Cookie Exchange| September 14, 2021
“Sure.” I said yes because I was supposed to, but I really wanted to run away and vomit
"Ohmigosh, it’s so hot, why are we outside in ninety-degree weather?”
Already seated in an Adirondack chair, Boruch rolled his eyes — he’s low key, no drama. Opposites attract, you know.
“No room, kids with big ears, you’ll survive.”
“Let’s make it quick.”
I sat. The early July Jersey air was suffocating. We were twenty minutes from the shore — where was the ocean breeze?
“Why are we asking Uncle Dudu for money? We can do this ourselves,” Boruch started.
“Yes, and pay crazy mortgage insurance,” I replied.
We were going in circles.
“Dudu has money, he’s nice, he’ll lend to us on nice terms,” I continued. “All’s good.”
“I just got a raise, and you’re making more money. We’ll save and pay up so we don’t have to pay for insurance. We don’t need Dudu,” Boruch said, rubbing his hand along the armrest.
“Don’t be an isolationist. Dudu loves family, he’d love to help. I bet he’d even throw in a few thousand for free. It’s like, giving people an opportunity to give is a chesed itself.”
Boruch rolled his eyes again.
“Also I feel really stupid offering a five percent down payment,” I continued. “And it makes me feel like there’s some insurance, like if things go south then we just owe Uncle Dudu money and not the bank.”
“I really don’t want to ask—” Boruch paused a moment. “How does he even have money, when the rest of the family is broke?”
I shrugged. “He made one good deal in his early thirties and snowballed it.”
“I should have such mazel,” Boruch mumbled.
“It’ll be good, I promise.”
Another eye roll.
“Can I go inside now?” I asked. Boruch nodded, and I slipped inside, welcoming the frigid air — I keep the AC set to sixty-eight. Boruch stayed outside for a few more minutes, scrolling through his phone. I don’t get his issues. I think it’s a guy thing, a matter of pride.
“We’re gonna be besties, I just know it.” I smiled and offered a distant air hug. They just hired a new account manager, and I was happy because that meant that I could breathe — after I trained her in. “I’m Temmy.”
“Leah,” she offered. Her smile was a little more tepid than mine. It’s okay, I’m used to being the personality in the room. I pulled a chair up to my desk and patted it.
“Make yourself at home while I introduce you to the most backward software ever. When you’re done with it, fleishig and washing will no longer be your biggest phobias.”
She chuckled. Yay, progress.
I signed in. “IT should have your own email and sign-in soon enough. In the meantime, we’ll work off my login.” Leah nodded.
“Where you from?” I asked while I opened Rental Controller. Of course it took forever to load.
“I live in Lakewood now but recently moved from Detroit.”
“So nice, do you know the Schons?” They’re the only people I know from Detroit, just barely. I went to camp with their daughter-in-law.
“Nice.” Try again, Temmy.
“This is your first time coming to the East Coast? How’s the culture shock? Am I friendly enough?”
She chuckled. “I actually lived in Brooklyn until I was five if that counts.”
“Counts? Of course it counts. Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. Brooklyn girls for life! We might as well be sisters.”
Her mouth went limp again. Shift and try again.
“When did you graduate?”
“You mean how old am I.” She said it with hint of a smile.
“You caught me.”
“Only three years older than me.”
“What’s your maiden name?”
Didn’t ring a bell. I shrugged. The program loaded, she didn’t seem interested, I’d try again later.
“What is up, my friend?” I poked Devorah in the arm as I walked past her cubicle.
She gave me the nothing-much smile. “Just putting together the new girl’s paperwork, W-4, ID and stuff.”
“Right.” I’d forgotten that stuff, I’ve been here too long. I glanced down at her desk, and my eye caught the copy of Leah’s driver’s license.
“Why does it say Froheim?” I pointed at it.
Devorah shrugged. “Probably her maiden name. See it all the time.”
