Black-eyed peas are a traditional Rosh Hashanah food. Lubiya or rubiya are included in the ancient Talmudic menu (including dates, gourds, beets, pomegranate, and the head of a sheep), that enumerates foods that are eaten for a good omen in the year to come. Unlike the Southern custom of eating black-eyed peas for luck and for “change” (all puns intended), the Jewish version uses the fertile multiplicity of this arid-environment plant to suggest the increasing of merit and mitzvoth in the year to come by punning the name of the food.
For me, an African-American Southerner who happens to also be a practicing Jew, the inclusion of black-eyed peas in the Rosh Hashanah “seder” of some Sephardic Jews was a welcome piece of home. Having converted in a Sephardic synagogue, my first High Holidays were less “apples and honey,” and more richly dressed tables full of mezze-style delicacies made from the Talmudic symbols of blessing, merit, protection, and good deeds. This was BEFORE you even got to the main festival meal of roasted meat; round, sweet, and slightly spiced challot; and date or sugar syrup—rather than honey. The table would finish off with sweet treats that included date and pomegranate syrup, orange water, rose water, and more warm and pungent spices—cakes, Tunisian crepes, and the like.
For my Rosh Hashanah I usually make more than one black-eyed pea dish to bring over to friends for the first night’s holiday meal. I like to tell stories about the black-eyed pea’s West African symbolism. In West Africa it was a symbol of fertility, of G-d’s eye and holy protection, and of beauty and the ancestors. Black-eyed peas weren’t always my favorite food growing up, but now I relish the opportunity to have them, especially as a dip or other condiment and in salads. By bringing both traditions together on the table for the start of the Jewish New Year, I feel blessed, satisfied, and complete.