Guest Post: A Story About Challah Making
A shul friend of mine asked if I would like to go to her cousin's house in Long Island, where women often gather to make Challah. My friend has serious eye problems and sometimes we are fortunate enough to find each other, when one of us needs help. She invited me during the , where I assisted her in finding a Torah with which to march in the Hakafot "parade." She said she had prayed to G-d on the way to shul, that she would find someone to help her participate, to feel closer to G-d before her upcoming week of eye treatments, which starts today [October 25]. (All prayers are appreciated, for Rukhama bat Sarah.)
We went to her cousin's that Friday. I was told to bring salt, sugar, and oil -- but was devastated at the last minute as I was driving to get her when I realized that I had forgotten my "special" ingredient -- the ground flax seed, my egg replacer. The sacredness of the ritual would be ruined for me if I had to break eggs into a special bread I would later say blessings over -- for separating challah and for making Hamotzi. I decided not to go back to get it (and be late). I kept driving, and when my friend got in, I told her the problem. She said, "No eggs!" I thought maybe I didn't understand her Persian accent or that she was mistaken. The flour would be provided, so I figured she meant that the eggs would also be provided. I was anxious about this, though happy to be in R's company. We talked deeply as we drove, about happy and sad parts of our life. She empathized with me about a lost love to whom she had introduced me. I thanked her so much for lifting my spirits and inviting me to make challah.
We arrived at her cousin's house, which was large, and beautiful like her. S warmly welcomed me and we all chatted. She said she had some soup on the stove; I thanked her but disregarded her comment, since I figured the soup would be non-vegan. We began by first slipping some money into a Tzedakah envelope, then ritually washing our hands, just the three of us. She said she wasn't religious, but there was something special in her way.
S started us with measuring the 3 tablespoons of salt, the "criticism." She explained that we had to overfill the tablespoon measure, and then push off the over-level amount with the index finger -- to accept a level amount of criticism about ourselves, and then "brush off" the rest; we were OK without that extra criticism. I was feeling good.
The salt went into a huge pot, one for each of us. On top of that went 5 pounds of flour (1/2 white, 1/2 wheat), which I was always too intimidated to use the few times I had made challah on my own! So I was never able to say the bracha of separating. And I was always worried about how warm the water was; would the yeast froth? In unison, we formed mountains with our 5 pounds, combined with 1 cup of sugar. Around them, S told us to sprinkle the four packages of yeast! Next we began kneading, with the addition of 6 to 6 1/2 cups of hot water, one at a time, which S poured to us lovingly. No one was worried about activating the yeast, combining wet into dry -- what a relief! We kept kneading and kneading -- it sometimes became harder, and S explained that's because life isn't always easy. I had never needed 5 pounds of flour to learn that! Somehow when I physically exerted myself, the message came more clearly. She also reminded us many times over that we were creating. Though sometimes women feel like an accessory, helping others, this time we were the creators; women are blessed with the ability to create. We were told to add 3/4 cup of oil ourselves as we kept kneading, creating.
Next came the separating: pull off from the four corners of the dough, the four corners of the Earth, different parts of ourselves, into a small ball about the size of -- an egg! It was only the semblance of life that I was using -- I did not add any eggs or take any life to create this ritual bread. What a blessing I said after the ritual one! Thank you, G-d, for not making me put one of your creatures into my creation. Thank you, S.
Each of our doughs went into a big white plastic garbage bag. No worries about how warm the room was or what to cover the dough with! It could expand to its delight. Now what were we going to do with all of this dough? S said that we would have to give some challah away to complete the circle, just like the separated challah was something that was given away, not for our use.
While it rose, S ushered us to the lunch table, where her sister joined us and the cousins exchanged boisterous laughter. Before us, she placed that steaming tureen -- of vegan soup! Greens, potatoes, and love. Next came curried halves of butternut squash, along with a vinegared red-cabbage salad -- we were treated to a gourmet vegan feast, in a home where meat kebabs were the norm. S hadn't known I was vegan; how did this happen? We were all amazed. One of the stories she told was about giving a gift basket to an Indian neighbor as a thank-you for a favor. The neighbor said thank you for the New Year's gift -- who knew?
I thanked R and took her home. After a business appointment with my customer's child sitting next to the dough blob in the back seat of my car, I returned home and frantically braided two large and four small challot, hoping I would finish baking before candlelighting. I missed the Shabbat service that night in favor of delivering challot, riding the elevator up just minutes before Shabbat. I had two thankful elderly Jewish neighbors. One had recently lost her husband. She said she was just sitting down to eat.
Yes, the challah was delicious.
When I stepped into the elevator of my building on Motzei Shabbat, I saw the one Indian family who lives there. I said hello and then noticed the beautiful Indian outfits they were wearing. The couple and their 2-year-old were all glowing, as if reflecting candlelight. I said Happy New Year, and they said thank you. As soon as I sat down at my computer, I Googled to find out that this was Diwali, the .