“Don’t forget to use Bubbie’s atmospheric pressure chart.” My mom’s voice sings across the kitchen. “Show these people that Esther Goldstein can bake on any planet.”
These people: it’s a funny term for the family she is hoping will join ours by the end of the evening. My future in-laws and their son—provided I get the challah right.
It’s a ridiculous request. When the shadchan called and said that an eligible boy would be landing on our moon to interview potential wives, I anticipated a long list of demands. The last few families to enter our atmosphere had sent us a twenty-page questionnaire and asked for various monetary pledges before selecting which girls their son would meet.
Chaviva and I had laughed over the absurdity of it a few times together on the phone, before our parents said that it was unseemly for girls to talk about such things with each other. Even if we were best friends. Even if we shared everything. We weren’t supposed to share this. It wasn’t modest.
It also wasn’t entirely benign. Theoretically, we’re each other’s competition. Luckily, the shadchan has never attempted to pair us with the same boy. Either there’s something in our genetics that has prevented us from matching with the same people, or our talents are so diametrically opposite that the same family has never selected both of us to move on to the interview stage.
Fire and ice, our parents used to say. They were referring to my red hair and Chaviva’s ashy blonde locks, but it also suits our personalities. Chaviva flows like water; I’m all jagged edges and temper. You’d think that would have kept us apart, but we’ve always been inseparable. Everyone thought our bond would taper off when I went to study science on the other side of the planet and Chaviva stayed home to help her parents with their farm. They were wrong.
We talked every night when I was at school. We still do—staying up until all hours making each other shriek with laughter or working through our daily frustrations. There’s nothing we don’t share. Except this.
It sucks not having someone other than my parents to talk to about the most important decision of my life. It sucks even worse thinking about one of us getting married and moving away.
We’ve never spoken about what happens after that. Probably for the best: I don’t like the squishy ache that pushes against the inside of my chest whenever I think about it.
So far, it’s been a moot point.
I’ve gotten past the initial gauntlet a couple times and met the visiting families, but it’s never been a match; Fruma Blumstein and Shaindel Kolichov were selected on those occasions. Several other childhood friends have gotten married as well, to matches I didn’t qualify for. Only I, Chaviva, and a few other Jewish girls from our class remain single.
As the number of eligible women on our planet has dwindled, so has the number of boys willing to travel here to meet us. It’s been two months since the last one. So when the shadchan called to say that we had another chance, I knew my mother was going to go all out.
Lucky for her, the shadchan said that this family had only one demand: the girl needed to know how to bake. Samples would be brought to the meeting place, and those bakers who were judged favorably by the parents would move on to meet the candidate.
My father called it quaint, but my mother brushed Abba off with a wave of her hand and said that it was divine intervention. Because if there’s one thing Goldsteins can do, it’s bake. Bubbie’s ancient cookbook, passed down from hand to hand and planet to planet, has seen our family through kokosh cake on Mars and matzah on Alpha Epsilon.
It will see me straight to the chuppah, too.
Abba didn’t have much to say to that. Everyone knows he gained ten kilos within a month of marrying my mother. Nobody bakes like she does—except maybe me.
Which is why this entire situation is so humiliating. I’ve come to terms with the intrusive questions about whether we use the automatic dishwasher on Shabbat or if I plan on keeping my last name. I’m an expert at filling out the shadchan’s forms. But this? It’s almost as if the boy’s family is trying to prove how utterly dependent we are on them, that we have no other option than to wait for them to deign to travel to our solar system.
Which is true.
When I asked Mom why we couldn’t travel to another planet to meet new prospects, she almost fainted and Abba had to escort her from the room. Apparently, the boy has always come to the girl. Just like it was back on Earth, back in the old country. Just like how it will be when my husband comes and escorts me the last few steps down the aisle to the chuppah.
Plus, Abba added, the girl’s family throws the wedding on their planet before the couple sails off together to live on the boy’s planet. Organizing a huge party and helping set up the couple in their new home is too much for one family to do alone.
Classic Abba. Always the pragmatist.
So Chaviva and I have both been stuck waiting as boy after boy has turned us down.
It actually hasn’t been so bad, with the two of us laughing it off together, blaming it on the shadchan. But if I’m not chosen this time, everyone will know it’s because the boy didn’t like me. The challot will be perfect: one large eight-strand plaited loaf for a centerpiece and then dozens of small rolls, bilkelach, in various flavors to show off my range.
I’m tempted to botch the recipe on purpose, to throw in extra baking powder or use the wrong time and temperature from Bubbie’s chart. To show up with a mushy loaf instead of the fluffy perfection I’m capable of. To make it clear to “these people” that I do not care if they think I am pretty enough or smart enough to join their family. To tell this boy and his family to go to hell with their promise of a marriage contract and kids and a home that is on another planet.
Because I like my planet. I like my job. I like my friends. This is my home. Who’s to say I’ll find a better one with him?
