The mom behind the mitzvah wall

Lagusta Yearwood is not only the proprietor of the region’s only vegan chocolate shop, Lagusta’s Luscious in New Paltz, but she also owns and operates Commissary, a vegan café just up the street. Here she is pictured standing by the mitzvah wall at Commissary. (photo by Jeremiah Horrigan)

At one time, Lagusta Yearwood thought that she wanted to a life in academia: maybe study eco-feminist literary criticism at NYU’s grad school. “But then, it was like, ‘Why?’ I didn’t want to be a professor. I wanted to do something in the world.”

She spoke to a friend and mentor in 2000, told her she was considering something a bit less…esoteric: culinary school. Her friend, author Carol Adams, urged her to take that path. “That’s what you should do; that makes a lot more difference in the world.”

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Yearwood has been making a difference in the world ever since. She’s not only the proprietor of the region’s only vegan chocolate shop, Lagusta’s Luscious in New Paltz, but she also owns and operates Commissary, a vegan café just up the street. And within a week of opening Commissary, she and a friend, macaron maven Maresa Volante, opened a vegan “sweet shop” in Manhattan.

Veganism is Yearwood’s passion. Those shops represent her efforts to demonstrate veganism’s attractions and benefits to unbelievers while feeding the needs of its converts.

Yearwood rolls her eyes at the memory of what it took to open two shops in two weeks in two distant locations, not to mention the time and toll that it takes to be the co-chair of the Town of New Paltz Planning Board. Along the way, she has discovered new needs of which she feels the world should take further notice. The plunge she took into opening the two new shops has revealed to her just how deeply she was affected by an event outside the view of the public and even, for a time, of herself: the death of her mother, Pauline Dubkin-Yearwood, some 20 months ago.

Lagusta’s mom, the late Pauline Dubkin-Yearwood, a longtime reporter for the Chicago Jewish News and an enthusiastic volunteer.

Her mother was a lifelong journalist who worked primarily for the Chicago Jewish News. Yearwood attributes her presence on the Planning Board – as demanding and thankless a task as there is in any community – to her mother’s influence. Her mother’s influence is also the inspiration of a recent addition to the Commissary: a mitzvah wall. “My mom raised me with the kind of quiet, very secular Jewish belief that you just have to do these little good things. Hence the Planning Board. But the idea of a mitzvah is that you do it anonymously: a little nice thing that makes someone’s day better.”

Her mother always had a volunteer job; she always worked in animal shelters, cleaning cat boxes after work without complaint. “I feel like there’s a sense the whole hippie generation, or the generation after that, my generation, had a sense of volunteering and public service that I don’t feel like people – Millennials – have now.”

Here’s where the mitzvah wall (the word means “good deed”) comes into play: A customer can purchase a treat of any sort for anyone who may be short of cash or merely in need of a pick-me-up. The customer can describe someone as imaginatively as they wish – a lonely vegan, a kilt-wearing Scot yearning for a good cup of tea, a blue-eyed dog-lover – and post their offering in a note to the wall. When someone matching the description comes along, they can claim their iced coffee or pickle plate or macaron.

If she feels that the mitzvah wall was a great idea, Yearwood has also come to believe that her headlong plunge into the two new businesses wasn’t. She received contradictory advice when her mother died. One friend in particular warned her that she needed time to grieve. “She told me, ‘You’re a workaholic; doing this is going to make grieving that much harder.’”

Yearwood sees the wisdom of that advice now. “I think I’m only realizing in the past six months that she was totally right. I did not give myself time to grieve. It was great at first – I loved throwing myself into work – but I feel like I am having the most horrible delayed grief reaction. It was hard not having my mom that first year, but I had these huge, shiny toys: huge businesses to run that were so stressful. And now I have to have a little bit more space to think.”

At the time, she said, the plunge made sense: It allowed her to keep going every day. “But it always catches up with you. It’s been a year-and-a-half, but now, it just hurts all the time.”

She heaves a sigh and brings the conversation back to the mitzvah wall. “With both the Commissary and the confectionery, we tried really hard to put little elements of my mom in those places, like with the mitzvah wall.” She takes a breath and casts her eyes to the synagogue across the street. “I feel really passionate about reclaiming Judaism in a secular, atheist way. When I was growing up, there was a real culture of Woody Allen, Einstein, Trotsky: atheist Jews; kind of funny, neurotic Jews. And now I feel like Judaism has been hijacked by religion in a way.”

Again, her mother’s influence comes to bear. “My mom grew up in Chicago, and even though I grew up in Arizona, she was always very urban, sophisticated, with that sensibility.” Like everything else, she said, things have been polarized, “and it makes me sad.”

Should you feel the need to comment, to offer Yearwood either advice or encouragement, to contribute in some small way to her effort or perhaps to offer a pick-me-up, the Commissary is located on Church Street, where you’ll find the opportunity to do so – anonymously – inside. You don’t have to be Jewish, or even vegan, to do a mitzvah.

For more on Commissary at 11 Church Street in New Paltz, visit www.facebook.com/LLCommissary. To learn more about Lagusta’s Luscious confectionery at 25 North Front Street in New Paltz, visit www.lagustasluscious.com.

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