“Really? But—” I stopped myself from telling her Leah’s maiden name was Blum, because it all clicked in horribly wonderful way. “Interesting,” I finished instead, then made some excuses and continued on to the employee pantry. I found my feta and beet salad and went to the rooftop seating area.
It was a sticky, air-feels-like-you’re-eating-a-sweaty-sock kinda day, so no one else was there, good. I sat in the corner just to make sure I could see anyone who entered, then dialed Boruch.
“Hey, make it fast, about to walk into a meeting,” Boruch answered.
“Bombshell. My new coworker is Uncle Dudu’s kid from his first marriage.”
“What?” Boruch sounded more confused than shocked. “What first marriage?”
“Before I was born, he was married like six months. His wife was already expecting when they got divorced. He saw her I think when she was young, but then they just upped and moved out of town, and he never heard from her again. Rabbanim said to leave it for the kid’s well-being, healthy upbringing, something like that.”
“Is that the long story short?” Boruch asked.
“No, that’s the story. The whole thing. Happened before I was born, who knows. It was more than old news by the time I found out about it in high school.”
“So how do you know?”
“She said she lived in New York till she was five.”
“A lot of people move when they turn five.”
“Then I saw her driver’s license, the name on it was Froheim.”
“A lot of people have the name Froheim.”
“No, no they don’t. Almost all Froheims are related.”
“Right, I remember that now.”
“I have a new cousin; this is so exciting!” I twirled my fork in the air, flinging a beet off the roof. Hopefully there was no one on the terrace below.
“Okay, Temmy, I needed to go like five minutes ago, but please, please, don’t say or do anything yet.”
“Just don’t. Kay?”
“We’ll talk later.”
“Are we still meeting at Uncle Dudu’s house?”
“Oh right, I forgot about that.” Pause. “Yes. Don’t say anything to him either.”
“You’re no fun.”
“No, I’m not. I’m the boring, normal one in this relationship, as you always remind me.”
“Gotta go, bye.”
He hung up before I got in my bye. Husbands are such boring killjoys. I stabbed my salad.
“Omigosh, he was too nice about it,” I gushed as soon as we were down the front steps of Uncle Dudu’s house. Boruch just looked at the check in his hands. “More than we even asked for,” I continued. “No terms, just ‘whenever you can.’ This is amazing. I’m gonna call the mortgage guy tonight, tell him we can do more.”
Boruch was still staring at the rectangular slip in his hand. Why hadn’t he put it away?
“Wait,” he said.
I stopped in middle of the street.
Boruch looked at me, eyes low. “I don’t know, I just feel weird about the whole thing.”
“But why?” I pleaded.
He looked away and bit his lip. I saw him trying to choose carefully.
“I never liked Uncle Dudu.” He paused. “No, that came out wrong. I never had a reason not to like him, but I still never liked him, even though he’s a nice guy. Something about him always rubbed me weird.”
“He’s your uncle through marriage, having no feelings is normal. You think I care about Aunt Riva? She’s a person, the end.”
“Are you taking money from Aunt Riva?”
“Does she have money?” I shot back.
“That’s not the point. I don’t want to borrow money, and if I’m borrowing, I need to be comfortable with the source.” He started walking to the car again.
“What’s not to be comfortable? He’s my uncle. He’s always been fun and kind and generous.”
“That’s what I thought, but then you told me about the long-lost daughter, and I’m like, this feels weird.”
“Why? Her mother moved away, there was no way to be in contact.”
“She’s in her thirties and doesn’t have a relationship with her father. Not even an ‘I hate you, don’t talk to me again.’ ”
“You don’t know that.”
“C’mon, the family is a bunch of yentas — if that happened, everyone would know.”
I paused before I opened the car door. He was right, we were the best yentas.
“People get divorced, these things happen. You’re gonna hold it against him?” I said as I slid into the passenger seat.
“Something feels off to me.” Boruch sat, keys in hand.
“Enough not to take his money.”
