The Bread Also Rises
If there’s anything just and good that’s come out of these last befuddling years, it’s that we’re celebrating carbs again.
The pandemic turned seemingly everyone into a bread-baking fanatic, neighbors sharing sourdough starters and precious yellow packets of Fleischmann’s during the Great Yeast Shortage of 2020. Slabs of rosemary-scented focaccia and loaves of banana bread were left at doorsteps in lieu of hugs to stave off the loneliness. Bread became the safest expression of love in those pre-vaccine months, and we all tried not to notice that we gained ten pounds, Keto obedience and gluten sensitivities be damned.
For a while, I focused my alchemical baking attempts on making challah, the braided egg bread found on Jewish Sabbath tables on Friday nights (and often at breakfast Saturday mornings, because it makes the best French toast.) Our family hardly counts as religious, what with Mark’s shrimp addiction and the constant temptation of Waffle House bacon. But keeping the weekly tradition of Shabbat—lighting candles, grimacing at sips of Manischewitz, intoning a few words of gratitude—has always been a way to connect to each other throughout the whirlwind of school and work.
I also feel like it’s the least I can do for our ancestors, who managed to pass on the ritual for almost six thousand years, and who am I to be the one who disrupts the epic chain letter of Jewish tradition?
But the thing about bread, it takes time, which I never had much of when the kids were growing up. After years of procuring challah from the capable bakers at Publix, or sometimes from the gourmet hippie Christians at the Mate Factor, I figured the empty hours of COVID would finally grant me the patience to bake my own.
Unfortunately, my challah was total shit. For weeks I’d wake up on Friday morning and mix the yeast with water and a little sugar, waiting for the telltale bubbles. Then I’d mix and knead and wait for it to rise, braiding six lines according to the Gottlieb’s recipe handed down from my mother-in-law. But I’m forever a slap-dash type of cook, a pinch-and-a swig kinda gal who can whip up a tasty matzah ball soup from a rotisserie chicken and some farfel but is simply incapable of the precision that baking requires. My Shabbat loaves were bland and dense, the braiding resembling a macrame project that had been attacked by a cat.
Then quarantine lifted and I gave up my weak attempts at both bread baking and macrame, leaving such arts to their experts. Why make it when you can buy it? But there’s lingering regret about abandoning the effort to make challah, that I’m missing out on a tradition I’m supposed to pass on, though when you can fight dragons and find love in a virtual reality headset, what kids these days want to watch dough rise?
Yeah, I sound like an alter kocker, but it seems like many things that used to connect generations are dissolving under the pixelated tide of marketing and appropriation—if it’s not TikTok-able, it’s not worth doing. Cripes, even baseball isn’t baseball anymore, with the Savannah Bananas forsaking the rules of the game for full Harlem Globetrotter spectacle and profit.
Which is why it felt important to attend a challah baking workshop at Congregation Mickve Israel last week, just to keep my fingers sticky, so to speak. Belonging to this historic synagogue, founded in 1733 just a few months after General Oglethorpe laid claim to the bluff that’s now Bay Street, feeds my sense of continuity with Savannah and the shtetl of my ancestors. And when I happen to show up at the right time, it just plain feeds me.
A spread of hummus and olives and vats of sweet tea awaited in the back of the social hall as Carol Greenberg, longtime community arts maven and one of the founding organizers of the Shalom Y’all Food Festival (in Yiddish parlance, we call her a balabusta, meaning a woman who does it ALL) oversaw a group of 20 or so ladies hovering over bowls of bubbling yeast.
“OK, time to add the flour! Just a little at a time now,” called Carol, wearing an apron emblazoned with Girlz in the (Sister)Hood as fellow balabustas Margo Ames and Teresa Victor oversaw the kneading. Seasoned sisterhood members Lauri Taylor and Sue Friedman waved at me through clouds of flour, and I stood watching with eager acolyte April Haas, who probably doesn’t think of herself as a balabusta though I assume as the rabbi’s wife the title is automatically bestowed?
