Every Friday afternoon since the coronavirus has turned our world upside down, I have been baking fresh challah. I revel in the process: the measuring, the gradual rising, and especially the eating. But it has become so much more. As Roche Pinson wrote in her book, Rising: The Book of Challah, “We make challah from a place of commitment to nourish ourselves and our families in a way that goes beyond mere physical feeding and watering.”
Even though I can’t remember ever baking a challah before, two recent encounters with fresh-out-of-the-oven loaves motivated me. Last August met my future daughter-in-law’s parents in their home at their weekly Shabbat dinner. Along with the candle lighting and the kiddish, we all joined in the prayer over Carol’s freshly baked challah, a tradition she has maintained for decades. The taste of her delicious bread stayed with me throughout the coming months.
On one of the last services at our synagogue in Kissimmee before services were suspended, we congregants enjoyed home baked challah made by Liz Ross. The daughter of a Jewish mother and an Inuit chief, Liz had discovered her spiritual roots as an adult. As the only Jew in Unalakleet, Alaska, her only choice was to make her own challah to accompany her holiday meals. Years of experience yielded a wonderful, sweet bread.
On that first quarantined Friday, I decided a home made challah would be a perfect comfort food. I pulled out my friend Flo Miller’s challah recipe that I had stored in a recipe file for years and gathered all the necessary ingredients: yeast, flour, sugar, butter. I mixed and kneaded the sticky dough with my KitchenAid’s dough hook and covered it with a cloth tea towel. After it had risen, I shaped the dough into three challahs, brushed on the egg wash, and let it rise again. Once out of the oven, Larry and I dropped one of the loaves over on the doorstep of a friend who was spending Shabbos alone in as his wife was in isolation in the memory unit of a nearby nursing home.
As the two loaves waited under my mother’s challah cross stitch covering, I lit the Shabbat candles that we had placed in my Grandma Annie’s brass candlesticks. Larry recited the Kiddish over the Manischewitz wine, and then we both recited the HaMotzei over the warm braided bread. We sat down to our first Shabbat dinner in quarantine.
The following week, Larry and I headed to Publix at 7 a.m. as part of a “seniors only” shopping trip. I immediately headed to the baking aisle to stock up on my bread making supplies. I obviously was not the only one baking. Yeast, like toilet paper and hand sanitisers, had completely disappeared from the shelves, with flour, sugar, and eggs in short supply. We grabbed what we could and headed home.
Fortunately, the flour, sugar, and egg situation improved. Initial attempts on purchasing yeast online, however, were miserably unsuccessful. Amazon offered a three-pack of Fleischmann’s for $25, price gouging at its worst. I sent out an all-points bulletin on FaceBook, and three friends dropped off some packets they had in their cupboards. They each got a challah in return. Soon after, Amazon offered a one-pound bag of yeast. Despite the fact it was twice the normal price, I snapped it up.
Thus began my Friday ritual of making the bread and giving one or two of my loaves to others. As a thank-you for two homemade masks. As a “Mazel Tov” on finishing chemotherapy. As a wish for safe travels to their summer home. If the bread came out of the oven too late for delivery before sundown, we dropped it off the next day with a suggestion to warm it up, toast it, or make it into French toast.
Each week, I tweaked the process. Too much flour made the bread tough. An extra egg yolk made for a richer taste. Covering the bowl with a tea towel and then loosely wrapping it in a garbage bag helped in the rising. Slamming the ball of dough on the counter a few times removed extra gases—and relieved tension! Raisins were a wonderful addition. Creating a challah with six braids or more will take more practice.
One night, when an afternoon nap killed chances for my normal bedtime, I went on YouTube and found a series of challah baking videos made by Jamie Geller, the “Jewish Rachel Ray.” An Orthodox Jew who made aliyah to Israel in 2012 with her husband and six children, Jamie’s demonstration added a spiritual component that touched me. Although she is a professed “shortcut queen,” Jamie said she eschews a dough hook in favour of kneading the bread by hand to infuse her love into the loaves. She uses that time to pray for her children, her family, for people in need of r’fuah sh’leimah [complete healing].”
The next Friday, I used an electric mixer to start the process but then turned the dough onto my floured countertop. Like Jaime, I prayed for my children and grandchildren, who are physically so far away but always in my heart. I prayed for the wellbeing of my friends and family. I prayed for my friend Kathy who is on her way to recovering from COVID-19. I prayed for Minnie, a beautiful baby born at 29 weeks who will be spending her first weeks of life in a NICU unit. I prayed for Jesse, who just lost his wife to cancer. And I prayed for all those impacted by COVID-19, the sick, the grieving, the lonely, the unemployed, the hungry. Was it my imagination, or did the challah taste especially sweet, especially delicious that Friday night?
Recently, the need for prayers is even greater. Along with the pandemic and devastating unemployment numbers, our country is marked with racial strife and protests—both peaceful and violent. So each Friday, I knead my challah dough with additional prayers —for our country, for those on the front line of the pandemic, for those hurt by anti-Semitism and systemic racism. And as the beautiful, sweet braided loaves rise for the final time, I will call my elected officials to repeat the words of Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, “We stand in solidarity with the Black community as they yet again are subject to pain and suffering at the hands of a racist and unjust system…. Systemic injustice and inequality calls for systemic change. Now!” Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who brings forth bread from the earth. Amen.