Communal Challah

By Siân Gibby | Issue Date: May 2012

Susan with fresh baked challahFor the last couple of years I have been writing a book about Jewish food. The idea came about as I grew into my new life as a Jew (after going to the mikvah in 2005 and assuming the Hebrew name Shirah bat avraham v’ Sarah) and I realized that certain aspects of our culture, my new culture, came more easily than others did. Study and prayer habits were easy to slot myself into. and some other customs, like how to behave at a shiva minyan, took some learning about.

The most problematic part of my life as a conscientious Jew is clearly food. Even though I didn’t come to Jewishness from a strongly defined food culture in my previous life, nevertheless I had trouble swallowing, as it were, some new-to-me foods, like lokshen kugel, gefilte fish, tzimmes, knishes. I decided, since I was finding it hard to get used to Ashkenazic foods, I should learn how to cook them.

It’s true that, as Jews, we have an enormous array of different kinds of foods to claim in our traditions; Roly introduced me to a wonderful book about Syrian Jewish delicacies, and I have tried making several of those. as many of us who have been to Israel with BJ trips can attest, there’s a panoply of delicious foods available in Israel, from a vast swath of traditions. So, eating ““Jewishly” didn’t only mean bialys and ptchah (calf’s foot jelly) and cholent. Still, those are the foods that my community eats and serves me at lovely Shabbat and hagim meals. So, I set out to cook with members of my home community.

The most recent cooking adventure I had was with Susan Viuker Landau. When I first started this project in 2010, I tried, as my maiden voyage in the Jewish kitchen, baking challah. Then over the months, I made chopped liver, flanken, matzo-ball soup, lemon chicken, a variety of kugels, Syrian ka’ak, Hungarian sour cherry cake, classic sponge cake, stuffed cabbage … the list goes on. But challah may be the most basic, most Jewish food, right? Bread being the staple of any meal, and Shabbat having the central place in our tradition that it rightfully claims.

Susan generously proposed that the two of us team up to bake challah one Friday morning recently, and I accepted her offer with alacrity. So, one cold and frosty Friday, I arrived at her gracious apartment, and we gathered the ingredients and set to baking.

A great thing about challah is that it lends itself readily to communal manufacture. In the old days, Jewish women in shtletls used to make their challah dough at home and then bring it to the group ovens to bake. Also, on account of two stages of proofing (where the dough sits to rise in bulk), challah baking affords plenty of time for chatting and preparing for Shabbat. Susan and I, who hadn’t known each other well up to that point, spent a fun morning schmoozing and looking at photo albums, sharing family stories and histories, discovering unlikely connections, readying ourselves for the Shabbat. When the loaves were at last braided and in the oven, Susan’s beautiful apartment was filled with an ancient and delicious aroma. It really began to feel like Shabbat then!

We agreed it would be so great if more BJ people could do something like this, getting together to make the Sabbath loaves, evoking in a very basic and primal way a family and communal activity of blessing and celebration that Jewish women (and men!) have enjoyed and cherished for thousands of years: producing, with b’ezrat HaShem, God willing, the central foodstuff of the Sabbath meal, consecrating it, and further beautifying the holy day.