How do Jews celebrate the most significant, momentous, cataclysmic day in a history stretching back thousands of years?
The Jewish people eat cheesecake.
Every year during Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah to the Jews, many of their descendants enjoy a slice or two of creamy cheese custard atop a crusty bed of buttery graham cracker crumbs.
Why? Answers abound.
One of the favorites I came across in my research was a Yiddish response, which loosely translated goes as follows: “Why not?”
Some say the tradition of eating cheesecake and other dairy on this day harkens back to a Song of Solomon verse comparing the Torah to milk and honey under the tongue. Others point out that the holiday comes during fertile springtime, when animals are overflowing with milk.
Many believe that the Jews first learned about the laws for keeping kosher when they received the Torah and so ate dairy because they didn’t want meat that had not been prepared in the proper way.
I propose another theory. The Torah is chockfull of stories, instructions and warnings about what happens when you stray from God’s recipe for a good and meaningful life. The recipe for cheesecake must be followed with an equally zealous attention to detail to not end up soggy, cloying or cracked.
Perhaps the rigors of Torah have helped Jews prepare cheesecake that is divine. They also have been very successful at selling it.
Eastern European Jews brought their cheesecake recipes to the US in the 19th century and by the late 1920s, New York City delis like the once-famous Lindy’s made the cheesecake so popular Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls sings its praises, saying “‘Mindy has the greatest cheesecake in the country.”
Nationally renowned Eli’s Cheesecake, started by Eli Schulman of Chicago in the 1980s, gave away pieces of its 500-pound cheesecake at Barack Obama’s inaugural Staff Ball in January and at his 2009 inaugural ball. Eli’s also made 2,000-pound cheesecakes for both of President Clinton’s inaugurations.
Sara Lee, the ubiquitous frozen cheesecake found in your local supermarket, was named in the 1950s for the 8-year-old daughter of its Jewish creator Charlie Lubin.
Some notable local cheesecake retailers include Georgetown Cupcake, which makes a special blueberry cheesecake cupcake in July, and the international chain, The Cheesecake Factory, which offers more flavors than Baskin Robbins does ice cream.
DC sisters Caitlin and Meaghan Murphy started Capital City Cheesecake in Takoma Park, MD, three years ago when they were both in their 20s. They offer a wide selection of miniature and classic cheesecakes.
Aroma Espresso Bar, an Israeli franchise new to Bethesda, serves a cheese tartlet with apples and DGS Delicatessen in the District offers what it calls a DC-style cheesecake, enhanced with orange marmalade.
Maryland resident Pati Jinich, author of the just-released Pati’s Mexican Table, host of a series on public television of the same name and a Jewish mother herself, created her own guava cheesecake recipe from one she sampled at the Sweets Museum in Michoacán, Mexico. The recipe, which she shares with us, also can be found in her popular new book.
So popular is this cheesy dessert, scores of companies sell it online, and one local business pleases customers with cheesecake from a bright blue food-truck. That Cheesecake Truck! Grew out of Sweetz Cheesecake of Gaithersburg, MD. Sweetz serves miniature cheesecakes with different flavors every week and 10 percent of all their proceeds go to local charities.
No one seems certain of why we eat cheesecake on this holiday, but this rich and creamy tradition might explain why we Jews have stayed loyal to our religion for millennia, or at least why so many of us are lactose intolerant.