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Comedy Stories

Unfinished Business

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Five days after Yom Kippur, David Jacob Tomaschewitz counted on Sukkot’s challah sales to ensure his foundering bakery made a profit for the year. Although business had been brisk for Rosh Hashanah, the weekly sales of his bread for Shabbat had consistently diminished as other Jewish bakeries in Boca Raton had far more offerings—cookies! pastries! cakes!—than his meager shop.

David’s father had opened the bakery decades prior, making only traditional Jewish breads, including mountains of bagels his loyal customers bought by the brown paper bagful. But for this year? The challah sales would make all the difference, whether that challah was dipped in honey for Rosh Hashanah or served with salt for Shabbat. Although the bakery was on shaky financial ground as it was, October’s sales had netted David around $1,900. A small fortune.

It had been a good month.

As his father had immigrated from Poland after the war, David still made bialy in his honor—a traditional recipe from the Tomaschewitz family’s hometown of Bialystok—bialys served with hot butter instead of cream cheese. Florida commuters didn’t like bialys as well as they liked bagels, so David usually ate the stale poppy seed-filled rolls during his solitary lunch breaks.

On the High Holy Days, David painstakingly made matzo and shewbread, carefully making round challah bread bespeckled with raisins. The circular shape symbolizes the cycle of years, his father would say, artfully braiding the dough. The raisins represent the sweetness of a new year.

His father had been gone for years. David wondered for the umpteenth time why he continued to wake up at 3:00 a.m., continued to lug 50 pound sacks of flour from truck to kitchen, continued to shell endless cartons of eggs into batter, and continued to watch sesame seeds toast just so in the hot ovens. Exhausted at night, he looked at his books and the marginal return for his labor and just wondered. He primarily wondered at the years that passed with no wife or son to pass the Tomaschewitz name on to. Now at 45 years old, hair peppered with gray that he quit pretending was flour, he felt his life had been without purpose. Dead yeast, not rising to leaven anything of importance.

Another bakery had opened on his block in September, but David had not found time to visit his competition. However, the morning commuters had all come and gone, and it would be hours before the lunchtime crowd would drop by to pick up bread loaves for their supper tables. Mid-morning was a slow time, a good time, to see who was flitching his business.

At first, it didn’t seem like there would be much overlap in their clientele, as the new place seemed inordinately frilly with its sign scrawled in Comic Sans and dayglo colors: Birnbaum Bakery. The menu on the door listed all the delectable things David had loved as a child: chocolate babka, raspberry rugelach, coconut macaroons, apricot hamantaschen. Reading the list, David found his mouth involuntarily watered.

Suddenly the door opened, bells jingling. David quickly stepped aside as a tall, thin red-haired woman walked out, holding a broom. Deftly, her broad shoulders made short work of sweeping detritus from the stoop in front of the store. She wore a spotless white apron with Birnbaum Bakery emblazoned in dayglo colors.

“Are you open?” David asked.

It was abundantly clear the store was, indeed, open.

“Every day, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.,” she said without looking up, shaking the welcome mat.

“Do you sell bread?” he asked pointedly. She stopped curtly and looked at him, full in the face. Her large hazel eyes peered through him, attempting to divine whatever subtext he intended or unintended.

“The only bread I make is stollen and hot cross buns, but usually only during the holidays,” she managed a tired smile.

“Those are Christmas breads,” he replied, puzzled.

“Those are holiday breads,” she said, a little defensively.

“Are you Missus Birnbaum?”

“There is no Missus Birnbaum,” she smiled again, this time broadly and mischievously. “There’s just me, Miss Colleen MacBrennen. And this is Boca Raton, not Boston. My customers prefer pastries from their own kind,” she said flatly. He didn’t know whether to laugh or be offended.

With a wink, she gathered up her broom and disappeared into her shop.

Standing there, it was a minute or two before David walked down the block, back to his own bakery.

Although David had not seen the inside of a synagogue since his own bar mitzvah, Temple Beth El had asked local businesses to donate goods for their annual Sukkot festival fundraiser. His father always brought his biggest and most perfectly formed loaves to the temple’s auction, held in the social hall on the temple’s grounds. Tzedakah is Hebrew for charity, his father said, while his son calculated how much profit they would lose once again from his father’s generosity.

At year’s end though, the amount was hardly missed. Bread is life, David. That’s why when we break bread, we say, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

Normally, David would have just dropped off his dozen of holiday challah loaves and left, but for an inexplicable reason, he stayed to watch the start of the auction. The auction was chiefly for the building fund, as the temple needed a great deal of repair. A new roof. Refinished pews. The Rabbi even hoped for a new bimah from which to conduct services and read scriptural passages to his congregation.

Small children ran in and out of their parents’ legs, as the excitement started to build. Which local delicacy would bring the highest bid? Tables were heaped with the largesse from the community: prune and poppy seed pastries, artisan honey, perfectly ripened pears, sufganiyot, black-and-white cookies. Congregants readied their pocketbooks to bid on the most luscious holiday items.

Just as the crowd settled into their seats in the social hall, David watched as someone attempted to carry in a large platter through the social hall’s doorway.

Colleen.

He half arose from his seat to watch her struggle to carry a gingerbread house, quickly realizing she had actually fashioned a breathtaking gingerbread temple, complete with colorful candy decorations as well as an elegant icing landscape, showcasing Florida’s palm trees and flamingos.

As she walked past temple members who loudly clapped their approval, she smiled, tucking a lock of her red hair behind one ear. David was charmed to see her blush from the crowd’s approbation of her work.

“I see we have our first auction item from the Birnbaum Bakery, a replica of our own Temple Beth El,” called the Rabbi cheerfully. “I’ll start the bidding at, let’s say, twenty-five dollars? Anyone?”

“Twenty five dollars,” called out a voice to David’s right.

“Thirty! Thirty dollars!” responded another voice on David’s left.

“Thirty five,” came a voice from somewhere behind him.

David looked at Colleen. She smiled and shrugged, a wordless conversation that was more satisfying to David than any actual conversation he’d had with anyone else. For as long back as he could remember.

“Do I hear forty dollars?” asked the Rabbi, scanning the crowd.

Without thinking, David called out “$1,900.00!”

The crowd cheered as the Irish pastry chef carefully walked over to the Jewish baker, rewarding him with the prize he’d waited his whole life to buy.

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