“So I’ll get to the bottom of this. Clear his name.”
Boruch raised an eyebrow.
“How are you gonna do that?”
“I’m gonna subtly Aharon HaKohein this whole situation. Let her meet my family first in like some neutral way. See that we all like each other, slowly break the news to everyone, and live happily ever after.”
“That’s not what Aharon HaKohein did.”
“Whatever, I meant make peace, don’t nitpick.”
“Don’t you think there’s a reason they haven’t sought each other out?”
“Shalom is everything. That’s what all the speakers say, anyway. And it’ll be so subtle, they’ll like each other before they know it.”
Boruch sighed. “Just keep me out of this, and I’ll try not to say I told you so in the end.” He finally turned on the car.
“Hey, don’t Chazal say, ‘Ratzon tova yehiyeh tov’?”
“You literally just made up a Chazal, that’s kind of sacrilege,” Boruch said, but I could see his muscles twitching — he thought it was hysterical.
“I’m sure there’s an idea like that somewhere.”
“In your own head. Not Chazal, but there is ‘The road to Gehinnom is paved with good intentions.’ ”
“Whatever. I just decided I’m going to put together one of those cookie fundraiser thingies that Raizy hosted the other week and invite my family and work people.”
“Just keep me out of this.”
“I will, just stay in shul later next Wednesday, learn the next day’s daf or something.”
Boruch gave me a look, then laughed. He pulled out of the spot. We’re a perfect couple.
“Just find an empty spot, and put it down.” I gestured to the buffet. There were cookies, but it was looking sparse, I should have invited more people, make this whole thing more legit.
“They’re Sugar Snaps,” Leah said. “You said they should have a history, my mother told me my grandmother gave her the recipe.”
Good thing the room was dim, good thing my glasses have thick rims so she couldn’t see my eyebrows rise to my hairline. Her grandmother? Did she ask which one?
“Sweet,” I responded. I gestured around the room, “Make yourself at home, get a coffee, chap a schmooze. Shira’s here.” I pointed to our mutual coworker. Leah nodded, she seemed fine and comfortable. I would be too, if this cookie exchange was just what I said it was, a small fundraiser. Leah put her cookies on the buffet and walked without purpose in the direction of the coffee.
I arched my body to get a better look at Leah’s cookies while not actually getting any closer. Yup, they looked exactly like Bubby made them. Her mother must’ve really loved them if she continued to make them. I never really liked them.
The room was half filled, mostly coworkers, some friends, some family, all here under false pretenses. I hadn’t even told Devorah why I decided to do this. Not that anyone would ask. Cookie exchanges were the “it” thing these days — raise some quick cash for an organization, have some fun, all very low stakes. But really, so not me; it was almost insulting that no one questioned my motives.
“So nice that you invited the new girl,” Devorah said, offering me a coffee on approach. I nodded like I’m magnanimous. I should tell her. I just want to tell someone. Also, maybe she can help me. I gave her a sidelong glance. She was scanning the crowd. Her second name was Yenta. No, not talking to Devorah. Not yet, at least.
“When are you starting the presentation or however these things work?”
“Have a good story?”
“Nah, totally making one up.”
“You have no good cookie stories in your life?”
“None that make a mind blowing I’m-more-awesome-than-you cookie story.”
“You know you don’t win anything.”
“Social points are real, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Yeah, ulterior motives don’t make for good social points.
I walked away to the center of the room, took a deep sip of coffee, then a deeper breath. “Thank you everyone for coming out tonight,” I started. People turned around, put down hot cups and faced me. “We’re going to get started on the cookie exchange. The way it works is simple. Everyone will take turns presenting their cookies, share how you came upon the recipe, what it means to you. After everyone presents, we’ll have a short auction for each plate. Obviously, the point is to raise money for Bikur Cholim, the cookies are just an easier way for you to open your wallet. The stories do the same. Don’t be cheap.”
Everyone chuckled. They trusted me to tell the truth. I’m such a liar.
