I don’t like to read the instructions. Which is how I went to the Yiddish theater and ended up seeing a Hebrew play. It’s also how I set out to test a luscious double chocolate kosher l’pesakh birthday cake recipe and ended up with an eight egg, double chocolate brick drier than a crate full of last year’s matze.
First things first. And cake always comes first.
Being born in late April I’ve spent a good part of my life terrified that my birthday would fall during Pesakh and I’d be deprived of cake. And it happens every few years. Two years ago the first Seder fell on my birthday. I was expecting a special guest straight from Jerusalem and once he arrived, the double chocolate birthday cake I had my heart set on suddenly seemed entirely superfluous. (Eliyohu drinks your wine, my guest brought Belgian chocolate.)
This year, though. I’m once again hosting a very small Yiddishist Seder and I wanted something special. I wanted the Haaretz double chocolate birthday cake I didn’t get two years ago. But because I can’t read a recipe, and tried to beat the eggs, sugar, and coconut flour together, I ended up with the atrocity noted above. In her cake recipe, Vered Guttman scoffs at people like me, writing, “The craze for cake recipes before Passover is almost comical. Can we really not stand a single week without cakes?” And the truth is, I’ve been eating low-carb for a long time and, borekh hashem, I’m no longer terrified of going without cake for a whole week.
So why make myself nuts with Pesakh cake, of all things? As crazy as all the cleaning, shopping and prepping can make you (if you let it), each action is a re-enaction. If the Seder is a chance to put ourselves in the place of the Hebrew slaves, Seder preparation is a chance (if not a compulsion) to revisit the ways we were taught to be Jews (or not).
Eleven years after my mom’s death I still don’t have her Pesakh dishes. If I even knew exactly where they were I couldn’t fit them in my tiny New York City apartment anyway. But I do have her ancient electric hand mixer. And I do have the memory of her baking honey cake, carefully cracking each egg and examining it before adding to the mix.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that my mom had a Yiddish name for it—she was looking for der blutstropen, the drop of blood in a fertilized egg which would render it unkosher. To be honest, there’s something deeply witchy about egg-gazing that I can’t help but love, kosher imperatives aside.
Did my mom ever tell me why we had to discard spotted eggs? No. Did she even care about kashrus? Not particularly. And yet. Making a cake wasn’t making a cake unless her eggs passed inspection. Inspecting yolks, beating batter, baking cake, these are the intimate gestures of my pre-yontev meditation, as essential to my Jewish practice as explaining the matze, maror, and Pesakh sacrifice to my far more knowledgeable Seder guests….
And how did I end up at the Hebrew theater? This season the New Yiddish Rep is living up to its name and putting on two shows in repertory, The Labor of Life (Melukhat ha-khaim) and The Whore from Ohio (ha-Zona m-Ohio), both by Hanoch Levin. It’s more like four plays because NYR is doing something quite ambitious and running both shows in (the original) Hebrew and Yiddish translation (by company player Eli Rosen) simultaneously. This weekend I found myself in Midtown, having dropped my niece at the Gazillion Bubble Show. The genius of being an aunt is that I get all the goodies (seeing my delicious niece) without the not-so-goodies (sitting through The Gazillion Bubble Show). After we said goodbye, on a whim I got on my phone and clicked over to the NYR Facebook page. I could make the 3 p.m. matinee with no problem. Excellent! If I had clicked a little further I would’ve seen that the early show was in Hebrew. Why read the fine print when it’s more fun to just go?
Readers, it was interesting to have the shoe on the other foot, having to rely entirely on the English supertitles while the mostly Hebrew-speaking audience yukked it up without me. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the show. Yosi Sokolsky and Ronit Asheri-Sandler are great as a middle-aged couple drowning in marital exasperation. And Eli Rosen gives a terrific midplay comic turn as the pathetically wonderful Gunkel. But the story? Ninety minutes of a man berating his wife for disappointing him? I’m not sure what relevance The Labor of Life has for audiences in 2018, whether in Hebrew or Yiddish.
The funny thing is, yesterday I was scrubbing my tub and listening to a Learn Hebrew podcast (are you noticing a trend here?) and wondering about Hanoch Levin when the host of the podcast introduced a song by the beloved poet of Israeli life … Hanoch Levin. OK, universe, I get it. I’m still intrigued by Levin, a prolific writer of political satire and absurdities. And hope to catch The Whore of Ohio before it closes.
Unlike Moshe Rabeynu, who could not cross over to the promised land with his people, I’ve embraced having my golus cake and eating it, too. As I finish writing this, my iCal push notification tells me, with no fear of on-the-nosekayt, that today is Yom Ha-Aliyah. Well then! Next year in Jerusalem, next month in Tel Aviv! Hot a zisn un a koshern aykh ale!
Listen: I’m often asked for recommendations for Yiddish music around the holidays. With the advent of streaming music services, Jewish music is slowly (very slowly) coming into the 21st century in terms of availability. The Klezmatics’ Lorin Sklamberg is curating a Pesakh Spotify list this year and it is 🔥. The Klezmatics (live, not streaming) are in California right now with Joshua Nelson doing their Brother Moses Smote the Water album, an electrifying gospel-klez crossover which those in the area absolutely should not miss.
Eat: OK, forget the double chocolate cake with coconut flour. I’ve been doing low-carb eating long enough to know that coconut flour is your greatest frenemy. Lorin promises me that this is the only Pesakh cake recipe you will ever need, no flour necessary.
Watch: The Whore of Ohio and The Labor of Life are both playing through March 29, so go while you can.
ALSO: Dapper sax man Paul Shapiro is hosting a trio at Russ and Daughters, part of a series curated by John Zorn, Thursday, March 29, 8 p.m. … If you’re in the hood there’s a small but intriguing exhibit featuring the Yiddish collections at the Columbia University Library, Chang Octagon Gallery. … And finally, if you’re not visiting the Yiddish Song of the Week blog regularly you’re missing out on some incredible gems. Here’s a Yiddish khad gadyo straight from Winnipeg:
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.