November 18, 2019

The Baker: Chapter Six

PREVIOUSLY: Ernie Feld is a pastry chef whose own life has now sweetness.

Call it the Mystery of Ernie. 

Those who knew him wondered: What had so damaged this complex man? 

They couldn’t understand why this mercurial baker could often be both so warm and gregarious in public and a private tyrant among his own family. 

Magnanimous with strangers, yet incapable of showing tenderness to those closest to him.

There was simply no give; no compromise. 

Beneath the bluster, they all believed, there was pronounced emotional damage.

Deep down, there was a man who did not know how to love or be loved — not by his ex-wives and girlfriends, children and even grandchildren.

Was it fallout from a life in the camps? Maybe the ghosts of Nazi occupation, when prisoners suffered torture, starvation and mass extermination? 

Many World War Two survivors returned with grave emotional wounds. Did the indignities of Nazi rule and the years in the the British camp harden Ernie’s spirit, cause him to thumb his nose at the world, even those closest to him?

Or was there another explanation?

Was Ernie always this hard-hearted — a boy whose father died too early, and who rarely found the embrace of his overworked mother? 

Was it precisely that surliness that helped him stand up to face his Nazi — and later his British — overseers?

Was it that arrogance and pluck that helped him survive?

Did the indignities he suffered in the war and afterwards make him draw a line, creating the kitchen as his own personal fortress?

The rest of the world — loved ones included — be damned?

And if so, his family wondered, how hard would it be to shatter this self-made shell? Could he allow those who had never hurt him breach the moat into his kitchen bunker?

With Morde, his son from the first marriage, and Sharon, his daughter from the second, Ernie expressed his emotions through his pastries — like a distant father showing his love with money, gifts or unlimited credit. 

With Ernie it was like this: you may get the cake in the end, just don’t dare get in his way while he’s making it.

They were the myriad faces of Ernie.

For years, he questioned young Morde’s intelligence, embarrassed him in public, but he also made his strudel for his son’s teachers and, much later, even his U.S. Naval commanders, as a way to curry favor for his son.

Once, soon after she had met Morde, his wife Marianne overhead Ernie berating his son for an entire hour on the telephone. 

When the two hung up, Morde noticed her standing there.

“Did you hear that?” he asked embarrassedly.

“Unfortunately,” she said.

“What can I do?” he finally said. “He’s my father.”

His intimidating, infuriating father — one who had never, ever hugged his son, yet was so preoccupied by the young boy’s education that he often came to school and sat right behind him in the classroom, to make sure the teachers were doing their jobs. 

Morde loved Ernie, still called him “Aba,” or Dad, but in adulthood he kept the old man at arm’s length; a weary now-grown son who’d eventually just given up.

Ernie’s daughter Sharon had it worse. 

With Sharon, while Ernie might have bragged about her fortitude and intelligence to bakery customers and others, he never once said as much to her face. 

It was the baffling mystery of Ernie, the secret ingredient to his personality, a brief moment of emotional connection when you least expected it. 

And there was another driving force in his life:

His religion.

It led him to connect with people — even though it might have gone against his nature.

As a boy, Ernie had never fully embraced Judaism, had never wholly identified himself as a Jew. But in a remarkable turn of events, Ernie found the religion of his life, one that helped drive him toward his destiny, often surfacing at the most unexpected moments to sustain him. 

After losing his family — whose only real crime, he would always say, was being Jewish — he joined forces with religious fighters to help create the free state of Israel. 

As a struggling baker in Oakland, Calif., he later relied on Jewish-created loans to see him though.

And in his later years, he became active in his synagogue in Incline Village; serving a president, catering events, even inviting Jewish children into his kitchen to instruct them in the art of baking. 

Maybe that was it, then: baking and Judaism were his secret ingredients. 

But there was something missing.

Ernie was like a cake without frosting, a concoction too bitter to be sweet.

A baker, father, husband, neighbor who lacked the tenderness for those he supposedly loved.

It was a mystery that broke people’s hearts.

NEXT WEEK: A young Ernie escapes his German captors