Before the quarantine, I never seemed to find the time, patience, or volition to make homemade challah.
But when the pandemic struck, I thought--like so many of you--I'd give it a try. After all, with my "office" just steps from the kitchen--okay, in my kitchen--I suddenly had ample time to wait for the dough to rise.
Yet, still, I kept putting it off until late May when I read a short reflection by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, of Am Shalom, about the life lessons that accompany challah baking: "Overwork it-and you end up with a tough loaf," she wrote. "Don't give it a long enough rise time--and it's dense and flat." Her meditation on baking challah inspired me to start making my own--and now I've jumped on the challah-making bandwagon.
Need a refresher on why Jews eat challah? Well, for starters, it's delicious. Also, challah has Biblical roots, referencing the portion of dough set aside as a tithe for the
Making challah has grown to be one of my favorite pandemic activities. Here's why:
I attribute meaning to each of the ingredients that go into challah, components that elicit symbolism-almost a poetry to them. Yeast is a powerful organism, able to convert dough from one chemical state to another, allowing the dough to rise. Sugar introduces sweetness to the recipe, both literal and figurative. Eggs represent wholeness and fertility. Oil reminds me of the miracle of the Jewish people. And salt--a substance that never decays--used both in making the challah and served with it at the Shabbat table, represents the eternal bond between God and Israel.
Along with the rest of the Shabbat dinner prep, challah making and the beautiful meal that accompanies it, distinguishes Shabbat from the rest of the week. In COVID times, when every day can feel like a Tuesday, carving out sacred space from the mundane carries greater meaning. Weekly challah baking makes time feel less amorphous, a welcome punctuation point to close out the week.
Challah isn't fast food. No, you can't rush the baking process. Rather, it's an intentional-even meditative activity. When I'm making challah, I can tune out the external noise. In fact, it's one of the few times in the week that I'm able to put down my phone. I've come to discover it's almost impossible, and super messy, to knead dough and check your inbox simultaneously.
Baking challah incorporates all the senses. The malleable dough against the softness of the flour, the delightful aroma of freshly baked bread, the ding of the oven timer, the glistening, golden brown hue of the challah straight out of the oven.
And most noteworthy, baking challah in my Jewish home binds me to all the other challah bakers in theirs. Like three interwoven strands --past, present, and future--I mix, knead, and braid just as my great-grandmothers in East European shtetls mixed, kneaded, and braided a century ago. Just like family and friends mix, knead, and braid in their quarantine homes today. And just as one day--when the coronavirus is a distant memory--I hope my daughter will mix, knead, and braid in her own home.