But I don’t do any of that, because it will break my mother’s heart. She’s so sure this family will be the one. She’s prepared photocopies of the cookbook for me to bring to my new planet. Laid them carefully next to the trunk that she has lovingly packed with clothes and trinkets from home.
Abba wanted me to make adjweh. The Sephardic date cakes would be a nod to the genetic diversity in our family, a promise of healthy children. Mom scoffed. The shadchan’s job is to make sure that every potential match is genetically compatible. Our job is to convince the boy’s family that they want me and not whatever other girls the shadchan has suggested.
Mom looked the family up: Ashkenazi stock for the past ten generations. Better to stick with challah. It’ll be familiar to them. Traditional and wholesome.
I’ve thrown in a few garlic and za’atar bilkelach at the bottom of the basket anyway, beneath the marble and chocolate chip and cinnamon raisin. They’re my specialty. Chaviva always says so. Although she likes my adjweh, too—she’s always appreciated my talents.
I slide the plaited loaf into the oven and set the timer as I remind myself that Chaviva is not the person I’m supposed to be thinking about right now.
At least I’ll get a chance to say goodbye when she comes to dance at my wedding. Two best friends, wishing each other good fortune as they say farewell for life. Nothing unseemly about that. Nothing immodest or improper for our parents to scold us about.
The bread bakes up crusty and warm just like I knew it would. So why do I feel like a failure?
• • •
I smell the babka before I see it. Cinnamon and spice, rich and heady. I’m in trouble. There’s only one person besides me who makes a babka like that. I know because I taught her how.
Chaviva is here.
I suppose it was inevitable that we’d eventually match with the same boy. Still, I hoped it wouldn’t end like this. With our baked goods evenly matched, it’ll come down to looks. Our families are on fairly even footing when it comes to lineage and money. We’re both only children, so there are no siblings to come into the equation, either. Which means it will be me dancing at her wedding.
Because Chaviva Feldman is the most beautiful girl on the planet. Maybe even the galaxy.
A sinking pit opens up in my stomach. Leaving her behind was always going to be rough, but watching her leave instead? It’s unthinkable. Plus, my mother is going to kill me—if she doesn’t kill Chaviva first.
I glance over at my friend dressed in her best Shabbat dress, and I can’t find it in me to be upset. She deserves to be happy. To have a life. If this match will give that to her, then who am I to begrudge her anything?
She gives me a small wave, her eyes eager beneath her waterfall of blonde hair. The only other girl here is Naomi Hersh. I should have guessed: she makes a decent hamentasch. It must’ve been enough to get her through to the interview, but she’s likely an alternate in case Chaviva and I turn out to both be unacceptable to the groom.
I’ve been in that position before. It’s not an enviable one. You get interviewed first and then wait while the second- and then first-choice girls have their interviews. The parents negotiate between themselves while you watch. Then, after an entire day of sitting around, you get to be the first to congratulate the blushing bride.
My mother spots the babka immediately, her mouth twisting into a thin line, but she doesn’t say a word to me about it. She knows I shared the recipe. Neither of us thought anything about it at the time. The Feldmans have the most delicious well water on the planet in their yard. Chaviva and I would sit for hours under the cool trees sipping water and nibbling on yeasty, sweet babka loaves: chocolate for her, vanilla for me.
They let me use the well water whenever I wanted to bake. It seemed only fair to reciprocate their generosity by teaching Chaviva how to make their favorite treat. Nobody imagined our future marriages would come down to a bake-off.
From the way my mother sniffs, it’s clear that she also never thought the Feldmans would stoop so low as to use our own Bubbie’s babka recipe against us. She hustles me off into a corner of the waiting room before I can wave back at Chaviva. Apparently, we won’t be allowed to talk to each other.
“The nerve,” my mother mutters to my father as we settle in and wait for the shadchan to announce the order of the interviews. “The very nerve.”
She’s none too quiet, and I see Chaviva reddening from across the room. My heart does a twist. I don’t want it to end like this. Years of sleepovers and late-night calls and crying on each other’s shoulders destroyed over one stupid babka.
I stiffen and look my mother in the eye. “It’s not like we didn’t use their well water to bake our challah.”
Her mouth pops open like a fish’s. Then she sits back with a humph, and my father winks at me while wrapping an arm around her in consolation.
Nobody says a thing as the shadchan calls out the order. Naomi first, then me, with Chaviva last.
It confirms my earlier suspicions. Chaviva is the chosen one. Unless that interview goes terribly awry, Chaviva will be sailing off toward a new planet within the week. My mother has gone rigid as Naomi enters the interview room. This is the closest I’ve ever come to making a match, and I’m about to lose it all to my babka-recipe-thieving best friend.
I wonder if I’ll be invited to the wedding. My parents might not allow me to go after this betrayal.