Here were the elders with the time and patience to teach this age-old tradition, though I was perfectly happy to observe, considering my previous baking failures. However, in order to ensure the ancient knowledge was bequeathed to the next generation, I brought along my 22 year-old son, who graciously endured the many questions about his future.
(Yes, he’s taking a gap year before applying to medical school. In Buenos Aires. With his boyfriend, William. Yes, the same boyfriend since high school. They are supporting themselves with remote gigs; Abe is tutoring, Will is a graphic designer. Yes, Argentina is very far away. Yes, they know about the Nazis there. Of course they will be careful. Yes, he knows he is leaving right before Rosh Hashanah, he already sent an email to the synagogue. Yes, he promises to Facetime his mother often.)
As the raw dough rose, Carol shared a bit of background about challah as the “secret to Jewish survival,” how bread in some form carried the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Hebraic people from the time of Moses’ sister and big time prophetess Miriam, who I like to think of as the original balabusta.
“I feel like Miriam would've totally rocked TikTok,” whispered April. “I mean, the dances she could do with those tambourines?”
It’s customary to have two challah for Shabbat to honor the “double blessings” of manna told of in the Torah, and for the upcoming new year of Rosh Hashanah the normally braided loaves are fashioned into spirals to represent the ever-spinning wheel of life. It’s my understanding that bread plays a pretty big part in Christianity, too, and it was comforting to be reminded that sacred carbs feed the soul as well as the stomach.
The theme of the gathering was Challah & Chesed, the latter referring to the Hebrew version of lovingkindness. Chesed is generally invoked as acts of service in the community, and the rising loaves would be delivered to seniors and others unable to come to Rosh Hashanah services next month. It also means compassion, especially to oneself, and Carol admonished us to practice some self-care by getting something to eat.
“What if it’s not about the bread?” she asked, gently prolonging the discussion as we noshed, another storied Jewish pastime. “How does baking challah relate to the traditions we do for ourselves, as well as for others?”
Some participants shared stories of baking with their Jewish bubbies in their childhoods, lamenting how times have changed, how time itself seemed to be in shorter supply. They wondered if the braided bread that connects us to the past will fray with assimilation and so many new-fangled distractions, that the oppression and exclusion that congealed the traditions in the first place will be, well, toast.
But April, who stands between worlds as a millennial mom and the rebbetzin of the third oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., begged to differ.
“I don’t think innovations threaten tradition,” she said thoughtfully. “It’s about the intention. We keep traditions as best we can under the circumstances, and we pass them on.”
I wondered if that was true, if my grown children would carry on the chain letter of their people, even if their mother never did make a decent loaf of challah. It’s hard enough to live your own life, let alone feel responsible for passing on traditions. I think of the people of Ukraine keeping their culture alive under the rain of bombs, the kids in Kentucky whose schools were swept away in the floods, our nearby neighbors for whom long COVID or unemployment or addiction make it a struggle to simply put bread on the table at all.
Perhaps Carol was right; it’s not about the challah but the chesed, and maybe preserving the traditions of our own cultures can help us be more intentional in creating a more generous, equitable world for all.
The next day was Friday, and I went out for groceries for our Shabbat meal, one of our last before Abraham leaves for Argentina. I’m trying hard not to pressure him about his career or saddle him with guilt for going five thousand miles to the bottom of the damn planet, and in turn he has promised to attend Rosh Hashanah services in Buenos Aires and not to talk to any skanky old Nazis.
When I came home, the kitchen was covered in flour. I had assumed he was checking out House of Dragons fanwiki during Carol’s talk, yet here two beautiful braided challahs sat rising on the counter. “I used a little less sugar and added honey,” he confessing his own innovation to the recipe handed out the day before.
They came out perfectly.
Here’s to carrying on traditions, whatever yours may be ~ JLL
P.S. You don’t have to be a balabusta to want to learn how to bake better challah—there are still a few slots open for Hadassah’s workshop with social media sensation The Challah Prince on Tuesday, Sept. 6 at 6pm at the JEA. All are welcome!
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