Birthday Cake

Healing, Shabbat and Holidays

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Last August, my family and I broke our Aunt Ria out of the nursing home to celebrate her 90th birthday. We took her to a nearby park, where we set out a feast of Russian food and regaled her with songs and stories. When it came time to eat the cake, I realized it was still sitting in my freezer.

The rest of that summer, almost up until the day she died, Ria would tease me about forgetting her cake. She died on September 18th, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Six months later, the cake was still in the freezer. I am something of a nostalgia curator, so this isn’t entirely surprising. For me, tchotchkes (trinkets) can capture a memory of a moment or person that is otherwise intangible. I keep rings, porcelain cups, and candlesticks – functional or not. The objects are a portal into another time. But this cake belonged to a different category altogether. It belonged to a moment that didn’t happen.

This freezer-burnt, double-layer Russian cheesecake took control of my better judgment. Intellectually, I understood that the cake wasn’t the same as the ring my Aunt Ria wore. It wasn’t the same as a chipped teacup that she drank from as she watched Russian soap operas.

But my aunt’s jokes gave the uneaten dessert gravity. For her, it was a reminder of a birthday with her family, outside the nursing home. For me, it was a reminder of her humor and resilience, despite facing the end of her life and so much pain. That summer, as her memory was eroding, with a twinkle in her eye, she would say, “So, where’s my cake? I’m still waiting.”

After she died, the cake sat in my freezer and threatened to become a permanent fixture. I wondered how I would bring myself to throw it away. The thought of putting it in the trash made my heart ache. Eventually, I recognized that I needed a ritual.

There had been so many helpful rituals at the time of my aunt’s death and the days immediately after, but disposing of a cake didn’t fit into any I knew of. Given our work at Mayyim Hayyim, I often think creatively about how ritual can infuse meaning into my life and help me transition through different moments with intention. Despite this, I still felt at a loss.

March came, and with it, the ritualized Pesach cleaning I’ve come to love. Removing chametz (food with leavening) is our first step at reliving the Exodus. Instead of risen dough, we eat matzah, which we ate between worlds, as we hurried our way out of Egypt. At every turn, Pesach makes it clear that I am caught between a narrow place (as the Hebrew word for “Egypt,” mitzrayim suggests) and the unknown wilderness.

This year, when it was time to clean out the freezer before Pesach, I finally found my ritual. Instead of seeing the cake as a kind of portal to someone I dearly missed, it was chametz. I didn’t feel that I was letting go of my aunt’s memory anymore. I was involving her life in my attempt at freedom, which I know she would have wanted. Slowly and with a lot of care, I placed the birthday cake in the trash.

Leeza NeglevLeeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.

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