Photo Credit: Courtesy
The cake in question.

In an attempt to get a head start on Succos preparations, I asked my younger daughter on Motzei Rosh Hashana if she had any specific food requests for the holiday. Her face lit up and the veneer of adulthood slipped away, revealing the little girl underneath. “Checkerboard cake,” she exclaimed, looking at me hopefully, doing that thing she does with her eyes that makes it impossible to say no to her.

But I did say no to her, because checkerboard cake is annoying – it’s annoying to make and it’s annoying when I have to throw it away because no one actually loves it enough to finish it off. It’s style without substance, the most perfect example of why not to judge a book by its cover or a cake by its delicious-looking frosting. I asked her what her second choice was but she shrugged, her eyes flat with disappointment because clearly there was no viable substitution.


After she drove back to her apartment, I felt bad, and by bad I mean guilty. I had been making this cake for years, definitely ten, possibly fifteen (the accuracy of the timeline is a little murky). It is important at this point to explain the level of commitment that is required for the construction and subsequent baking of this confection. I found the cake kit in a baking catalog – this fact alone speaks to how many years old it must be. The box itself has a decidedly vintage air about it; the background color is the yellow of my parents’ old kitchen while the accompanying photo of an aproned mom and her baseball-hatted son could have been lifted from a 1950s magazine. Included in the kit are three Teflon-coated 9” round tins and a plastic ring with three concentric circle dividers.

On the back of the box are the recipes for the cake batter and the frosting, and a little diagram shows how to alternate the vanilla and chocolate batters using the divider in each of the tins. The recipe itself is easy enough, but things start getting messy when it’s time to take out three cups of vanilla batter and make it brown by adding melted chocolate. The mess only gets worse when you have to strategically plop the correct color batter into the narrow space of the divider with a tiny spoon, and repeat it nine times, three times per tin. Without belaboring the details, it is a very persnickety endeavor.

Once the cake is constructed, it’s a visual showstopper – not quite at baking show level but definitely impressive for a heimish baker like myself. Now here’s the thing: If this cake tasted as good as it looks, it would be worth it. It takes twice as long to make challah and three times as long to make babka, but I make those on special occasions because the results are both delicious and visually spectacular. As I mentioned above, the checkerboard cake is decent but not mouth-watering, a fact that is made all the more disappointing due to its beauty.

But all this is irrelevant because my daughter loves it. It is unclear to me if she loves the taste of it or the look of it, or merely the idea of it. To her, checkerboard cake means Succos. A few years ago I delegated all of the cake-baking to my older daughter, partly for the learning experience but mostly because it freed up my time to do other things. I was thrilled and not so secretly relieved the first time she mastered the checkerboard cake. My younger daughter, the checkerboard cake-lover, bought her sister the cake-making kit as a bridal shower gift with the not-so-subtle expectation that she would come back to us every Succos bringing her husband as well as the cake.

Just when we seemed to be settling into our new roles, life shifted again. The older sister became a mommy, the younger sister became an aunt, and the cake-baking duties reverted back to their mother, who was now a bubby, but no longer a mommy.

Being a mother is not the same as being a mommy. Mommies say no to their children all the time – it’s part of being a parent, that never-ending tussle between giving them too much and giving them too little. But when our children are older, we take on a new role. We are no longer the arbiters of yes and no; we become consultants, advisors, shoulders to laugh and cry on.

And then one day you realize that it is quite possible that your grown children are wiser and kinder and more resilient than you are. That tyrant of a toddler who subsisted on pasta and cheese and air for 20 years is suddenly lecturing you about eating more vegetables and taking a pool class for flexibility.

After Rosh Hashana, after the house reverted back to its quiet, slumbering self, I began to question my automatic “no,” a refusal that had stemmed not from an inherent laziness or meanness, but from my rigid adherence to following a schedule based on a complicated equation involving work hours, free hours, and the amount of cooking to be done. I thought about my second daughter, the cake-loving daughter, a young woman who is generous with her time and would do anything for a family member or friend. She was right to lecture me; I did need to be more flexible, both physically and mentally.

And so two days after Rosh Hashana, I extricated the familiar yellow box from the dark recesses of the baking cabinet and dusted it off. I’d like to say that making it was a labor of love, that I enjoyed every second of it, that it was so meaningful and beautiful to wrestle with a batter that contains so much margarine that it could double as a moisturizer. But I can’t say that, because it wouldn’t be true. What was true however, is that this incident revealed a series of small epiphanies, tiny little stars of truth that sparkled every time I blinked.

One of the most famous series of verses in Tanach are Koheles’s reflections about time. The lesson that we learn from these pesukim is that we are never stuck in one phase of life forever; the clock ticks and the hands of time gently nudge us forward. There’s a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to live, and eventually, a time to die. His examples span the entire breadth of the human experience, running the gamut from the jubilation of welcoming a new life to the mundanity of sewing on a button. Life is a series of small moments, of tiny decisions that multiply over time and ultimately define you.

After I baked the three layers of the cake, I smothered them individually with plastic wrap and put them in the freezer. The game plan is to defrost them right before Succos, make the frosting, and then assemble them. It is impossible to predict whether the cake layers will survive the freezing process, but I honestly think that the taste of it is not even relevant at this point. I’m excited to see my daughter’s face when she comes home Erev Yontif and sees the checkerboard cake on the table.

Why did I tell her no? It was more than just the razor-thin timing, the annoyance, the inconvenience. I didn’t grasp, not fully anyway, how important it was to her, not just on a personal “Ooh, I love this cake so much” level but more as a defining cornerstone of our family mesorah, on the same playing field as chocolate-not-jelly hamentashen and eating shmura matzo all year round. There’s a time for no and a time for yes, and there’s also a time to acknowledge that you really should have said yes.


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Dr. Chani Miller is an optometrist and writer who lives in Highland Park, N.J., with her family. She is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.