The Purim Mystery Cake

The Purim Mystery Cake

Sherri Mandell

The Purim Mystery Cake

Judaism is a religion for adults—it requires a lot of work and thinking.  Purim though, is different: it's a letting go--we don't have to be so adult. We wear costumes; we have a meal and give out food gifts.  It's a wonderful merging of all those holidays I liked when I lived in America--Thanksgiving (the meal) and Halloween (dressing up and giving out food gifts). And then there is the emphasis on getting drunk. As a college student in the 70's, I have a certain expertise in partying.

In the past my husband and I had thrown some great Purim parties, with dancing, singing, and revelry. But after my son's murder, Purim was not high on the list of our top holidays. All that emphasis on happiness was not easy for our family. Happiness seemed like a quaint concept, something we had outgrown, almost atavistic. My son Koby was murdered by terrorists when he was 13. Murdered son equals no happiness. Except that is not quite true.

I have a wonderful family, beautiful children, a loving husband. 8 years after the murder, I was ready to enjoy Purim: at least to enjoy making mishloach manot, food gifts. I was going to bake chocolate chip muffins, even though I am not much of a baker. I remembered one year when I bought sports water bottles and filled them with chocolates and nuts with Koby and how much fun we had--and it was easy. I am a big believer in ease.

But this year I was going to bake. I have learned to do things that require more effort. In fact, after Koby was murdered I needed the effort. It kept me busy, it kept my mind and hands occupied. So here I was getting ready for Purim, baking, whizzing muffins in and out of the oven.

Now that my kids are grown it wasn't baking with kids which has that extra frisson of stress-- but it also wasn't so much fun. In fact, it started to feel a little depressing.

All of a sudden there was a bang on the door and Talia walked in.

Talia is 5 years old and she is my neighbor Valerie's daughter. She is the youngest of 7 kids and she has a bit of mischief and Barbie in her face at the same time. A cute upturned nose, blonde feathered hair, and a way of standing with her hand on her hips.

She surveyed the kitchen. "Let me help."

Talia's father had died suddenly the previous July. Shimon had a heart attack a week after his son Zevi's bar mitzvah. He was 50. Valerie and Shimon were vacationing at the Carmel Spa with her parents who were visiting from Tennessee. He worked out on the treadmill and then felt tightness in this chest and 30 minutes later he was dead.

Talia put the big bowl on the floor and sat down and stirred. She put the papers in the muffin tin. Then she poured the batter into the muffin pan. It was great having a little girl with me in the kitchen.

The relay race of cooking with one muffin tin was coming to an end. I would have enough muffins for the 40 mishloach manot I was preparing.

Then Talia said, " I want to bake a cake." I wasn't so keen on it actually. I was picturing a hot bath and a cup of tea. But fine I said.

I looked up a recipe that looked easy. It was called mystery cake. Not a great name for a cake. What was the mystery after all?

But the cake had a lot of chocolate in it (who doesn't like chocolate?) and beside I had all of the ingredients at hand. Talia and I began to mix all of the ingredients but instead of sugar I realized at the last minute that we had put in a cup of salt. We laughed and threw out the mix and began again. I noticed that the recipe didn't call for eggs, and even with my limited baking experience—I realized that something seemed tenuous about this recipe.

We poured the batter into the pan and put it in the oven. The batter tasted fine straight from the bowl. So far, so good. I kept checking the cake-- at half an hour and at forty minutes but the cake was not setting. It wasn't solid, it was goop. Finally after an hour and half we took it out. It was burned black on the sides but the sunken center was a gooey mess. "Let me taste it," said Talia. "Great," she said. "Yummy."

But the cake was not attractive, not tasty and in fact had no redeeming qualities. "Maybe we should toss it," I said, but Talia said—"No, it's my cake and I want to take it home."

The cake was still warm. I only had dishrags that were filthy from all of the baking I had done. So she took the cake home clutching it with two chocolate stained dishrags that were old and torn to start with.

About ten minutes later Valerie called me. "You know I have been lying in bed crying all day. I miss Shimon so much. And coming up to Purim without him, I didn't want to get out of bed. Talia just brought me that cake the two of you made, her cake, and she said Mommy it's really good and I couldn't stop laughing. I am still laughing.  That cake is a mess, burned and really ugly. It's totally inedible. And those dish towels…"

I laughed too.

"You really made me feel better. I can't stop laughing from that cake."

Sometimes laughter comes from the most unexpected places. If I had just judged our creation with my eyes I would have rejected it. But Talia said no, she saw some good, some beauty in what we had created. It was hers after all.

Sometimes it's just so clear-- we can't judge with our own eyes and senses—the concoction of the world is like a mystery cake. Sometimes it seems so imperfect, untasty, filled with suffering and pain.

And then there is a surprise.

The Purim story if one of unexpected revelation and redemption—the Jews were supposed to be killed and instead it was our enemy who was destroyed, a reversal of bitter into sweet.

And Esther engineered it all by inviting the king and Mordechai to a feast.

Sometimes the most misshapen cake, the one we reject, is the one that deserves a pedestal. 

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