“Why don’t we work on our questions for the negotiations,” my father says to distract us. “Best to be prepared in case. What do you want, Esther?”
It’s sweet of him to put up a positive front, to pretend we’ll get to the point in the process where the potential bride gets to make her demands of the boy’s family before she agrees to the match. We all know it’s hopeless. There’s no way Chaviva is failing that interview.
“I want a well water sample from their planet.”
The words are out of my mouth before I think about it. The taste, crisp and fresh, like the water from Chaviva’s house. Like hours of camaraderie passed as we broke bread together and shared our lives with each other.
My father doesn’t argue. My mother shrugs. I doubt they even heard me. Otherwise, they’d protest and tell me that it could take weeks for the water to arrive. That I don’t want to seem high maintenance. That I will get used to whatever water awaits me on my new planet.
They’ve given up already.
I peek over at Chaviva, who is in hushed conversation with her parents. Naomi Hersh was shaky and pale when she went in. She won’t last long in that room. Then it will be my turn, followed by Chaviva’s. We won’t even get a chance to talk to each other before it’s all over.
I stand up and start to walk over, but my mother pulls me back.
“Where are you going? It’s unseemly. The two candidates shouldn’t be talking to each other.”
I hear the words behind her words. She is being polite because the shadchan’s eyes are watching, but there is no way she is letting me associate with the traitor. Fraternizing with the enemy is forbidden.
I weigh my options and settle on bribery. “Chaviva has no sisters. Maybe she’ll let me wear her jewelry during the chuppah.”
It’s a masterstroke. Brides cannot wear their jewelry under the chuppah lest it remind God of the sins of our ancestors in the desert, who used their ornaments for idolatry. Legend has it that the one who holds the jewelry safe for them will be the next to walk down the aisle. Typically, a sister would get the job, but as Chaviva has no siblings, a best friend would be the next best choice.
There’s nothing my mother loves more than superstition.
She nudges me forward.
“Keep it brief.”
• • •
“You made babka.”
Chaviva smiles and holds out a plate with a mini babka on it. I take it mutely. We’ve gravitated toward the back of the room, where the baked goods are on display and our parents are out of earshot.
“There’s something I want to say—”
Chaviva’s face is earnest, her blue eyes pleading. I set the babka down.
“Forget it, Chaviva. You don’t have to apologize.” I don’t want to waste our time on spite and accusations. “I’m happy for you. Really.”
She looks back down at the babka, crestfallen. “That makes one of us.”
I’m so confused I don’t know where to look. I was prepared to suck it up and wish her well, but comforting her over winning the hand of our mutual suitor is a bit much, even for me.
She shoves the plate back into my hands, her fingertips gently brushing mine. That’s when I see it. There’s no cinnamon in the slice. Nor is there chocolate. She’s made a variety of baked goods in a display similar to mine—cinnamon for the centerpiece, then many different small loaves—but she’s kept one back. This single miniature loaf was set aside from the others.
Vanilla. My favorite.
“I made that one for you, when I was supposed to be baking for my future husband. All I could think about was how much I didn’t want to leave you.” Her hand reaches for mine. “Tell me to marry him and I will. I’ll board his parents’ spaceship and sail off to God knows what planet and you and I will never see each other again. Or you could tell me to stay. Because you know what I told my parents to ask my spouse for? Za’atar-and-garlic challah every week for Shabbat.”
My hand grips hers tight. All those years, all those nights we spent together, and she kept this to herself. I’d say it was impossible, except I’ve done the same thing. Would have kept doing it, in fact, if she hadn’t said something.
Courage, born out of the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose.
“Our parents . . .”
It’s too impossible. Too unusual. What will everyone think?
“My parents will be delighted to have their daughter remain on this planet. They’ll let me inherit the farm.”
I know in an instant she’s right. The Feldmans are getting old. The farm has become too much for them to manage. Without Chaviva’s help, they’ll have to sell it and retire in a few years.
“All my mother wants is grandchildren. The more the better.”
Chaviva gives my hand a squeeze. “That can be arranged. As long as she doesn’t mind involving a little science in the process. You’ll keep your job and I’ll stay home with our kids and manage the farm. I will make you so happy, I promise.”
She’s blushing red again, realizing that she’s getting ahead of herself. That I haven’t said yes yet. I could kiss her right here if it wouldn’t be inappropriate.
Naomi Hersh has no idea how lucky she’s about to get.
I fish one of the garlic-and-za’atar bilkelach out of my basket. “This one is for now. To celebrate. I’ll make fresh challah for our first Shabbat together. Because you know what I asked for? Well water. Cool and crisp and sweet. Like you.”
Chaviva grins as we make our way back to our waiting parents. They can negotiate amongst themselves, but they won’t put up too much of a fight. Not after the way the shadchan has been raising her fees due to the dearth of families willing to travel this far: families who shouldn’t have bothered in the first place—because my match has been here all along.