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This neatly packaged book of fiction (based on real life events of the author) whose storyline begins on Rosh Hashanah, can be read by children and adults alike. Its universal themes will catch the interest of your children, their friends and your friends. It’s very possible that this charming book will become the topic of conversation at your table. Besides capturing the imagination of its readers, the book lays out 12 succinct recipes for baking anything with chocolate. 

The story takes place in 1945 at the close of World War II. The main character, Dorrie, is an 11 year old schoolgirl that’s entering the 5th grade. Dorrie is excited because she is beginning “The Sweet Semester”, a semester where the children compete in a baking contest to produce the sweetest and tastiest cake which must be accompanied with a short essay surrounding any story that’s related to the baking of the cake. The teacher reveals to the class that there will be a new feature added to this year’s contest. A reporter and photographer from the Chicago Daily News would be present to document the story and take a photograph of the winner which would then be inserted into the newspaper.

Dorrie decides that her cake will be made of chocolate. Dorrie is confident in her chances of success due to having a mother that’s a world class baker. She’s reliant on the fact that her mother would ultimately help her in winning the contest thus securing her the coveted photo in the paper.

During the story, we are introduced to Dorrie’s Bubbie (grandmother), Uncle Jack, who has a dog named Buddy (that is caught locking its jaw on the pot roast that was prepared for Rosh Hashanah) and the rest of the family.

We are forced to identify with Dorrie’s difficult predicament of not having her mother’s full attention, as her mother is constantly preparing the holiday meals, worried for others or attending to needs of an immediate or closely extended family member. Dorrie always hears her family talking about Victor, her Bubbie’s sister’s grandson (tantamount to a second-cousin), someone who apparently survived the war and was stuck in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp. She knows it’s serious, but doesn’t understand what the great fuss is.

Dorrie, who had one focus, to win “Sweet Semester,” begins to wonder whether there are other things in life that have equal or more importance than a baking contest which earns her a picture in the Chicago Daily News. Slowly she starts to catch onto the serious implications that WWII had on survivors like Victor.

Finally, the family is told of Victor’s release from the DP camp and upon reaching America, he moves in with Dorrie’s family. After Victor comes to reside at the house, Dorrie begins to build a relationship with Victor even sacrificing her own bed to ensure that Victor can feel what it’s like to sleep in comfort.

At the end, we revisit the baking competition and it seems by then that Dorrie’s “life experiences” puts “Sweet Semester” in perspective.
The story’s allure is based upon the simplicity of the writing. The reader is taken into a story of one family’s bonding over the course of the holidays spanning from from Rosh Hashanah to Pesach. Though food is usually the uniting theme, many larger issues are at stake.

As a bonus, one is given 12 genuine recipes for baking anything with chocolate in it, whether it be chocolate cake, chocolate cookies, chocolate pudding, chocolate nut clusters or chocolate caramel apples. 

It’s the perfect book to pick up for the new year as it contains themes of Rosh Hashanah, remembering Yom HaShoa, the importance of family and the introduction of the younger generation to the generations of past.

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3/8/2011

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