Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner and, as with all the Jewish holidays, there are certain foods that serve as symbols to ground us in the holiday's underlying meaning. Because Judaism has such a strong focus on the passing down of customs, there are myriad traditions to choose from. My son has already made the honey cake for the desert for this year's meal and, of course, there will be apples dipped in honey, both serving to forecast the sweetness of the upcoming year. The head of a fish symbolizes the new head of the year, although that is one traditional food that has never graced my holiday table; it seems a little hard-core. I always serve pomegranate, though, and it is said that there are as many purple-red, pulpy seeds underneath the leathery skin as there are mitzvot: 613. Every year my kids unsuccessfully try to debunk the theory by trying to count them; an obscenely, impossibly messy, impossibility. Pomegranates are an autumn fruit, but if Rosh Hashanah falls early enough, the fruit may not have hit the produce section yet. This sends all us Jewish mothers scrambling. There are frantic emails and calls, as we direct each other to the one grocery store that has the goods. It's as if we are a Jewish-mother team on the show "The Amazing Race," trying to get to Pomegranate-Land before sundown on Rosh Hashanah to win the grand prize.

As I make holiday dinners, as with any meal, it gives me a particular pleasure to think that the time, care, and energy (this concept is best conveyed by the Hebrew word kavanah, which translates into intent) I put into preparing the meal all are, in the grand, karmic scheme of life, metaphysically transferred to the food. So, when I read that Aimee Bender's protagonist, the young Rose Edelstein, can taste food and feel the emotions of the person who prepared it, I didn't assess this premise to be fantastical; the concept wasn't all that far outside of the Jewishy, New Agey spirituality that informs my belief system. It wasn't until much later in Bender's narrative, when the plot nose-dives into the surreal, that I realized that Bender's novel fits into the category of magical realism.

"The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" is a strange, yet wonderful story, one that showcases the interior realm of its characters, as we are privileged to glimpse this amidst a world with different rules from the one you and I inhabit. I can't say that I was riveted throughout the entire book, but in the end, it didn't matter; Bender's prose shimmers. The characters in TPSOLC, despite their supernatural powers, are drawn with texture and subtlety. Their actions belie their complex emotions as they do the work of life, and overcome personal challenges to reach out and build bridges with each other and the world.

Rosh Hashanah is very early this year and I know I will be scrambling to track down my treasured pomegranates. Like "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," inside their covers are hundreds and hundreds of jewels.

No comments:

Post a Comment