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JewishJournal.com

May 24, 2007

Find your inner cheesecake

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/find_your_inner_cheesecake_20070525

Next time I'll be more careful before I make fun of cheesecakes. You might recall that last week, I waxed plaintively at how the custom of serving dairy has come to dominate people's view of Shavuot -- and how the holiday could certainly use some better marketing to make it more relevant to mainstream Judaism. I made a wisecrack that a holy day deserves more than cheesecakes and cheese blintzes, and I even asked readers to send me their ideas.

I was expecting my observant friends to take me to task and educate me on how Shavuot is a lot more than a mucus-generating dairy festival -- that there is a treasure trove of meaning in the Book of Ruth, for example, that I failed to allude to.

What I did not expect was to get a phone call from one of the city's illustrious Orthodox rabbis defending the magical, mystical, community-building power of ... the cheesecake.

Yes, the cheesecake. There I was chilling with the kids last Saturday night when my cellphone rang. It was Rabbi Elazar Muskin, the fearless leader of Young Israel of Century City, and he had dairy and white flour on his mind.

Actually, he had it on his hands, too, as well as sugar and eggs and whatever else gourmet bakers put into their cheesecakes. You see, the rabbi was spending his Saturday night making cheesecakes. On this night, his profit margin would be the envy of Microsoft. He'd spend less than $20 on ingredients -- and make a profit of about $8,000 selling his treats to people who would fork out over $1,000 for each cake (I didn't ask the rabbi what he was putting in those cheesecakes).

The rabbi wasn't calling to pitch me on a Muskin's Cheesy Cheesecakes franchise, but to enlighten me on the transformative power of food in community and religious life. Like a good father, he gave all the credit to his children, in this case his 17-year-old daughter, Dina, who, several years ago and with the help of her older sister, started a Bake for Israel charity around the time of Shavuot.

And like all successful ideas, it took on a life of its own.

She sold her first cheesecake five years ago and ended up raising $1,200 for a little rehabilitation center in Israel. This year, she's raising more than $25,000 selling all kinds of donated baked goods, with proceeds going to Amcha, a support group for Holocaust survivors living in Israel. And who's donating all this baking time and buying up all these simple carbs? Many are members of Young Israel, of course, but according to Rabbi Muskin, his daughter's baking bonanza has now spread all over the hood, with people from other shuls and communities chipping in.

In short, all those Shavuot cheesecakes I made fun of last week have helped unite the community around this holiday, and this year it will help bring some light to Holocaust survivors in Israel.

And there I was worrying about marketing hooks.

The elusive hook was staring me in the face, and I couldn't see it. A simple cheesecake. You bake it. You donate it. You sell it. You help the Jews. How could there be stronger marketing than that?

The Book of Ruth that we read and study on Shavuot is all about kindness. The eating of dairy is connected to the primordial and motherly sustenance of the Torah, and to the attribute of humility (unlike wine, milk doesn't need a fancy glass). The Torah that we received on Shavuot came to unite us, like a parent wants to unite his children.

Kindness, nourishment, humility and unity, all wrapped up in a 12-year-old girl's idea to sell a few cheesecakes. No wonder the illustrious rabbi got Talmudic with me on the ins and outs of making a bake sale work -- it didn't sound too spiritual, but he saw something I didn't: When you can get a community to rally behind a common activity and a worthy cause, that's spiritual enough.

So Dina Muskin's Shavuot Bake Sale is my surprise winner for a cool marketing idea for Shavuot, and I can see it catching on. If we can get so many Jews to light candles on Chanukah and eat matzah on Passover, I can see them baking a cheesecake on Shavuot, or, if they live in Los Angeles, executive producing one.

For the lactose intolerant, my winning entry is from Nancy Schwartz in Granada Hills, who proposed a cross between "Shabbat Across America" and the "Tellabration" events sponsored by the National Storytelling Network. Nancy would love to see a national Jewish story swap event on the Sunday evening before Shavuot, where Jews of all stripes and denominations would gather in shuls and homes across the country and share their favorite Jewish stories.

My runner-up is Jo Pitesky, who wrote: "Shavuot has to be the holiday that has the lowest shul attendance (for the non-Orthodox, at any rate). And as wonderful as the story is, and as wonderful as my blintzes are, it is not exactly a kid-friendly holiday. What to do for my kids?

"About 6 or 7 years ago, I read about a Shavuot custom from North Africa. The Jews in these areas equate Torah with water -- both are life-giving. When they return home from shul on the afternoon of Shavuot, they change their clothing... and then go outside for a rousing water fight! That's how 'Cheesecakeorama' was born: a pool party after shul, accompanied by a huge buffet of cheesecakes. This year, we've even added a twist of helping a water-based charity called, 'Ryan's Well.'"

If you ask me, I think Dina, Nancy and Jo should pool their efforts. Just think how much better the Jewish stories will sound if the kids are having their fun while you're about to sink your teeth into one of Rabbi Muskin's $1,000 cheesecakes.




David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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