Naomi Rotter was working with a deadline literally looming in the horizon. By sunset on this Friday, she had to finish cooking for at least the next three meals served in the kitchen of her Parsippany townhome. She also had to finish shopping for any items that she might need in the next more than 24 hours and make any necessary phone calls before darkness descended on the area. Her daughter and her family were also coming over for the evening meal, thus ending any hope that she may have entertained of putting her feet up at the end of the day.
However, if Rotter was feeling unduly stressed by any of this, she did not let it affect her calm, smiling demeanor. A trim 63-year old with short, salt and pepper hair, Rotter wore the look of someone who had the situation well under control. This, after all, was a routine that she was, for the most part, accustomed to. Behind her, a few tin cans were stacked on a kitchen countertop to which labels of “meat” and “dairy” were affixed. In a crockpot, in another corner, a traditional stew called cholent, made with beans and barley, was simmering.
Rotter and her husband George were preparing for their weekly Sabbath or “Shabbat”, as it is called in Hebrew. A 24-hour period that lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, it is a Jewish day of rest and ritual observance.
As Orthodox Jews, the Rotters adhere to most of the rules associated with Shabbat. They don’t work during this time and since the Torah, the Jewish Holy Book, prohibits the kindling of a flame during Shabbat, most of the cooking is done in advance, Rotter said. They also avoid using the phone or turning lights on and off during this period. “I have everything on timers”, she said with a smile. Those, like the Rotters, who are strictly observant, also stay away from driving during Shabbat, a not unwelcome practice given the current energy situation.
The Rotters graduated to Orthodox Judaism late in life, picking it up from two of their children who had adopted it. Rotter herself was brought up in the Reform tradition, the most liberal of the Jewish religious denominations while her husband was raised in a moderately Orthodox home. On the spectrum of Jewish religious observance, the Orthodox and Reform movements are at the two ends while others like the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements lie somewhere in between.
While their two daughters practiced Orthodox Judaism, their son viewed himself as a Conservative, Rotter said, an indicator of the family’s live-and-let-live policy when it comes to issues of religion.
The Rotters met many years ago as students at New York University. After their marriage, they lived for thirty years in Montclair where George Rotter taught Psychology at Montclair State University. While in Montclair, the Rotters attended a Conservative synagogue.
Six years ago, however, the couple decided to make the move to Parsippany where one of Morris County’s few Orthodox Jewish congregations resides and they haven’t regretted the decision. “The members [of the synagogue] are like family”, Rotter said.
Now Rotter was also gearing up for the “High Holidays”, a ten-day festival period beginning with Rosh ha-Shanah and ending with Yom Kippur. Rosh ha-Shanah is viewed as the beginning of the New Year, Rotter said, while the period through Yom Kippur is a time for “repentance and healing [and an opportunity] to repair your relationships that have gone bad”.
A decree for a good year is sealed during this time, Rotter said, but it is not delivered until Shemini Atzeret, a holiday that falls in the end of October. “That really is the deadline”, she said with a smile. ‘It’s sort of like income taxes.
In between Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret falls Sukkot, a harvest festival that celebrates the pilgrimage of the ancient Israelites from Egypt. Decorated temporary shelters are set up outside the home and families eat their meals under these, Rotter said, adding that it was a holiday with many visually attractive elements.
Rotter cherishes the rituals linked with the weekly Sabbath as well as the Holidays. It was customary, she said, to say a “Kiddush” or a prayer over wine at the beginning of a meal. That beverage was often poured into a kiddush cup, a silver cup nestled in an intricately carved holder.
Some traditional items on the table during the Jewish holidays include apples and honey, squash, cabbage and leeks, beets, dates, challah (the traditional sweet bread) dipped in honey, honey cakes, and tzimmes, a type of casserole made from meat, sweet potatoes, prunes and apricots.
Of course, food preparation is not always as easy as chopping a few ingredients and plopping them in a pot. Kosher regulations dictate every aspect of it, mandating the separation of meat and dairy, a rule that explains the labeled centers in Rotter’s kitchen. She prepares fish and vegetables, items that are termed “pareve” over the sink. “I have three sets of pans”, Rotter said and she added, pointing, “two dishwashers”.
Kosher rules also allow only the consumption of animals that are slaughtered in accordance with rituals specified in the Torah.
“In some respects, life is more complicated”, Rotter admitted but she added that the whole point of the rituals was to remind people to “step back and be grateful for all that they have”.
“Religion, if working properly, de-centers you”, Rotter said. “It makes you realize that there are other forces, or a force out there”.
Rotter replied unhesitatingly in the affirmative when asked if Judaism accords women equal status in society. “Women have separate roles”, she said carefully. “There are things we don’t do but [there are many] important things that we do”.
Noting that much of the script of Judaism takes place in the house, she said that women just have less public roles than men do.
Explaining the restrictions of her faith to those outside the congregation is not always an easy task. “Most people are understanding and respectful”, Rotter but they sometimes find it hard to comprehend why she goes to such lengths to follow her faith’s dictates.
Rotter’s job, however, gives her the flexibility that she needs in her circumstances. As a full-time professor of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior in the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Distance Learning Program, Rotter only rarely has to make classroom appearances. All her lectures are on tape and online conferencing and discussions are set up on days that are mutually convenient to her and her students.
Still, between the job and the extensive advance preparation that is required for the holidays this month, Rotter has a lot more than challah on her plate. “I do everything on spreadsheets”, she said with a laugh “but it always gets hectic in the end”.