Baking in Jerusalem Is Its Own Kind of Torah
For the past few years, a couple of times a year, I gather on a pre-arranged Friday morning to bake in my kitchen in Jerusalem with two special friends: Rabbi Hara Person and Noga Tarnopolsky. Hara is the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of the North American rabbinate, and Noga is a well-respected journalist who currently writes about Israel and the Middle East for the Los Angeles Times.
Once we baked a variety of challot (plural of challah). Last year we made babka. And just a few weeks ago, we made hundreds of rugelach with a variety of shapes and fillings: apricot and pecan, walnut and cinnamon, chocolate and caramel. As I mixed one of the fillings in the food processor (raisin, pecan, and cinnamon) and took a taste, my eyes welled with tears.
“That’s it! That’s the taste! That’s the taste of my grandmother’s kitchen! That’s the smell of the Jewish bakeries I grew up with!”
When these humble rugelach, made from simple ingredients, came out of the oven, and I bit into one, still warm and full of gooey raisins, I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen, always filled with the smells of soups simmering, an apple cake baking, and, of course, the rugelach.
Like Proust’s madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past the smell of the rugelach involuntarily takes me to a different time and place. I’m a child standing in the kitchen wearing an apron that hangs below my knees, watching my grandmother mysteriously cooking without measuring and without a recipe.
Unlike my grandmothers, I never wear an apron, and I never bake without a recipe, but, those differences aside, my baking reflects a continual search to recreate my grandmothers’ kitchens – the one in Washington Heights and the one in Brooklyn. I yearn to stand next to my grandmother in the kitchen – feeling the hands that guided my own in a mixing bowl, licking the batter from the whisk and beaters, watching a cake rise in the oven.
As I bake, I want to reconstruct this Torah – this teaching – my grandmothers shared with me. They never knew from Rashi or Maimonides or a page of Talmud. Their Torah was simple and kind and gentle and perfectly seasoned and scented with cinnamon, clove, a touch of ginger, and a pinch of nutmeg.
Noga, Hara, and I do know Rashi and Rambam and Talmud – but on these Friday mornings in my kitchen we’re not seeking the wisdom of the sages. Instead, like my grandmothers, we’re creating our own Torah.
The Torah of friendship, revealed as we help each other roll out the rugelach’s sticky cream cheese dough.
The Torah of honesty, as we appraise one another’s ideas for a filling or a topping.
And the Torah of a new generation, when we deviate just a bit from the expected and infuse the rugelach with our own vision and insight, in this case, a bit of tahini and rosewater that give them the Middle Eastern flavor we’re seeking.
In the musical Waitress, the opening lines are “Sugar, butter, flour…” which theoretically are all you really need to bake. But that’s not totally true.
To bake, you do need sugar, butter, and flour, but you also need a little bit of faith, a lot of hope, and some vision, too. It helps if you’ve been given the insight, wisdom, and Torah of the generations that preceded you. As my hands roll out the dough, my grandmother’s hands guide my own, and I hear her encouragement and critique: “Rosewater? Tahini? Feh! Whoever heard of such a thing?”
Hara, Noga, and I reserve these dates for baking Jewish classics. Where will our next journey into our ancestors’ past take us? Mandel bread? Bagels? Knishes? Noga thinks maybe we should make bialys; I think we should tackle Ebinger’s blackout cake, made famous by a chain of Brooklyn bakeries that existed until the 1970s, or maybe black and white cookies.
In the meantime, I’m sitting in my Jerusalem kitchen; between sips of strong coffee, I’m savoring the last of the cinnamon scented rugelach and treasuring the Torah it’s provided me.
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