It had been years since I'd tasted Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine: Last week, at my cousins's Rosh Hashanah celebration, we passed around a kiddush cup of Manischewitz and said the traditional blessing as we welcomed the Jewish New Year.
When we sat down for our luncheon of Russian-style braised brisket and roast turkey with all the Norman Rockwell trimmings, we abandoned the Concord for some high-end California wines I had brought to pair with our rich repast. My cousins don't keep kosher, but cousin Ben insisted that we say the blessing over a cup of indisputably kosher wine. And no one protested.
Such is the power of spirituality: Even though the wines we enjoyed with lunch were as traif as they come, the deep-seated, visceral force of religion had inspired him to unscrew the cap on a bottle of 11 percent alcohol, mevushal (i.e., cooked so that the wine remains kosher even if handled by non-Jews), "specially sweetened" wine, "containing not less than 51 percent Concord" grapes. (I'm not sure I want to know what the other 49 percent is!)
And, wow, did those familiar flavors and aromas bring back a flood of memories!
I spent countless Southern California Saturday mornings at shul (synagogue) until I turned 13 and became bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments. It was as if my entire prepubescent life passed before me! And I remembered a time before my parents were divorced and our whole world fell apart thanks to my father's bourgeois transgressions -- an era of my life when I naively imagined that Rockwell could have painted a portrait of my family (had he ever depicted Yiddishkeit).
In my view, Manischewitz is the Heinz ketchup of wine -- literally and figuratively.
Literally, because it's processed fruit packed with sugar. ("Kosher for Passover" Manischewitz is made with cane sugar while it's sweetened with corn syrup for other times of the year, when corn is not avoided by Orthodox Jews.)
Figuratively, because, like Heinz ketchup, I know it's not very wholesome or particularly good for me and I like it just the same. And not only does it evoke memories of an age of innocence in my own life but it also conjures memories of a time before the American middle-class embraced wine connoisseurship as an expression of the bourgeoisie -- an age of enologic innocence. Its added residual sweetness is a trace of the wines that our grandparents used to drink, when they drank wine, kosher or not.
In many ways, Manischewitz doesn't even resemble wine as we think of it today: It's made from grapes as well as other types of fruit (berries), it's cooked before bottling, and it's sweetened by the addition of sugar. But it fills a spiritual and -- in my case -- nostalgic hole in our lives as secular Jews.
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The cloying flavors of the Manischewitz were followed by sweet challah (from Three Brothers Bakery on South Braeswood) and apples and honey, expressions of our hope that the new year will be filled with sweetness.
May your new year be filled with sweetness as well and may your names and those of your loved ones be inscribed in the Book of Life...