June 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The author, his sister Alyssa and their grandma Carrie.

My son Eric refers to Shavuot as “The Cheesecake Holiday.” But how did we get from two days at Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments to scrambling to create six meals in two days, all dairy?

Here is why the Mishnah Berurah says we eat dairy: When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai they now had to follow the rules of kashrut and it would take them two days to prepare meat, but only hours to make dairy.

(Clearly, they have never seen me with 18 minutes to the start of Shabbat.)

The Shulchan Aruch says that on Shavuot, one should have a dairy meal and a meat meal to remember the Shavuot offerings in the Beit HaMikdash.

We know that Avraham served dairy to the angels who visited him after his brit milah. But Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch mentioned in his sefer, Moadim Uzmanim, that this first Shavuot Yom Tov may have been the first time that the Israelites ate dairy, out of fear of mixing meat and dairy while living in Egypt.

So, we have our tradition of eating dairy on this Yom Tov. But why cheesecake?

Before we can answer that, we first have to decide, “What is a cheesecake?”

The ancient Greeks created cheesecake back when there was a Temple in Jerusalem…

(No, Alexander the Great did not bring cheesecake to the Holy Land.)

…but this was lighter and fluffier than the dense slab of dairy we are accustomed to eating. In America, cheesecake is made with cream cheese. The first mention of cheesecake being made with cream cheese goes back to 1909 in The Boston Cooking-School Magazine, but cream cheese is as American as the American Revolution. One of the first mentions of cream cheese in America was in Martha Washington’s personal cookbook, Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. The book was a wedding gift from her first husband, Daniel Custis.

(Yes, she was a widow when she married George Washington. Additionally, her grandniece Mary Anne Custis married Civil War general, Robert E. Lee)

So, how did cheesecake become a Shavuot dessert? It may just be a New York “thing.”

Arnold Reuben, who invented the “Reuben Sandwich,” perfected a local friend’s cheesecake recipe and then sold the recipe to Lindy’s Deli. The deli was located at 1626 Broadway, between 49th and 50th Streets. The deli wasn’t just on Broadway … it fed people who went to shows on Broadway, which is how the deli and the cheesecake wound up in the show Guys and Dolls. But the real reason for the Shavuot association with cheesecake may be linked to the post-WWII expansion of the U.S. economy. Charles W. Lubin founded a company in Chicago in 1949 and named it after his then-8 year old daughter, Sara Lee. The first thing his company mass produced were “New York-style” cheesecakes that he marketed to supermarkets. By the 1950s you could mass produce your (insert city name here)-style delicacy and sell it in supermarkets across the U.S.. My father, who was born in Brooklyn in 1932, remembers eating dairy on Shavuot as a child … but that was my grandmother’s cheese blintzes. My dad was quick to point out that he very much enjoys cheesecake, he just doesn’t remember eating them in his youth.

I called Rabbi Allen Schwartz at my old shul, Ohab Zedek on New York’s West Side, and he told me a story about growing up in the Bronx after WWII. The first time he encountered cheesecake was at Fred Schuster’s Bakery on 238th street. Fred Schuster was a Kindertransport survivor who learned to bake in Europe. In 1960 he opened a bakeshop exclusively dedicated to cheesecake due to its popularity.

Cheesecake, like white linen suits, didn’t take hold in the Jewish community until many Jews moved out to the suburbs after WWII. It may have been partially due to its availability that made it the favorite of all Shavuot desserts.

But a favorite it became and remains to this day.

Chag Shavuot sameach! Enjoy your cheesecake!


David Roher is a USAT certified triathlon and marathon coach. He is a multi-Ironman finisher and veteran special education teacher. He is on Instagram @David Roher140.6.

He can be reached at [email protected].

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