Home October 2010 Fresh Challah

Fresh Challah

With the help of God, by the time this article appears in your local magazine, I will have celebrated another semi-milestone birthday.  My adult daughter (single and stunning, in case anyone is asking) will have departed for a vacation in Italy.   Another son will have traveled to South Africa for three weeks to visit his sister who lives there with her husband and children. The female teenage terror who shares my domicile will bop off to Eilat on a three-day trip class trip and return before the ink is dry on page 10 of Orange County Jewish Life.  And another son, who only recently appeared as though he was participating in a government-funded study of the effects of rapid eye movement and dream interpretation during interminable periods of sleep, will have unexpectedly taken entrance exams, filled out requisite applications, and begun college.  Everyone is healthy and conducting himself or herself either adequately or, in some cases, admirably.

Yep, it’s all good.

And therein lies the rub.  That “good” thing.  I often find myself asking – a little tremor in my voice – just how long “good” can last.  Is there something indigenously Jewish (either Eastern European or North African) that allows me to sit perched at the edge of a cliff marked “Jump.  Now or Tomorrow”?

Like so many others, I’ve made a modest mental list of “resolutions,” and one of them is to live in the moment and look “forward.”  Not let the past be my calling card but, rather, pack away the sadness, fear, timidity, and shame, and replace that bevy of albatrosses with taking chances, fine dining, the ultimate quest for romance, more writing, less housework, better prayer, and locating a superior pair of walking shoes.

Approximately ten years ago I made a different “resolution,” and with rare exception, we’ve managed to maintain the commitment to bake our own weekly challah for the Sabbath.  Oh, occasionally a circumstance arose that dictated that we succumb to purchasing the perfectly fine and tasty Israeli loaves that line supermarket shelves.  Nevertheless, this un-dogmatic custom grew out of a decade-old desire for communication and tactile connectedness to the things that make us Jewish and make us a family.  One child sifts the flour; a laborious task that we still do the old-fashioned “grandma way,” two kilos of flour in a fine mesh sieve with a couple of silver teaspoons or gold rings tossed in to give weight and friction to the action.  The kids do this in shifts, because it is tiring work.  I can always be relied upon to yell several times, “You’re shaking too wildly!”  “Lower the sieve.  There is more flour on the counter than in the bowl!”  “Did you wash your hands?”  And more often than not, I will find myself retelling the tale of Joseph in prison predicting the future punishment of Pharaoh’s royal baker as opposed to the exoneration of the wine steward.  The children, on cue, groan.

Someone else will add the yeast, oil, sugar, and salt, and we try to coordinate the mixing and kneading with the availability of the ripped, buff, off-the-charts, six-pack son who releases a lot of tension while plying the elastic dough.  (I don’t know what he’s learning in his yeshiva, but he seems to be a little aggressive after a week of intensive Gemara study and rifle practice.  Go know.)

As more and more days separate me from the intense period of prayer that marks the Yomim Noraim and their accompanying reverence, I ache to hold on to the memory of the shofar’s plea. It matters little that it has been packed away until either next Elul or the coming of the Messiah.  Her plaintive, piercing cry penetrates my most Jewish core, accessing the chastest part of me that cleaves to a loving God who celebrates me for all that is “good” in His eyes.  I try to “hear” it on my morning walk, while riding the bus, when pinching avocados in the shuk.  After all, my petition to Heaven was heartfelt!  Still, holding onto the sincerity and humility that was a hallmark of how I wished to be judged is a little more difficult when the sukkah decorations are packed away and I’ve foresworn matzoh balls until, at least, next Passover.

At this time of the year, there is something refreshingly analogous about the sweet, slightly acrid, gently rising mound of soon-to-be-baked dough and the still hopeful selves who have emerged from the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah season.  The desire to “receive good” while still assaying to “be good” can be as simple as holding on to the Heavenly tether that was lowered to arms-reach only a few short weeks ago.  And just as the opportunity exists each week to make another batch of fresh, oven-baked challah, Heaven’s spiritual pulleys are always greased and accessible.

The leaves are beginning to turn into the magical hues of autumn.  Breathe deep and take in the fragrance.

It’s the smell of fresh bread baking . . . . . . .

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