A couple of years after my grandfather died I went to visit my grandmother and took a college friend with me. The three of us sat at her table and chatted. My grandmother got up, made coffee and served it with cake she had made.
My friend tasted the cake and said: “Phil, this is Jewish honey cake.”
“Neal,” I answered, “my grandmother is from Crete; this cannot be Jewish honey cake.”
“Phil, I’m a Jew and I know Jewish honey cake. This is Jewish honey cake, and what’s more its very good honey cake.”
“Neal, my grandmother always serves this cake. I’ve been eating it for 20 years. It’s Greek cake.”
“Phil, it’s honey cake, it’s classic Jewish honey cake.”
“Giagia” I said (giagia is Greek for “grandma”) “Neal says this is Jewish honey cake.”
“It is,” she said.
“Giagia, how do you know how to make Jewish honey cake?”
“Do you want to hear a story about how people can change” she asked.
Neal and I looked at each other, then to my grandmother; a moment passed, and my grandmother started to speak:
“Before your father or Bob were born, and Steve was only 3 years old, we lived upstairs in a two-family home. On the first of every month the landlady would come for the rent. I kept the rent money in a cup on a shelf by the kitchen door. When the landlady came I would reach-up and take the money from the cup and give it to her.
One day the landlady came while Steve was in the kitchen. I opened the door and gave her the money. She would always bring a treat for Steve. On this day she brought a bag of donuts. I closed the door and put the bag of donuts in the coal stove and burned them-up.
Steve started to cry because, naturally, he wanted to eat the donuts.
I explained to Steve that the landlady was Jewish, and that the Jews killed Christ, and that therefore we do not eat the landlady’s donuts.”
Neal and I, already silent, became very still.
My grandmother continued: “A few years later I was shopping in the local market. It was the depression. A woman from down the block was in the store, saw me, and came over to say hello. She looked into my cart and saw that I was buying cake. ‘Why are you buying cake?’ she asked me.
‘Because I want my family to have something sweet after dinner.’
‘But it’s very expensive’ she said. ‘Why don’t you make cake?’
‘I don’t know how,’ I told her.
‘She told me to wait, and then she went around the store and started to select ingredients and a pan.”
My grandmother got up and, walking unsteadily on arthritic knees, went to a cabinet, opened the door and took-out a very old and very used 9-inch by 9-inch aluminum baking pan.
‘And the woman came to my house and taught me how to make this cake. She was Jewish. She taught me how to make honey cake.
I make this cake about once a month. It reminds me how people can change.”
When my grandmother died I told my family that the only thing that I really wanted of my grandmother’s possessions was her honey cake pan.
Photo coming soon