No matter my age, as children return to school each September, it still feels like the beginning of a new year for me too. Even though I am not Jewish, as I prepare to celebrate my first Rosh Hashanah with friends later this month, it seems appropriate and familiar to contemplate the past year and prepare for the new.
My friend and writer Amy Barry belongs to Pnai ShORe, a Jewish renewal group that meets twice a month on the Connecticut shoreline. The Jewish Renewal movement embraces both mystical and meditative practices and food is central to Pnai ShORe’s customs- at the end of each service, there is a prayer over wine and challah, and then a potluck “Oneg Shabbat.” Amy tells me that her religious rituals are inseparable from the food that is consumed at them. The food binds her to the community, and to the traditions of her grandmother.
Four years ago on Rosh Hashanah, Rayzl Feuer, who leads Pnai ShORe, introduced an extraordinary eating meditation developed by Jay Michaelson, author of the book God in Your Body. Michaelson’s eight step contemplative eating exercise derives from Buddhism, and outlines a slow, thoughtful mindful consumption. It integrates not only the five senses, but an acute thoughtfulness. Feuer puts out array of food with varying textures, tastes and appearances: bread, honey cake, nuts, ginger, hot peppers, olives. Each participant chooses a plate of food, and sits alone to taste and contemplate each item- a full experiential spectrum from its origin through its consumption. Like the Pranayama breathing of yoga, it is a meditative act in which you give in fully and solely to this seemingly ordinary activity of living. I was profoundly struck by a Michel Foucault quotation Michaelson recalls in his meditation instructions: “What we need to do, it seems to me, is not liberate our desires but become exquisitely sensitive to pleasure.” Michaelson continues… “Meditation is just that: the process of becoming exquisitely sensitive. Then you can proceed to bless God.”
As I strive to be more and more “exquisitely sensitive,” beginning with the sense of sight, in the spirit of Pnai ShORe‘s Rosh Hashanah eating meditation, I have begun to contemplate the complex factors that contribute to taste.
Let me describe to you some highlights from my meditation with a seemingly ordinary food: a raisin.
I took pleasure in the feeling of my fingers on the fruit, savoring the complexity of its intricate folds and the way its skin became more supple the longer my fingers touched it. I massaged the raisin between my thumb and forefinger. I let it sit in the center of my palm and gently lowered my other palm to touch it, rolling it slowly and with more pressure. The raisin grew warmer and more plump.
I placed the raisin in my mouth and let it sit, without chewing. I used my tongue to explore every fold, every morsel of its flesh, all the while moving it gingerly but firmly so that it could touch every part of my mouth. Once I allowed myself to use my teeth and slowly chew, the flavor revealed itself slowly but urgently, its taste strongest by the sixth bite. I savored the feel of the shredded fruit, noticing it in the crevices between my tongue and teeth. I finally swallowed it, using my tongue to coax the morsels of raisin from my teeth, while the taste lingered in my mouth- a savored memory of my contact with this extraordinary food.
New Year, new goal: slow down and effort to be one with the food that I eat. Eating with a passion is more pleasurable when you really taste.