One of my earliest memories of Rosh Hashanah is that of my grandfather Ben Zion’s homemade grape juice. He would wake up at the crack of dawn so he could be the first customer at the Carmel Market. He had his first choice from the crates of grapes that had been picked earlier that morning in the vineyards surrounding Tel Aviv. Saba Ben Zion would haul his crate home, and press the grapes by hand. Then he would filter the juice through a cheesecloth. The clarified liquid was poured into a glass bottle. He liked to add a few grape peels for added flavor. Then he would stop up the bottle and chill it overnight.
More after the jump.
Saba Ben Zion brought this tradition with him from Bukhara. Bukhara was an oasis on the Silk Road in Central Asia. Over time it was transformed into one of the most important centers of trade, culture, scholarship, and religion of modern day Uzbekistan. Islam has been the dominant faith in Bukhara for over one thousand years. Alcohol is haram, forbidden, under the Islamic rules of halal. In order to be able to comply with the requirement to recite the blessing over the fruit of the vine, the Jews of Bukhara made their own sacramental wine. They pressed their own grape juice for the children.
Three years ago, I decided to revive this tradition with my own family. I planted a Concord grape vine in my garden. This year I am expecting a large crop. Pressing our own grape juice will be the perfect way to reconnect with nature and participate in the late fall harvest, which was part of the Rosh Hashanah tradition in Ancient Israel.
You can enjoy being outside with your family in the beautiful fall weather when you pick your own grapes. If you or anyone you know has a grapevine, you can help pick the ripe grapes at the end of their season. If you and your friends don’t have grapevines growing in your gardens, take a trip to a vineyard. Peace Valley Winery in Chalfont invites you to pick your own grapes. Several varieties of grapes are cultivated here that you will never find in a supermarket or farmer’s market. If you have never done this, then you are in for a treat! Nothing can compare to the experience of being in a vineyard on a beautiful, crisp fall day. The intoxicating smell of the earth and plants is everywhere. The buzzing of insects is a serenade. The vines are heavy with ripe and juicy grapes, just inviting you to bite into them. It is time for the fall harvest.
Once you have picked your grapes, you are ready to participate in one of the most enjoyable Rosh Hashanah family activities. Juice pressing! Everyone can help rinse the grapes with clean, cold water. Each person can start removing the grapes from the stems and squeezing them with their fingers into a large pot. If pressing your own grape juice becomes a tradition, you may want to invest in a manual grape press to make this easier. Then the juice needs to be filtered through a colander lined with cheesecloth. When there is enough liquid, it can be poured into a clean glass bottle or jar. I picked three pounds of grapes. They produced three cups of juice. You can add a few grape peels to the juice for more flavor. Be sure to wash your hands well when you are through. The grape peels can irritate some people’s skin. Now, you should refrigerate your juice in a sealed glass bottle.
Opening the bottle and drinking home pressed grape juice is a unique experience. I pressed a batch of ripe Concord grapes from my garden today to see what would happen. My juice had a rich magenta color. When I inhaled its aroma, I could smell the fruit and flowers of my vineyard. My first sip of this chilled delicacy carried the special sweet and tart flavor of the grapes. I could taste its unique terroir, the particular place where these grapes were grown.
A rabbi once explained to me that it is not appropriate to say the blessing for the fruit of the vine over a grape. “It needs to have been processed, to have required work,” he explained. “This blessing is only appropriate for wine and grape juice.” This Rosh Hashanah, when it is time to say the blessing over the fruit of the vine, your home pressed juice will mean a lot more to you than the finest purchased wine ever could. It will be the result of your own labor, produced with laughter and joy. To me, a bottle of home pressed grape juice, such as the one that my Saba would make especially for me, is a bottle full of love.
The blessing over the wine:
BA-RUCH A-TAH A-DO-NOI
ELO-HAI-NU ME-LECH HA-O-LAM
BO-RAI PRI HA-GA-FEN.
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the
Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.