Monday, September 26, 2022

Was it a compulsion? An obsession? A brief trip far from reality? It made no difference. He was going to do it, no matter what.

When Hank Lakish got to the synagogue kitchen a short while before the yom tov of Shavuot began, there were 14 identical cheesecakes sitting in the refrigerator, pushing all the half-full soda bottles, vats of herring and tins of potato kugel to the periphery. It was quite a sight. They had been purchased for the tikkun leil Shavuot, the night of continuous Torah learning that began at midnight and went until the early morning minyan at 4:45 in the morning. There would be classes given by the rabbi and by congregants in the main sanctuary. There would be individual study going on all over the social hall. But just as important to many of the attendees—some might even argue more important—there would be nosh. Cookies, rugelach and sponge cake. Soda, orange juice and coffee, lots of coffee. But most of all there would be cheesecake.

Rabbi Goldblatt had once told Hank that one of the miracles associated with Shabbat at Congregation Sons of Israel was that no matter how much food you put out for the congregants, it would always disappear. Fourteen cheesecakes certainly seemed like an inordinately large amount for the modest group that usually assembled for the nocturnal Shavuot learning session, but every year it went, so why mess with success?

Hank took the 14 cheesecakes out of the refrigerator and laid them out on a rectangular table in the Sadie Markowitz Memorial All-Purpose Room (truth be told, the kitchen was the Haimie Malinowitz Food Preparation Area). He grabbed one of the small round tables from the corner, covered it with aluminum foil, and went to work.

What did Mount Sinai actually look like when the Israelites received the Torah? No one is certain where it is in the Sinai Peninsula, though Bedouin tradition designated Gabal Musa, literally Mount Sinai in Arabic. At 7,497 feet high, it is not the highest mountain in the region. Mount Catherine next door is 8,625 feet high, but then Sinai’s fame did not stem from its height. Its holiness towers over all other mountains in the area, perhaps in the world.

The first three cheesecakes Hank placed on the table would serve as the base of the mountain. He took a cake server, fused the cakes together and smoothed the edges. He made a ridge, which would represent the boundary where the Israelites were not allowed to cross while God was on the mountain. He grabbed a few fancy cookies with colored sprinkles to serve as boulders. The cakes had almost no crust and had a nice thick consistency, so it would be easy to mold.

Why was Shavuot associated with dairy? In school Hank had learned that it was because as the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai they realized that they did not know how to slaughter meat correctly, so they opted for dairy because it did not require advanced preparation. That did not appeal to him intellectually.

The next five cakes were used to give Mount Sinai some height. It may not have been the mountain in the desert with the greatest elevation, but Hank was confident it was still imposing, especially with thunder, lightning, smoke and a strong, extended shofar blast echoing through the Israelite camp. Hank found some fresh parsley and relish in the fridge that was probably used to decorate fish platters, and used it for vegetation on some of the mountain ledges he molded. He wanted authenticity in his Mount Sinai.

Some compare the Torah to milk and honey, as in an interpretation of the pasuk from Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, dvash vechalav tachat leshonech, like honey and milk it lies under your tongue. In fact, the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, is 40, like the 40 days Moshe was up on Mount Sinai. All these point to the link between milk and the Torah. Milk is sweet and pure and sustains the body like Torah sustains the soul. Still, this explanation was beautiful but didn’t satisfy Hank.

As he neared the top of his cheesecake version of Mount Sinai, Hank tried hard to create majestic peaks and a few awe-inspiring cliffs. But there is only so much you can do with cheesecake. Marble it is not. He tried some devil’s food frosting (from a cupcake) to give the impression of fire at the summit, but it didn’t really work. A chocolate doughnut hole or two served as boulders, but he could see there was not much more he could do with his creation. The project was nearing its completion. He took the last two cheesecakes that he did not sculpt and returned them to the refrigerator.

Although the other name for Mount Sinai written in the Torah is Har Horeb, an alternative name in the rabbinic literature is Har Gavnunim, the mountain of majestic peaks. The Hebrew word for cheese is gevina. Hank decided that this link between dairy and the Mount Sinai worked best for him. His mountain was definitely sculpted with gavnunim and made of gevina as well. It was an intellectually satisfying interpretation for a man who had just built a 6-foot-high model of a sacred sight out of cheesecake.

Hank stood back and regarded his work. Hopefully, he could take a few shelves out of the synagogue’s giant refrigerator and keep Mount Sinai cold until midnight. He couldn’t wait to unveil his work to the congregation. Some would be amused, others shocked. Hopefully a few would be inspired. He knew he was. But it didn’t really make a difference. For, as he knew Rabbi Goldblatt would point out if he had been there just then, whether his creation was deranged or inspired, as soon as the congregants got out the paper plates and the plastic forks, it wouldn’t really matter. It would all be gone by the morning.

By Larry Stiefel

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.


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