Family Ties: A Personal Journey to Understanding

By Leah Hochbaum

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story By Dylan Schaffer Bloomsbury USA, 272 pages, $24.95.

At 38, legal-thriller writer Dylan Schaffer had never baked a bialy. Though raised in New York — a mecca for seekers of the doughy Jewish treat — he’d long ago abandoned the state’s humid shores for California, land of the grocery store frozen bagel. He hadn’t even thought about bialys in years.

Then one night, his terminally ill father, Flip, called to invite him to take a weeklong baking class in New York at the French Culinary Institute. It was an odd request: Although not quite estranged, the two never had been close, and they hadn’t spent much time together since Flip had abandoned the family some three decades earlier and left Schaffer and his siblings in the care of their mentally ill mother. Schaffer now admits that he had only agreed to take the class — set to start seven months later — because he had assumed that his father would be gone by then. But Flip made it. And Schaffer boarded a plane to New York, ready to bake bialys and then some.

In “Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story,” Schaffer chronicles the seven days he spent alongside his father, learning such baking basics as how to properly shape a baguette, the importance of avoiding freeze-dried yeast at all costs and the simple truth that there’s no such thing as too much butter when it comes to croissants.

Yet while Schaffer is grateful that he now has a better understanding of how to scale ingredients when mixing flatbread dough, and how to operate an industrial spiral mixer, what he’s most thankful for is that the week of begrudged togetherness gave him a chance to finally get Flip to answer some of the questions he’d been dodging for years: Why did he leave his children with a woman he knew to be unbalanced? Why did he scrap a promising writing career to move to South Carolina to teach history? How could a man who calls himself a father desert his kids?

And while his dad doesn’t seem willing or able to answer at first, with each new day at the culinary institute Flip warms a little more to the idea of letting his son in. He tells Schaffer about his marriage and his divorce, about his failed playwriting career, about the life he wanted for himself and the life he had. And though Schaffer takes in every word his father feeds him, he makes a concerted effort not to lap it all up like the hungry-for-love child he once was. He’s well aware that sometimes one must forgive without forgetting.

Schaffer, best known for authoring the “Misdemeanor Man” mystery series (also published by Bloomsbury USA), writes here about the complex relationships between fathers and sons with more delicacy than it takes to fold a croissant. His insightful and improbably humorous look at baking in the face of death is a spot-on depiction of the way our families — more than anyone else in the world — can cause us simultaneous pleasure and pain.

He writes with a truthfulness that is both refreshing and distressing. He confesses to having crushes on women other than his wife and to being relieved when his mother was finally out of his life for good. He owns up to being disgusted by his dad’s deficient dental hygiene and by his tendency to inhale food “with wolfish enthusiasm” rather than consume it. But what is truly amazing is Schaffer’s admission in the latter part of the book that he eventually went to care for his ailing father because he’d like to be thought of as the type of person who’d do that sort of thing. This is a frankness that is unnecessary but appreciated. What individual saddled with a dying parent hasn’t felt that way?

The Schaffer men never did learn to bake bialys in class; they weren’t on the culinary institute syllabus. What they did discover, however, was a thing or two about life, death and each other.

But that’s not as catchy a title.

Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.