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It’s not about the cookies.

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(Yes, it is)
04/27/2015

It's not about the cookies. photo

My favorite bakery is in trouble . The business is failing, and the owner has cancer. The bakery is called Lax & Mandel , and it's not in Chicago.

I'm from the suburbs of Cleveland, originally. Lax & Mandel is a kosher bakery founded in 1956 by Shimon Lax and Burt Mandel, who ran it until 1980. It has changed hands and even locations since then, but kept its original name. At one point , it was co-owned by the younger brother of a classmate of mine.

I went to this bakery as a kid. Walking into the aroma of fresh-baked challah was like getting a grandmotherly hug. Running into friends you haven't seen in a while, shuddering at the sudden rumble of the maniacal bread slicer, seeing kids light up when getting their own cookie, it's better than the candy store scene in Willy Wonka .

I remember the store being packed before Shabbat, with everyone mobbing the counter for the fresh-made challah -- still the best I've ever had. You'd take a ticket from a paisley-shaped dispenser with your number and wait until they flipped the big numbers over the counter to yours.

During your visit, the clattering old automatic bread slicer would interrupt all conversation for the 10 seconds or so it ran. It had these huge metal claws that would slash through a loaf like Wolverine while roaring like an angry bulldozer. As a kid, it terrified and fascinated me.

Your challah went into a plastic bag. Your pastries went into a simple white cardboard box, tied around with string. Then the Russian ladies with the white aprons and thick accents tallied your purchase by adding the items up in pencil - writing everything right on the paper box!

The bakery had these small, crumbly cookies they'd sell by the pound. Most had sprinkles, but some had cherries in the middle . If you were a little kid, the Russian ladies would smile with their crooked teeth and hand you one. When you were four, it was like winning the lottery.

Once, I took my then-six-year-old niece there. Our purchases included a pumpernickel loaf. "Why is that bread burned?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. "It's not," I laughed. "It's a kind of bread called a pumpernickel." She looked me straight in the eye and said, " You're a pumpernickel."

While home from college one summer, I was accosted by an elderly lady I had never met her before. She sized me up, then pointed in my face: "You're a Wieder boy, aren't you?" All the men in my family are clearly related, but I was still impressed.

Years ago, Esquire magazine ran a story about American cities, and all the best places in each that only the locals knew. Lax was of the Cleveland entries. The writer noted that the pastry to get was the " high hat ," a cupcake with a cupcake-size dollop of frosting on top encased in a hard chocolate shell. Unfortunately, Esquire got it wrong; the high hat is overwhelmed by the frosting. The way to go is the chocolate-less Russian tea biscuit . It's death-row, last-meal good. The Dobish torte is also pretty amazing.

This is not the first time the bakery has been in trouble. It was closed for three or four years in the 1980s. In 2012, a car drove through the window. A large oven fire another time did $50,000 in damage -- a lot of, um, dough for a bakery.

Afraid they wouldn't pull through, I cut the notice about the fire out of the paper. My sister made a face at my nostalgia. Years later, when her favorite local department store closed, she called me with the news: "Remember when I made fun of you for being sad about a bakery? I get it now."

I pray that Lax & Mandel, and its owner, have a speedy and perfect recovery. If they want to save the bakery, they could probably have everyone in town write down their favorite memories of the place, turn them into a book, and sell it. I'd buy a copy, especially if the second half was a cookbook containing some of their recipes ... if only to help save the bakery. After all, it would be a sad world indeed if no future generation knew what a real Russian tea biscuit tasted like.

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