“I’ll go first,” I offered. I picked up my platter from the buffet. It was simple chocolate biscotti, but I put it in an acrylic cylinder, so it didn’t look as dorky as it was. Which was an apt metaphor for the whole event.
“These are the first type of cookie I learned how to bake. No, they’re not from my grandmother or great aunt. I found them in a magazine two weeks after I got engaged, and people told me I was supposed to send my chassan cookies or something like that, except, who are we kidding, I didn’t know how to bake. I still don’t, but these are easy enough and delicious enough to fool everyone.”
Chuckles and smiles all around. The mood is light and fun, the rest will go well.
My neighbor Leiba went next. She made chocolate chip bars, something about high school, whatever, they’re almost foolproof.
Devorah stood up and presented fancy royal icing stuff. “I have a side business decorating cookies. These were the first type of royal icing cookies I made.”
I didn’t mind her using it as a marketing ploy, but there was no way those were her first design.
Mommy was next, she held up Bubby’s Sugar Snaps. Oh, snap. This could be interesting. Tonight was supposed to be a test run, they weren’t actually supposed to realize who each other were.
“My mother was classic American, and that meant Betty Crocker all the way. But she was creative, so this is her spin on the original recipe. It was originally called Ginger Snaps, but my mother changed it to Sugar Snaps.”
Wait, did Leah call them that too? Did she know that it wasn’t a standard name? I looked at her, but she was looking at her phone, not listening. The drama queen in me was disappointed, but really, I was relieved.
The front door opened. “Am I late?”
Sarah, younger than me by two years, later than me by at least an hour to everything.
“Always.” I smiled and gestured toward the seats. “We’re just presenting, the auction will be soon.”
Sarah smiled, slid a tray of crinkle cookies on the table, moved to the back, and sat next to Leah. Of course.
One by one people presented. I was glad I kept it so small — no patience. I kept my eye on Leah and Sarah. I thought Leah would shy away, but they seemed to be talking, laughing. While the next people presented, I watched my mother shift her seat closer, then actually get up to join Sarah and Leah. I needed to know what they were saying. Finally, Shira presented a babka that looked divine. I wasn’t going to complain that it didn’t qualify as a cookie.
“And now to the auction.” I glanced at the coffee klatch. “Mommy, Sarah, help me run this thing.” They looked at each other and shrugged, seemed innocent enough. I raised my biscotti. “Keep an eye out for who’s bidding and who seems interested,” I told Mommy and Sarah, trying to make it seem like they actually have a purpose. “We’ll start with the best, much better than the rest, my biscotti! Bids start at five dollars, can I get five dollars?”
I strutted the room, making a show, all I wanted was fun and distraction now. A few people raised their hands. “Moving up to eight dollars, can I get eight dollars?” More hands, I continued until it sold for twenty dollars. My biscotti, that’s rich. All for a good cause.
Mommy and Sarah were busy writing down who won, collecting money, and parsing out the goodies. I looked at Leah, who was back on her phone. Why had I broken them up?
The evening wound down with Devorah’s cookies going for a whopping $75 (the Bikur Cholim will not know what hit them). It’s not big bucks, but a $500 donation is not bad. People were packing up, taking drinks to go, opening their cookies and sharing a taste.
Leah looked like she was ready to roll. She had won Sarah’s crinkle cookies. She probably only bought them because she liked Sarah.
“Had a nice time?” I asked. She smiled for real.
“Yeah, really great. Your mother and sister are the cutest.”
“Just like me,” I winked.
“Just like you.” She raised her cookies. “Sarah says thinks she forgot to add in the vanilla, so I should buy them to save her.”
“She probably did. You’re a good person.”
“Maaser money.” She shrugged. Still nice, I thought. “See you tomorrow,” she said.
“Tomorrow,” I echoed, waving her off.
“She’s really sweet,” Mommy said in my ear. I jumped, I hadn’t realized she was so close. I was going to tell her, right after everything was cleaned up.
