February 21, 2020

Breaking good: recipes for the High Holy Days

By the time break fast comes along, I’m broken.

I’ve spent 25 hours without food or water. Much of that time I’ve been in synagogue. In the morning, I’m sure I’ll never make it, especially because God seems to wait precisely until Yom Kippur to deliver the hottest day of the year to Los Angeles.

There’s a rhythm to the fast. The first challenge is going without coffee. Make it through that affliction, and it just gets easier. Sitting in the midst of Nashuva’s services in Koreatown, there’s the music; there’s my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, on the bimah; family and friends surround me. I can go hours without thinking of food — a record for the year.

The dip comes when services let out for an afternoon break, from 2 to 5. That’s when I usually notice: There are a lot of places to eat in Koreatown. A lot. How much can Koreans eat, anyway?

By Neilah, the closing service, the hourslong Yom Kippur liturgy has forced me to look back over the year — over the decades — and pay special attention to where I’ve fallen short. At the same time, the ecstatic singing, my wife’s sermon — those send my emotions in the opposite direction. I am emptied out and filled up. I am exhausted and invigorated.

And by the time three stars appear in the night sky, and the fast is over — I’m not hungry. Fasting plays tricks on your appetite. You think you can’t live without food, then you realize you can, then you think somehow you have reached a spiritual place beyond hunger, beyond need — and then you almost faint.

But what to eat? That’s always been the trouble with break fasts. After going foodless for so long, I want something good — but simple. I’m also not looking to start cooking, so the food should be prepared before Yom Kippur and ready to eat right when it’s over.

That’s why the go-to break fast meal is light: smoked fish, sweets, vegetables. You want to slowly awaken your senses, not put a blow horn next to their ear.

Here you can go one of two ways. Order a lox platter or make one yourself. My favorite lox these days comes from Wexler’s Deli in downtown L.A. Like everything Micah Wexler prepares there, it’s made in-house, smoked low and slow over applewood, and sliced so thin you can read a machzor through it. Wexler’s (which is not certified kosher) has smoked fish platters that are expensive, but, hey, you’ve just saved a day’s worth of food bills.

Alternatively, smoke your own. My single best food-related purchase of the year has been a Traeger barbecue, which uses pure hardwood pellets. It doesn’t maintain a low enough temperature to make lox, which needs to be cold-smoked at around 70 degrees, but it does hot-smoke cured salmon into something more deeply flavored and substantial. Serve with an Israeli salad with yogurt and za’atar dressing and some late-summer ratatouille, and you will feel the hunger dissolve, the weight of atonement lift, and the promise and joy of a new year to come.


  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 pounds wild or naturally farmed salmon filet (preferably center cut)


Combine brown sugar, salt, paprika and pepper; rub mixture liberally onto both sides of salmon filet. Let rest on wire rack for 1 hour or more so some liquid drains. 

Heat barbecue smoker on lowest setting. Place salmon skin-side down on rack and close lid. Smoke until cooked through, about two hours. If needed, increase temperature to finish cooking. 

Makes 4 to 6 servings.


  • 2 cucumbers, peeled and diced
  • 3 tomatoes, diced
  • 3 radishes, chopped
  • 1 avocado, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 teaspoons za’atar
  • 2 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or to taste


In a large bowl, gently fold together all ingredients. Adjust seasonings to taste. Refrigerate until serving.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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