aking Challah; aking Shabbat
It is Friday morning. As I sleepily grind the beans for the morning coffee and fuss over the rushed-through breakfast of my high-schooler, pack the middle schooler’s lunch and scan the newspaper’s shrill headlines, I remember that it is time to think about making my challah. I have to plan my day around it. Will I be home to punch the dough as it rises? Will the kitchen be warm enough? My daughters complain about the sour smell of yeast in the air, but I find comfort in it. It is the smell of life itself. The act of baking bread seems sweetly simple and indescribably satisfying.
Perhaps because my birthday is December 31st, I have always been exquisitely aware of time and its inexorable tick, tick, tick. Perhaps as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I feel the burden of living for all the dead and unmourned relatives and so every minute “wasted” is a sort of sin. Hard to live one’s life feeling that one needs to account for every minute. The Irish expression “excuse me ferr livin'” has always had a deep resonance for me. So it is no wonder that the ritual of Shabbat, of marking the end of each week, of sanctifying time, of paying attention to another beginning and ending of another seven days of our lives strikes me as deeply worthwhile.
“Making Shabbat” refers to the set of activities that the Jewish family follows to observe the Sabbath. The table is set with ceremony: white tablecloth, the “good” china and silver, the Shabbat candlesticks and candles, the ritual Kiddush cup for wine, the challah. The traditional foods and their aromas waft in from the kitchen: matzo ball soup, roast chicken; a reduced version of Thanksgiving, but repeated weekly not annually. If we’re really organized (and while the children were still young and sweetly compliant) we might get dressed up for the occasion. Then we turn down the electric lights and put fire to the candles, reciting in unison the ancient blessing. For a brief, magical moment we are lost in a sense of timelessness, joined in a tradition that reaches back through the millennia. I feel the paradoxical tension that my own life is a meaningless blip in the large universe and that I am rendered immortal by observing this Jewish mitzvah (or commandment). My love for the Jewish people, my great longing to feel connected, to be a link in this amazing chain of survival, is not predicated on a belief in God. I remain fundamentally skeptical about His or Her existence.
Marking the end of the work week is a major part of my desire to observe the ritual of a Shabbat dinner on Friday night. All week long my family and I are pulled in too many directions. A regularly observed dinner hour becomes increasingly rare. It feels like it’s my job to try to create a special atmosphere in the house as the weekly putative day of rest approaches. My teenager rolls her eyes: what a ridiculously old-fashioned idea! The mall, the internet, the videos beckon. And yet, as the smell of baking bread casts its spell, as we light the candles and say the blessing, our prosaic suburban home becomes imbued with an indefinable quality. We try to sanctify our lives, to remind ourselves to be thankful for our food, our health, our love for one another.
My good friend Johanna gave me the recipe. Each time I make it I have learned and altered it. (A little too sweet. Maybe more salt. The oven needs to be hotter, no, cooler. A few raisins or poppy seeds next time? If I try to run an errand while the bread is baking, I’ll come back to a smoky kitchen and a chal-lah with a blackened bottom. ) After the dough rises, I break it into thirds and roll them out into long rods, all the same size. Then I braid them together and let it rise again. With a little brush, I paint the egg yolk on, which will make it a golden, shiny brown once it’s baked. I always plan to have left-overs for French toast the next morning but so far it has disappeared before then.
One Friday afternoon, my daughter came home from school with a gaggle of her tall, pubescent friends. They descended on the kitchen as only ravenous teenagers can, just as my challah was ready to come out of the oven. Imagine the intense pleasure I felt as I offered it to them and watched them devour it, warm and fragrant and bursting with Yiddishkeit. It made up for all the afternoons I had been at the office and felt guilty that I couldn’t greet them with a plate of freshly baked cookies and a glass of milk.
I punch the dough, only to watch it rise again. This simple act seems to represent the very essence of life, as well as the enormous resilience, firstly of the Jewish people and secondly, of the entire human race. I am connected in this ritual with the generations of Jewish women who have come before me, and hopefully with my daughters and granddaughters and their daughters way into the future. I never knew either of my grandmothers, and I lost my two aunts in the Holocaust. But when I observe this simple ritual, I feel I am not alone. My ancestors fill my kitchen, smiling approvingly as I keep alive an Old World tradition in the face of an all-too-rapidly changing New World.
By setting aside one day to stand apart from the other six in the week, I am trying to be mindful of the passing of time, to create a container to hold me in my middle-aged anxieties, to comfort me as my children grow up and away from me, and as I grow old. My hope is that when I am gone, they may feel connected to me when, on some early Friday morning, they decide to sprinkle yeast into warm water and begin making their challah.