It’s a beat-up, musty old book whose pages are spotted with cooking splashes. Jewish Cookery is the title, printed square in the middle of the front cover in angular letters resembling old-fashioned Yiddish print. Inside the front cover my father scrawled his signature and the date: Caracas, 1954. There is no ISBN number, but an interior page informs me that this was the sixth printing, 1952, and displays the name of the author: Leah W. Leonard. It is a classic Jewish cookbook.
The recipes inside are called “retro cuisine” today: fish rollups, macaroni casserole, herring salad in cucumber boats. Lots of meat recipes, lots of cakes and desserts. Leafing through the book, I see that the pages most stained indicate old favorites. There they are: rich, solid lokshen kugel, crisp matza brie, blintzes rolled over a sweet cheese filling. I sigh and smile, remembering the Shabbat and Yom Tov meals of my childhood.
I’m searching for one particular recipe: Lekach, honey cake. That was one of my Dad’s specialties. He would bake it for Rosh HaShanah, and it always came up honey-golden, honey-fragrant, light, and good. “I know the recipe by heart,” he would say. “The secret is to throw in a shot-glass full of slivovitz.”
When we were growing up, there was usually a squat round bottle of slivovitz in the house – potent plum brandy. It has a heady, fruity aroma, tempting to the nose but chokingly strong and stinging in the throat. Dad loved it. Driving past a plum orchard in full pink blossom, he would say in a pleased tone, “Ah, slivovitz trees!” which made us hoot.
Over the years, his hands gnarled with arthritis and his face, so quick to light up with intelligence and humor, seemed all beaky nose. We kept the empty slivovitz bottles for their odd beauty, but stopped replacing them with new. With age and illness, Dad had lost his taste for the fiery drink.
Yes, but look, now. The book opens easily here, to the pages most stained of all: honey cake recipes. Which was Dad’s? This must be the one: “Lekach (Traditional Honey Cake).” A line of ancient flour fills the crack between the pages. I don’t dream of dusting it away. This is flour spilled by Dad, when he assembled the eggs, sugar, honey, spices, and that one shotglass full of slivovitz instead of the brandy called for in the recipe .
What was in my father’s heart as he shooed Mom out of the kitchen and set to work? Was he anticipating our pleasure as he bore the beautiful, moist Lekach, cut into diamond shapes, in triumph to the table? Was he remembering past Rosh HaShanahs, when the cookbook was new and the family was young? Or was he simply focusing on getting the measurements of his famous cake right? I will never know, for Dad died of heart failure a week before Rosh HaShanah years ago. We had just celebrated his 80th birthday.
My own heart feels empty as one of Dad’s empty bottles, tonight. On the table where the Shabbat candlesticks stand, the yortzheit flame flickers over a 24-hour candle. How fine the thread of Judaism was when Dad was born; how lucky that he came to know it and wove his life from it. My Jewish grandmother rejected her heritage when she married Grandpa. As a young man, Dad chose to rejoin the Jewish people. It was hard; my grandparents never understood or accepted his decision.
I whisper a prayer, asking G-d to raise my father’s soul even higher in the world of truth. I set aside some money for charity in his name. After all the years of living and working for us, this is what we can do for him. It seems little.
But here is the cookbook in my hand. Tucked between its yellow pages are recipe notes in three languages: English and Spanish jottings in my mother’s hand and a Portuguese recipe for a Brazilian sweet, cut off a package of sugar. Jewish Cookery traveled with us on our roundabout circuit of Latin America, the USA, and back to Latin America. It finally came to rest, as did my Dad, in Israel. No one has cooked out of it since he died.
This year, though, I want to bake his Lekach. I will flavor it with a wine I made several years ago of dried fruit – it has the aroma of slivovitz, if not the potency. The honey cake will revive happy feelings, make us tell old jokes again, round out our holiday with the warmth of shared memories. And maybe – maybe – if I make it every year, my children and grandchildren will remember the taste of Lekach when they themselves have grown old, and will remember me.
Donn Michael O’Meara July 30, 1924 – September 8, 2004