Mrs. Weiser’s Cheesecake

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01 Jun 2006

Suri wandered through the narrow aisles of the makolet, peering disconsolately at the unfamiliar items. She picked up a package of crackers and examined it carefully. She replaced it on the shelf with a disappointed sigh. The year was 1965 and Suri Schwartz was a new bride who had only recently moved to Eretz Yisroel from her native New York. When Chaim, her chassan, had confessed a powerful desire to learn in kollel in Eretz Yisroel, Suri had swallowed her trepidation and packed her suitcases.

“Don’t worry, Mama, I’ll manage fine,” she assured her mother. “It can’t be so much harder than running a home in Brooklyn.” With minimal cooking skills but a huge assortment of cookbooks she had received as gifts, Suri was determined to succeed.

The young Schwartzs rented a small apartment on Rechov Nechemia in Bnei Brak. Chaim plunged eagerly into his learning, while Suri tried to adjust to the many differences she encountered between life in America and Eretz Yisroel. There were very few English-speaking women in the community, and Suri struggled to find her place. Newly married, she felt too shy to join the young mothers wheeling their babies down the street or to sit with the women relaxing in the park with their youngsters on sunny afternoons.

Lonely and often bored, Suri pounced eagerly on the mail when it arrived from loving friends and family overseas. She spent hours writing lengthy letters, injecting a tone of good humor into her notes. She wrote lightly of the time she had bought kerosene instead of cooking oil, because of her misunderstanding the shopkeeper’s rapid Hebrew, and she kept her family chuckling with amusing accounts of the minor mishaps that occurred with stubborn regularity.

Suri glanced at the bright calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. It was only two days until Shavuot. She drummed her fingers on the freshly wiped table and considered her plan for that morning. She had poured over all her cookbooks the previous evening and had decided to make a luscious looking cheesecake for the coming chag. She had prepared a clear list of all of the ingredients she would need to make the cake. Unfortunately, she was uncertain of the Israeli version of most of the ingredients she would require.

“Probably the shopkeeper can help me,” she reasoned aloud, “if I can’t figure it out myself.” On that promising note, she started for the makolet, folding her shopping list carefully into her bag.

Suri gave up looking for the Israeli equivalent of graham crackers and stationed herself next to the dairy products. She welcomed the brief rush of cool air as she opened the fridge, scrutinizing each plastic container. She needed cottage cheese, sour cream, farmer’s cheese-how was she supposed to decipher the different gevinot! Bewildered and confused, Suri stood motionless for several minutes, staring at her neat list of American ingredients. A light tap on her shoulder caused her to whirl around.

“Do you need some help?” A slight, middle-aged woman with a cheerful smile regarded Suri kindly. Suri grinned sheepishly and offered the woman her list.

“I’m trying to make this cheesecake and I’m searching for the right ingredients.” The woman brushed aside the paper, and nodded her head vigorously.

“Cheesecake? It’s simple.” She rummaged briefly in the fridge and handed Suri two containers of smooth white cheese and a smaller plastic cup. “Here, you mix these together with four eggs and some vanilla.” She gave her uncomplicated instructions while she added the rest of the ingredients to Suri’s shopping basket. “Just bake for one hour till it’s light brown. Delicious, your family will love it,” she declared emphatically. Thanking her profusely, Suri paid for her purchases and headed for home. Assembling all her ingredients, she scrupulously followed the woman’s instructions, heaving a sigh of relief as she slid the cake into the hot oven. When her husband returned later that evening, she gleefully displayed a perfect, golden brown cheesecake.

It wasn’t just that she was helpful, Suri wrote in her weekly letter to her parents. She was so kind and understanding when she realized I was fresh off the boat and inexperienced. I don’t even know her name, can you imagine? She saw this mystified creature in the store (me) and decided to rescue her! I hope I run into her again soon so that I can thank her properly. And the cake was delicious! I plan on making it every week.

Their time in Eretz Yisroel came to an end. Suri and Chaim sold their few pieces of furniture and booked tickets to America. Regretfully they said goodbye to their friends and neighbors, and cherished a secret longing to some day return.

Ten years passed before that day became a reality. With five little ones, the youngest only six months old, the Schwartzs settled in Yerushalayim. This time, Suri adapted smoothly to her new life in Eretz Yisroel. She found things much easier now, to her vast relief. Suri was able to joke about the various contretemps that had troubled her a decade previously.

One spring morning, after shepherding the twins to gan, she joined her neighbor for a cup of coffee. It had become their ritual to get together once a week and chat while the babies played. It provided some much needed adult stimulation in Suri’s mostly child oriented world.

Shoshana casually placed a slice of homemade cheesecake in front of Suri.

“What’s this? I thought we agreed no fuss, just coffee.” Suri asked, eyebrows raised. Shoshana smiled. “I didn’t, don’t worry. My mother-in-law came over yesterday and she brought it as a treat. I had a piece left over and I thought you might enjoy it.”

“In that case, I suppose it’s all right,” giggled Suri, as she tasted a piece. She savored it slowly, her eyes widening in delighted surprise and recognition.

“Shoshana, this is my cheesecake!” She announced, brandishing her fork. “This is the cheesecake I made every week for Shabbos when I first came to Bnei Brak. I lost the recipe somehow when I returned to the States, but there’s no question about it-it’s the same cake.” Her voice quivered with excitement. “Do you realize what this means? You said your mother-in-law baked it. What does she look like? Did she live in Bnei Brak ten years ago? Maybe it was her, the wonderfully gracious woman who rescued me in the makolet erev Shavuous!” Suri laughed as she saw the uncomprehending look on her friend’s face. She regaled her with a brief account of her predicament erev Shavuous ten years ago.

Shoshana listened raptly. “It could have been her, you know. She does live in Bnei Brak, and that sounds like something my mother-in-law would have done. I’m going to check right now.” She glanced at her watch. “She’s usually home at this time.” She dialed the number, her fingers tingling with anticipation. A short, animated conversation, punctuated by a lot of laughter and gasps of surprise ensued. Shoshana eagerly handed the phone to Suri. “What’s her name?” She mouthed frantically, as she tried to compose herself.

“Chanie Weiser. She’s so thrilled to speak to you.”

The years fell away for Suri as she remembered the inexperienced young bride who had wandered the musty aisles of the old makolet in Bnei Brak. She recalled the sense of happiness and acceptance she had felt that day, warmed by the older woman’s comfortable concern and solicitude.

Erev Shavuot there was a knock on Esti Frankel’s door. Suri Schwartz, a woman she knew slightly from the building, was standing at her door, holding a still warm, fragrant smelling cheesecake.

“I haven’t had a chance to welcome you properly to the neighborhood, Esti. Please enjoy the cake for yom tov. And if you need anything else, I’m just upstairs.” With a friendly smile she turned to go. “I’ll be there to give you support and encouragement,” she thought to herself. “Cheesecake wasn’t the only recipe Mrs. Weiser passed on to me that day in Bnei Brak.”

Sheila Segal teaches in a women’s seminary in Israel, where she has been living for the past 23 years. She enjoys writing in her spare time.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.