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Rosh Hashana, Tunisian style

September 17, 2009 |  9:55 am
Hand-imprinted loaf Alain Cohen holds out a gorgeous spiral-shaped loaf of challah, the color of cherry wood. On the top of the bread is a graceful open hand made of dough. Cohen and his baker, Yuri Amsellen, have been experimenting again. From the crowded kitchen of Cohen's Pico Boulevard takeout shop, Got Kosher? Provisions, comes the hypnotic smell of yeast.

In the weeks before the Jewish new year, the store has baked loaves in the shape of Jacob's ladder, and others in a circle with a well in the center, meant to hold honey for dipping. They've added dried fruits, apples and raisins.

For Rosh Hashana, which begins Friday at sunset, challah is essential. The braided oval bread that Jews break and share after lighting candles each Sabbath gets reworked once a year into a spiral to call to mind the cycle of life.

A loaf topped with an open hand, however, is uncommon. But in this, as in other food customs, Tunisian Jews have their own way.

"It's something from Djerba, to mark a period of reflection before Yom Kippur, a time when Jews are asking for and receiving judgment from God," says Cohen, whose mother's family comes from that island, located off the coast of Tunisia, where a small community of Jews traces its heritage back more than 2,500 years.

Cohen, who with a partner made the short documentary film "The Jews of Djerba," today is the chef-owner of Got Kosher? Provisions, in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and is working to spread the word about Tunisian food.

"Kosher food can be great," but in the United States, it too often is not, he says. "It should be something you don't have to apologize about." Read more here:

Photo credit: Christina House / For the Times