Where do you find ritual when your parents’ traditions leave you cold?
Might I suggest a loaf of bread?
The loaf I’m talking about is an enriched, brioche-style number called challah. Learning how to make it right and, more importantly, how to make it my own, has become meditation, therapy, a pathway to family love, and, at times, even a backdoor to spiritual life.
The roots of my challah ritual go back to when my stepmother found religion and announced that Shabbat dinners would be served every Friday to what had been a staunchly secular family. Bogus, bogus, bogus, I thought at the time. Yes, the food was filling and the wine, plentiful (something an out-of-work college-grad appreciated) but when mouthing the Shabbos blessings I felt as if I were being forced to read the script for a part that wasn’t in my contract. This bogusness was best expressed by the store-bought challah that sat on the Sabbath table. With its overbearing sweetness and dried out crumb it seemed more like day-old cake. No surprise that half of it was always left uneaten.
And so, I strayed to other loaves. After quarreling with my stepmother and failing to find work in New York I left for a job in Eastern Europe. In the godless lands of the former communist empire I came to appreciate Moscow’s musky black Soviet factory bread. Journeying south to the newly independent republics of the Caucasus I ate many Georgian hachapouri and, to avoid any evidence of ethnic bias, I put away equal amounts of Armenian lavash. In Sarajevo I pondered the end of the Serbian siege over piles of lipinja wrapped snug around bullets of cevapi. And in Paris, my last expat residence before returning to New York, I was seduced by the sexy tic-tic-tic the baguettes made cooling in my mesh bag as I toted them back to a lover in the 3rd arrondisement who was studying to be a mime.
I put all that bread behind me when I returned to New York and met Esther.
Our relationship started or, rather, almost didn’t start with my complete denial of any connection to Judaism. On one of those confusing are-we-friends-or-is-this-a-date? evenings that often mark the beginning of a contemporary romance, I blurted out that I didn’t think I could ever be with a Jewish woman. “Okee doke,” Esther remembers saying to herself, “that’s that with Paul Greenberg .” But time and tide turned friendship to courtship to the point where we moved in together, had a son and began having, yes, Shabbat dinners on Friday evenings. Only this time, I vowed, the challah would be different.
Bread formulas like religious strictures are often presented as if they are inviolable wisdoms upon which you must not improvise. This, it turns out, is profoundly untrue.
As a freelance writer I often have more time than money. And so bread baking has become an integral part of my job description as dad and partner. My standard loaf, a 100% whole wheat sourdough ends up costing about 80 cents. Cooking time and effort is far exceeded by its rewards. My son, now age 14, thinks store-bought bread “tastes kind of weird.”
Challah, though, is a different creature. To do it right you need to be a mensch.
First, you have to commit. You must clearly establish when dinner is going to be served, count backwards by four and half hours and plan to be hanging around the house for the entire afternoon.
Next, you must be generous. Unlike my workaday 80 cent loaf, a challah requires a sizable clutch of eggs, good, quality honey, and saffron which prices out at around $1500 a pound (ok, only a few threads are used for every loaf, but still…).
After generosity comes patience. A good challah requires four separate rises. One after the initial kneading. A second to “de-gas” the dough. A third after you’ve divided out the loaf into a family of three separate “boules” and a fourth after you’ve stretched out your family of boules into strands and brought them together into a braided unity.
Additionally, you must get out of your fixed mindset. A proper challah is braided from the middle and not the terminal points. This is anathema to those of us who want things to begin at the beginning and end at the end. Further complicating the matter, the braid going down one side of a challah is different from the braid going the other way. Left of center you braid overhand, tapering to the left as you go. In the other direction you do an underhand maneuver. Sure, you can do a challah linearly — a single braid starting at the beginning and ending at the end. But when you do that your challah looks like a mummy.
Abandoning your fixed mindset also means questioning the formula itself (in bread cookbooks recipes are called “formulas”). When I began looking for a challah formula I could work with, all the Jewish cookbooks I consulted led me to loaves that resembled those store-bought ones I detested. I finaly found what I was looking for in a book by a former Eastern Orthodox seminarian. But even his challah wasn’t quite right. Bread formulas, like religious strictures, are often presented as if they are inviolable wisdoms upon which you must not improvise. This, it turns out, is profoundly untrue. Over the years I’ve backed off on the sweetness, upped the olive oil, and introduced a kneading method whereby the outside is worked into the inside in a series of rapid convolutions. It’s hard to describe. It works. But not always.
Which brings me to another guiding principle. You must be prepared for failure and self-forgiveness. Sometimes even a perfectly braided challah malfunctions. An overstretched strand can blow a gasket. A hyperactive batch of yeast can swell your loaf beyond all recognition, blurring all that careful braiding into an unseemly blob. But the key here is that even when it looks bad, it can taste good.
And it is with taste that the last, most important aspect of the challah bond is sealed. You must, in the end, like the challah you make and make the challah you like. Looking back on those early force-fed Shabbat dinners at my parents’, I realize that eating someone else’s challah made me feel as if a belief system I didn’t believe in was being crammed down my throat. It was only when I began dismantling the challah formula and reassembling it according to my preferences that I came to love my bread and my own Friday night dinners. And, funnily enough, the only person who likes my challah more than I do is my stepmom.
What challah has taught me is that, in the end, the only ritual worth replicating is one that is braided through with your own family’s life force. Is God the source of that force? People within even a happy family are likely to disagree on this question.
In the meantime, together, we can all break bread.