Keep Calm and Bake Challah: My New Pandemic Practice

January 20, 2021Marilyn Shapiro

Every Friday afternoon since the coronavirus turned our world upside down, I have baked fresh challah. I revel in the process: the measuring, the gradual rising, and especially the eating – but it has become so much more. As Roche Pinson wrote in Rising: The Book of Challah, “We make challah from a place of commitment to nourish ourselves and our families in a way that goes beyond mere physical feeding and watering.”

Although I had not baked a homemade challah for years, I decided loaves of the sweet, braided loaf would be a perfect comfort food on our first quarantined Friday. I pulled out a friend’s recipe tucked away in a file and gathered all the necessary ingredients: yeast, flour, sugar, butter. I mixed and kneaded the sticky dough with my KitchenAid’s dough hook and covered it with a cloth tea towel. After it had risen, I shaped the dough into three challahs, brushed on the egg wash, and let it rise again. Once out of the oven, my husband Larry dropped one of the loaves over on the doorstep of a friend who was spending Shabbos alone in as his wife was in isolation in the memory unit of a nearby nursing home.

As the two remaining loaves waited under my mother’s challah cross stitch covering, I lit the Shabbat candles that we had placed in my Grandma Annie’s brass candlesticks. Larry recited the Kiddish over the Manischewitz wine, and then we both recited HaMotzi over the warm braided bread. We sat down to our first Shabbat dinner in quarantine.

The following week, Larry and I headed to Publix at 7 a.m. as part of a “seniors only” shopping trip. I immediately headed to the baking aisle to stock up on my bread-making supplies. I obviously was not the only one baking. Yeast, like toilet paper and hand sanitizers, had completely disappeared from the shelves, with flour, sugar, and eggs in short supply. We grabbed what we could and headed home.

Fortunately, the flour, sugar, and egg situation improved. Initial attempts on purchasing yeast online, however, were miserably unsuccessful. Amazon offered a three-pack of Fleischmann’s for $25, price gouging at its worst. I sent out an all-points bulletin on Facebook, and three friends dropped off some packets they had in their cupboards. They each got a challah in return. Soon after, Amazon offered a one-pound bag of yeast. Despite the fact it was twice the normal price, I snapped it up.

Thus began my Friday ritual of making the bread and giving one or two of my loaves to others. As a thank-you for two homemade masks. As a mazel tovmazel tovמַזָּל טוֹבLit. "a good star." Colloquially, "congratulations." on finishing chemotherapy. As a wish for safe travels to their summer home. If the bread came out of the oven too late for delivery before sundown, we dropped it off the next day with a suggestion to warm it up, toast it, or make it into French toast.

Each week, I tweaked the process. Too much flour made the bread tough. An extra egg yolk made for a richer taste. Covering the bowl with a tea towel and then loosely wrapping it in a large plastic bag helped in the rising. Slamming the ball of dough on the counter a few times removed extra gases – and relieved tension. Raisins were a wonderful addition. Creating a challah with six braids or more takes practice.

One night, when an afternoon nap killed chances for my normal bedtime, I found on YouTube a series of challah baking videos by a Jewish baker who says who says she uses her time baking pray for her children, her family, for people in need of r'fuah sh’leimahr'fuah sh'leimahרְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָהComplete healing. .

The following Friday, after using the electric mixer to combine the ingredients, I turned the dough onto my floured countertop and began kneading. I prayed for my children and grandchildren, who are physically far away but always in my heart. I prayed for the wellbeing of my extended family. I prayed for a friend recovering from COVID-19 and another who lost his wife to cancer. I prayed for an infant born at 29 weeks who spent her first two months of life in a NICU unit. And I prayed for all those impacted by COVID-19: the sick, the grieving, the lonely, the unemployed, the hungry. Was it my imagination, or did the challah taste especially sweet, especially delicious that Friday night?

I have kept the tradition throughout our too-many Fridays of sheltering-in-place, kneading in prayers not only family and friends but also for our country and our world during these trying times. Once they are baked, Larry delivers a few of the warm loaves that hold my healing, loving thoughts.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, haMotzi lechem min haaretz.

Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who causes bread to come forth from the earth.

Amen.

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