I stood at the door and waved people off. Please go, please go, I sent up silent prayers. Finally, Devorah was at the door, last to leave, she gave me meaningful eyes, she’s no fool. I pretended to know nothing.
“Talk to you tomorrow,” she said and winked. I ignored her. The night went right, exactly how I wanted it to, yet my stomach was a mess. Why?
It was just Mommy and Sarah left to put balled up napkins and half eaten plates in the garbage. I cut right to it.
“I saw you talking to Leah,” I said to Sarah.
“Yeah, she’s really smart. And nice. I wish I had normal coworkers.”
“Do you know who she is?” I asked.
“Secret drug lord?”
I laughed. I peeped to makes sure Mommy was in earshot.
“She’s Uncle Dudu’s daughter from his first marriage.”
“WHAT?” Sarah said.
“NO!” was Mommy’s response.
“That’s crazy, how do you know? Oh my gosh, I wanna go back and talk to her. I loved her, we must have a family reunion.”
Sarah was talking fast, and Mommy was uncharacteristically silent. I looked at her.
“It’s a complicated relationship,” she said slowly. “I think Leah and Dudu will figure it out when they’re ready and then invite the rest of us.”
“But maybe we can Aharon HaKohein it!” Sarah offered. I smiled and nodded; that was the original plan, after all.
“What she said,” I said.
Mommy seemed unconvinced.
“Let me sleep on it,” she said, though she seemed pretty sure.
Her response jibed with the pit in my stomach, but I didn’t know what spurred either of them. I swept the floor aggressively and actually had the house clean by the time Boruch came home.
“It was really nice meeting your family yesterday,” Leah said while we sat around the office and did nothing. The company servers had been hacked, and we lost access to everything, so we were just waiting for IT to fix the mess. They said it could be hours or days. I wasn’t opposed to days. And hey, ding, opportunity.
“Yeah, they’re great. What about your family, how many siblings do you have?” I twirled around in my swivel chair, let’s make this conversation seem light.
“I have four half-siblings, but they’re way younger than me.”
“Half?” Dudu has six other kids, was she not including them?
“Yeah, my mother remarried when I was 13.”
“Oh, that must’ve been interesting.” So no to Dudu’s other kids.
“Yeah, quite the adjustment. I had her to myself for my first 13 years.” She paused, I’d say wistfully. “But my stepfather is an amazing person, and my half-siblings are my full siblings for all intents and purposes.”
“What about your father?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, I don’t really like talking about him.”
I pressed my feet to the ground, bringing my swinging chair to a halt. Oh, so maybe I wouldn’t be clearing Dudu’s name.
“Deadbeat?” I offered.
I raised a brow.
“Get refuser,” she said, giving me that knowing look.
“Nooo.” My throat closed, and a torpedo shot to the bottom of my stomach.
“Yeah. For ten years.”
“It gets worse.”
No, please let it not be worse. Please let there be another side. I gripped the armrest.
“Wanna know why he finally gave a get?”
“Sure.” I said yes because I was supposed to, but I really wanted to run away and vomit.
“He wanted to remarry. He blackmailed my mother to give him 100K, then he just turned around and got engaged literally the next day.”
“Oh my G-d.” What was I even supposed to say? Tante Toby is the sweetest.
This was totally TMI, why was she telling me this? She barely knew me. Talking too much was my thing.
She looked at me. “So I don’t have anything to do with him. Haven’t seen him since I was five, and even then it was like twice-a-year, let’s-fight-over-yuntiff kinda thing.”
“And then you moved to Detroit.” I noticed I had unconsciously been inching my chair further from Leah.
It went quiet. I’m not good at this awkward silence, never happened before.
“Why are you telling me this?”
Leah gave me a small smile. “You kind of asked for it. And I’m old enough that I’ve gotten tired of being evasive, and you seem kinda chilled.”
