Rosh HaShanah



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The Baker's Dozen

by Miriam Newell Biskin

It was 1655 and the good ship NIEW NEDERLANDT deposited a group of immigrants in New Amsterdam, the settlement that would later become New York City. Among their number were a few Jewish families who had been refused refuge in many places in Europe, but now, after terrible trials and tribulations, were welcomed by the Dutch to this new home. As the High Holy Days approached, they thanked G-d for their new-found freedom and safety.

One of the most content was Beryl Levy, the baker, who was fast becoming prosperous in this new land. He became famous his rye breads and his raisin rolls, and people came from far and near for his streudel. This year, for Rosh Hashanah, he prepared special delicacies, and his counters were piled high with holiday offerings that filled the neighborhood with the sweet delicious smells of cinnamon and orange peel. People came and went with their purchases, while outside the children pressed their noses against the window, completely ignored by Beryl.

"My mama says his strudel is the best," said one urchin.

"I like his sugar cookies," said another, as the two sniffed the tantalizing aromas coming from the shop.

"But don't forget your penny," added a gentleman passing by, "Master Beryl gives away nothing. He even begrudges you the aromas that escape under his door."

It was true that prosperity had changed Beryl. When he first arrived, he had smiles for all the ladies and cookies for the children. But as time went by, he became all business, watching every detail, looking for more ways to increase his income. Even his wife noticed that when he was baking challah, the piece he took to throw into the fire had become smaller and smaller. But on this particular day, Beryl was so engrossed in the preparation for the upcoming holiday, that he scarcely noticed the tinkling of the shop bell or the entrance of a crippled old woman.

"Baker," she said, rapping her cane to get his attention. "I will have a dozen of those." She pointed to the little cookies shaped like shofars.

"Very good," said Beryl, counting the cookies.

"Nine--ten--eleven--twelve---a dozen." He was about to close the bag.

"And one more," said the old woman. "Twelve plus one makes a good baker's dozen."

"Not in my shop," said Beryl.

"Please," said the woman. "I'll thank you for one more."

"I'll thank you to get out," said Beryl, "you're wasting my time."

The old lady hobbled out leaving him to sputter over the audacity of some customers.

"It wouldn't hurt to give her one more," said his wife. "It will soon be the holiday."

" I give free cookies to every beggar who asks, I will soon be a beggar myself."

The next day Beryl's disposition grew worse. as everything went wrong : his new oven refused to bake properly---and every cake was either raw or scorched. Each sugary shofar was more crooked than any ram's horn had ever been: every molasses cookies was burned and the tayglech were flat instead of mounded.

"This cake is stale," said one housewife as she returned her purchase,

"This gingerbread is bitter," said a small boy who demanded his penny back.

To make matters worse, the old woman reappeared.

"I'll have a dozen of these," she said, pointing at the mandel brot.

Beryl reached into the tray and counted, "Nine---ten---eleven---twelve--."

"And one more," said the old woman.

"Twelve is all you get," he shouted.

"Twelve and one more," she insisted.

Beryl began to stamp his feet and tear his hair, but to no avail, she was gone. But the echo of her voice remained long after she had slammed the door behind her.

"She is a witch," he shouted.

"What did you say, Beryl ?" asked his wife.

"I said that woman is a witch," he repeated.

"The bread is black as pitch," she answered. "I's burned again."

"Can't you hear?' screamed Beryl. "I didn't say anything about bread."

"Fed?" echoed his wife." "Yes, the cat was fed."

"Not fed," shouted Beryl. "I said bread."

"Good idea," said his wife. "I am tired enough to go to bed."

Beryl shook his head in dismay. Just a few short days until Rosh Hashanah and his best helper was deaf. But, perhaps he could keep the boys home from cheder, and they could help. The next morning, however, when he went to awaken his sons, he was greeted by tears and two faces blotched with fever.

"What else can happen?" he moaned as he busied himself around the shop. Before an hour had passed, he found ants in the raisins and salt in the flour bin.

"This is too much," he cried as the shop bell tinkled, and the old woman reentered.

"There," she said, pointing a bony finger at the little sweet rolls. "I'll have a dozen of those."

"Just twelve." said Beryl, not touching the rolls.

"Twelve plus one" she screamed. "That is a good baker's dozen."

"Not here," screamed Beryl," Not now, not ever."

Hardly had the woman turned on her heels than Beryl felt a drop of moisture on his cheek. He looked up to see water dripping from the ceiling into the rolls and the cakes...water making the sugar frosting run in sweet rivers down the counters.

"Oh, what have I done to deserve all this bad luck?" moaned Beryl. "Is misfortune my lot for the new year?"

"I think not," said a stranger, and Beryl turned to see a tall, white-bearded man who was dressed in a long white robe and carried a huge stick.

"Oy," said Beryl. "Have I not had enough to deal with in one day?"

"You want people to feel for you when you have no feeling for others?" said the man.

"I am good to people," said Beryl.

"Giving is part of goodness, but you are not giving," said the man. "You have not learned the joys of charity."

Something about the man stirred memories in Beryl, tales about the prophet Elijah who was present when every boy became a man, who took the empty chair at Passover to remind everyone that holidays were to be shared. And suddenly, he remembered, too, all of the times and places where Jews were not able to celebrate.

"What can I do?" asked Beryl.

"You can start in some small way." was the answer. "Even a trifle can help."

"I can try," said Beryl, but no one answered. He was alone, wondering whether he had dreamt of the visitor.

Just then, the shop bell tinkled again, and the old woman came in.

"A dozen of those, "she said pointing at the almond cookies.

For a moment Beryl hesitated, and then to his own surprise began to count, "Ten---eleven---twelve---and one more."

The old woman smiled, "Thank you," she said." "Have a good holiday and a good year."

Beryl nodded. "To you, too."

But he knew that he still had work to do.

"Can we help, poppa?" said two young voices.

The boys seemed to have had a miraculous recovery.

"You're feeling better?" he asked.

"Much better," they chorused.

"And I can help, too, Beryl," said his wife. "I'm not tired anymore."

"Wonderful," he said.

"Wonderful," she echoed.

With that, the four set to work and soon the aroma of apples and spices drifted through the shop and out into the streets. Passersby smiled as they inhaled , and the urchins' mouths watered as they pressed their noses against the shop widow.

"The challahs smell so good," said one housewife.

"The tayglech are beautiful," said another, surveying the mound of sugared dough adorned with pecans.

"I would like a sugary shofar," said a small boy, handing Beryl his penny.

"Keep your penny," said Beryl, "and have a good yontif."

All that day, Beryl added an extra cookie or an extra roll to every dozen, and he gave free sweets to the children who pressed their noses on his window. With each item he gave, he felt better and better, and the better he felt, the better he baked.

"Our baker seasons everything with love," his customers said.

Thus his fame spread throughout the colonies, and everyone knew about Beryl's the baker's dozen. "Twelve plus one," they would say and smile. Thirteen had always been a good omen for Jews...thirteen months in a year, thirteen years when a boy makes bar-mitzvah and accepts his place among his people... no one was surprised when a new country was born out of twelve colonies plus one.


from the September 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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