eat an entire challah before dinner.

Summer is turning to fall, and with it, Rosh Hashanah approaches, marking the start of a new year and a moment of great reflection. As is the case with every holiday since the start of the pandemic, celebrations will look a bit different. With social distancing in place and indoor gatherings limited, services are more likely to be performed online and there will be fewer, if any, big meals where friends and family can break bread at the same table.

There’s no way around it: The start of this new year is daunting — scary, even. Hard as it might be to find silver linings these days, there are still so many ways to creatively observe Rosh Hashanah in the time of COVID-19, even if you’ll be celebrating alone.

I know for many people, celebrating Rosh Hashanah means one thing: a big meal. Your typical Rosh Hashanah prep might involve hitting six different stores in a day to find every specific ingredient for your 15-person dinner. Well, this year, you officially have permission to take a break. No brisket at the butcher? Who cares! Opt for a smaller chuck roast or treat yourself to a few bone-in short ribs. Heck, if you dread spending any more time in the kitchen than absolutely necessary, just grab a rotisserie chicken and head to the wine shop. No one is going to judge you.

Maybe you’ve never made challah from scratch but always wanted to? If you’re spending a bit more time at home these days, why not dust off your grandma’s recipe? (Or, if you’re me, and your grandma didn’t bake so much as open cookie tins and ice cream containers, adopt a new recipe as your own — the basic challah recipe in Nosher editor Shannon Sarna’s book Modern Jewish Baker is a great place to start.) You’ll probably want to make two loaves: I’m speaking from experience when I say that “accidentally” polishing off half a loaf of warm challah while standing in the kitchen waiting for chicken to finish roasting is one of life’s greatest pleasures. That way, you’ll still have a full loaf of bread for the pre-meal blessing.

While I’ve never been mad about spending the rest of the week reheating leftovers from a great meal, you might want to scale back a bit if you’re feeding fewer than three people. Instead of roasting a whole chicken and preparing separate side dishes, opt for a one-pan dinner of broken down, bone-in chicken parts with vegetables — everything cooks on the same tray (and you can use the bones for stock tomorrow, if you’re so inclined). For dessert, make a smaller cake and eat it right off the cooling rack. No one else is around, who’s going to care if you use your fingers instead of forks? And bonus, whoever does the dishes in your household will be elated to find a manageable pile at the end of the night.

Hard as it is for food-lovers like me to admit, Rosh Hashanah isn’t about the meal. Check in with your synagogue to see if they plan to host any special online services — even through a screen, seeing familiar faces from your congregation might be the biggest comfort during the holidays. Reach out to extended family or a group of friends to see if anyone wants to participate in a big virtual meal as well. It’s challenging, no doubt, but the more we embrace being apart, yet together in new ways, the less we’ll feel stuck in this new reality.

This is also the perfect year to start a new tradition: Though I didn’t grow up observing the practice, this year I’m hoping to partake in tashlich, the ceremony in which sins are metaphorically cast off in front of a body of water. With masks and social distance observed, this is the kind of outdoor activity that’s relatively safe right now. Though we can’t have a meal together inside, meeting a few loved ones to join together for such a ritual will remind us that we’re not alone, and even in these dark times there’s still plenty for which to be thankful.

Try Sheet Pan Tzimmes Roasted Chicken Thighs and Salted Apple Upside Down Cake from Rebecca Firkser. 

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