My kitchen was bedlam, resembling a “winter wonderland” scene, with flour on counters, cabinets, floor, and inside drawers. The delicious aroma of cookies filled the air. It was our annual “Roth Purim bake-a-thon,” a family tradition in which the four of us — my three children and I — baked cookies to give to friends and family.
We each had our own cookie assignment and, remarkably, much like dogs tend to resemble their owners, there seemed to be a poetic logic as to who chose which cookie to bake. Danielle, the oldest, tried a different cookie each year, usually a more subtly flavored delicacy — something sweet, but not cloyingly so. (“These are perfect and just the right amount of sweet,” she’d like to say.) That’s my Danielle, interested in trying new things, and just the right amount of sweet.
Nina had fallen in love with nutballs. A recipe retrieved from the Ahavath Torah School for Girls Little Balabustas cookbook — which randomly appeared in our mailbox one day — these were bite-size creations with walnuts and chocolate chips, dipped in confectioners’ sugar. You could easily pop them in your mouth — a whole cookie in one bite. She loved them so much that she often quadrupled the recipe in order to share them with her friends. (“Mom, don’t worry, they will all be gone before Pesach,” she’d say.) Lots of concentrated delight in one bite — that’s Nina.
Jonathan, the youngest, chose to make seven-layer cookies. This was a concoction that had graham cracker crumbs mixed with melted butter as the base, upon which layers of coconut, walnuts, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and condensed milk were added. This cookie was packed full of different and complementary flavors, so rich and delicious that one nibble had you panting for the next. (“Mom, these are the best,” he’d say. “Let’s make another tray so we can share them and also have them for ourselves.”) That was Jonathan, so richly complex, and so easy to love.
(My own assigned cookie, the almond cookie, was simple, and given the mayhem in the kitchen, I confess that “simple” was the operative word — though I hope that it doesn’t describe me!)
When we completed our cookies, we’d move on to the team experience: making hamantashen. I’d make the dough and roll it out; Jonathan would cut out the circles; Nina dropped dollops of filling onto the circles; and Danielle did the pinching into a triangle shape. A considerable amount of emotion went into these cookies: “You’re cutting out too few circles, Jonathan — you have to put them closer together,” or, “You’re putting in too much filling! I can’t close them well,” or, “Mom, do we have to do poppy seed? Nobody likes those but you.”
As each child left home for a gap year in Israel or college, I lost a baker, whose cookie became the responsibility of the remaining crew. Finally, once Jonathan left home, I was sure that the Roth baking tradition had run its course.
Not so, according to the my children. “Mom, you can’t stop!” I was instructed. “How can you break with tradition?” So, I baked. Working alone, there was no flour everywhere and no frenetic kitchen activity. It wasn’t quite fun but it was still joyous; just me, baking neatly and efficiently, and, then packing and shipping a package to each child, along with several for their friends.
Then the phone calls came: “Everyone loved the cookies, Mom. They are so good. I miss baking.” (Danielle and Nina said this; Jonathan confessed that he just loved the cookies, not the baking.)
The first Purim after Jonathan died, having taken his own life almost seven years ago, I thought that our cookie tradition would come to an end, that its inherent joy could not pierce the sadness of his passing. But, that first year, my daughters — who were each living independently — called to say she wanted to come home to bake with me once again. They arrived, and the three of us began to measure and mix. We were efficient and silent, and, in the end, we baked and packed our cookies. As in the past, we saved a few of each kind of cookie to sample. In turn, we bit into Jonathan’s seven-layer cookies, each of us inwardly noting our deep loss.
With Purim almost here this year, it is time to bake again. It is once again a solo act on my part, so, once again, I asked my daughters if this should be the year I finally let go of the tradition. Again, they encourage me to bake and mail out the “Roth mishloach manot packages.”
And so, yet again, our tradition carries on. This year’s packages, like the others, will include all of our traditional selections, including Jonathan’s seven-layer cookies. I have begun to understand the additional depth of meaning to our cookie tradition; it is our commemoration, our way of remembering Jonathan with sweetness. It is our special way to include him, in the absence of his physical presence, as we celebrate the holiday. Jonathan will remain part of our family and our tradition. May his memory be a blessing.