“Touché.” I did ask for it, and now Pandora can never go back into her box.
“Excuse me a sec.”
My stomach lurched as I left the work area.
“And then I literally went to the bathroom and threw up.”
Boruch was quiet, nursing his coffee, his face turned to the sunset.
“How did I not know this? My family are such yentas.”
“Maybe they’re such yentas because everything else seems so inconsequential to the thing they’re not talking about.”
“Oh.” I slid a little lower in the Adirondack chair, if that’s possible. “I feel like I’ve lost my family.”
Boruch nodded slightly and took a sip. He met my gaze.
“You know there are three sides to every story,” Boruch said.
“Yeah, yeah, each side and the truth in middle… You really think Uncle Dudu’s side will be compelling? Like even if his ex was nuts, what can he say about ten years and $100,000?”
Boruch shrugged again.
“And Mommy and Bobby, the family is so close, how did they let it happen? I can’t look at them the same.”
Another shrug from Boruch.
“It’s worth trying to figure out the other side and the truth, because you don’t have to talk to Leah again—” Here he paused. “But we’re going to Mommy for Shabbos.”
I face-palmed myself. The air was thick, and my palm felt moist on my forehead. It was soothing to keep it there. I felt the wet heat then tasted the salt.
“Are you crying?” Boruch asked, he leaned forward to see me.
“I was just trying to do good.” My voice broke on “good.”
Boruch inhaled deeply.
“I know.” He paused. “I know.”
The crickets started chirping.
After a few minutes he asked, “What do you want to do about the money?”
“It’s blood money.” I paused. “But a part of me still wants it.”
Boruch snorted. “Behind every dinner honoree is an indictment.”
“Stop being so cynical.” I looked at him. “Does that mean you think it’s okay?”
“I never wanted it. I’m leaving this up to you.”
I rubbed my eyes, trying to sort the mess in my head.
“What did Elie Wiesel say about taking sides? ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.’ ”
“Touché. And you didn’t even have to make that one up,” Boruch chuckled. “But you already know what I think. You’re the one who needs to be okay with it.”
I stared ahead. The moonlight reflected off the top of the grill.
“It’ll make such a huge difference financially in the long run,” I whined.
Boruch said nothing.
“Does me not taking it even mean anything? I’m not telling Uncle Dudu either way.”
“Who said it’s about him? It’s about you.”
I huffed out a breath. “So I have to take sides now?”
“In a sense.”
“But what about shalom?” I threw my hands up in Bais Yaakov play fashion.
“No one’s fighting, the fighting is long over. It’s about you deciding where you stand.”
“This is such a stupid test!”
Boruch was smirking. I don’t know why he thinks these things are funny.
“So we’ll put down only five percent?” I finally said.
“What do we tell Uncle Dudu?”
Boruch raised one shoulder. “Thanks, but no thanks, we want to do things ourselves, be responsible, don’t want to overstretch ourselves. Whatever,” he suggested.
“Whatever,” I echoed.
We both sat. A breeze flitted through the smoggy air as night slowly descended.
“I should’ve listened to Ma when she said to stay out of it.”
Boruch laughed outright this time. “Sometimes mothers are right. Sometimes the world is complicated. Shocker.”
I chuckled. Boruch leaned forward, pulled out his wallet from his back pocket, and removed an oblong slip of paper. He passed it to me.
“Would you like the honors?”
I hesitated a moment, then tugged it from his grip with more force than necessary.
“I won’t say ‘my pleasure,’ ‘cuz it’s not. It’s also not an honor.”
“Okay, okay, I get it.”
I raised the check. It turned slightly transparent in the moon’s reflection.
“Who am I doing this for again?” I asked Boruch. I knew the answer, but I needed confirmation.
I nodded solemnly and ripped the check in half, then half again, and then again, then threw it in the air like confetti. It rained down on me. It didn’t feel all glamorous, like freedom or justice. But on the evening breeze there was a whiff of integrity.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
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