Clearly, I’m still kinda obsessed with Hamilton (for those not obsessed, there is a call to “Rise up” when Washington enters). But this post isn’t about Hamilton (or Washington), it’s about challah and elevation. Challah is probably my kids’ favourite part about Friday night. The smell of the bread baking each week evokes anticipation and joy for me. Sounds corny, but I know it to be true. I know of no more delicious way to greet the Shabbat bride. These ecstatic, aroma inspired feelings seem to blot out what the challah was several hours before (or on Challah Club weeks, several days before).
In the beginning, there were separate ingredients. Some eggs. Sugar. Salt. Dry yeast. Warm water. Flour. Oil.
They all sit separately. They have their own smells. None of them, except for a slight whiff of the yeast proofing, foreshadow the beautiful smell they’re going to combine to produce. The yeast proofing, however gives me a hint of the transformation to come. It starts as dry round pellets and gets kinda gummy when combined with the warm water. Some weeks I struggle to dissolve it with my spoon, but most weeks I leave it for 8 minutes and find that it has done all the work on its own. It has turned from something dry and pretty useless to a foamy crucial part of the challah. But really, all the parts are crucial.
You wouldn’t know they go together from the first few minutes of mixing. I like to mix it by hand. Releases me from all the practice of keeping clean and free of sticky substances.
Makes me feel like a kid. Plus, I’ve come to learn that if I work the mixture long enough (and put some oil on my hands) that my hands will be smooth and free of all visible substance when I’m done. At the beginning, not a whole lot sticks together. There always seems to be too much flour. The eggs (even if I’ve whisked them with a fork) leave yellow trails through the glob, that doesn’t seem yet to be worthy of the term “dough”. Despite all of this, I keep working the dough.
I keep working the dough, because I know how the story ends. I know that if I keep working it, that it will transform into something cohesive. Something smooth. Something elastic. I’ve been told not to compare it to a baby’s bum. But, really, how can I not?
The challenge is that it doesn’t take two or three minutes. Sometimes it takes more than ten minutes. It’s not easy to stick (no pun intended) with something that long. It’s hard to believe that it’s going to turn out okay. Sounds silly, right? That believing in something for more than 10 minutes is hard. Yet, how often do we give up on solving puzzles in 10 minutes or less? Or challenging relationship moments? Or learning a new skill? I think my frustration threshold is usually around the 4-minute mark. That is probably generous. Yet, I dig in each week with my challah. Why?
First of all, I understand the lumpy, sticky stages to be part of the process. I know I’m going to have beautiful challah on the other side. I know this, because I make it every week. I didn’t use to know it. I used to hope it. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I’m not sure what I changed that led to a consistent result. It might just have been micro changes through practice. I don’t think it was just practice. I think it was practice and sisterhood. Because it’s hard to make challah and not feel a sense of sisterhood.
When I am making challah, I am often thinking of all the women who are making challah in preparation for Shabbat. I’m thinking of the women who have come before me. My daughters. My future granddaughters. But it’s not this sense of sisterhood that has shifted my challah making confidence. It is sisterhood with the women who I go to Challah Club with each month. The third Wednesday at each month, we meet at Aish Thornhill and make dough together. Some of the women are serious veterans. They post their photos on Facebook and my mouth waters just looking at them. They’re experimenting, creating new recipes. Equally, every month there seems to be at least one or two women who have never made challah before. They’re often tentative. Like me, they have likely seen their fair number of flat loaves emerge from the oven that everyone agreed would still taste really good. These women look at the messes in their own bowls and then glance over at the bowls of some of the women near them that reveal silky and shiny dough. They doubt that their dough will ever look like that. Yet, 15 minutes or so later, it does. Maybe one of the veterans came over and offered some advice – a little more oil, a little more flour. Maybe they just needed the reassurance that this was messy beginning (and often middle stage) is part of the challah creation process. Either way, the challah newbies leave the building with a bowl of beautiful dough that bakes into the most delicious challah that they have ever tasted. The challah gives them pride. It gives us all pride.
Making challah isn’t just a metaphor for what Challah Club sisterhood (brought to me by JWRP) gives me (although it is also that). It is also literal. We come together and share love, ritual, learning, laughter, prayer and craftsmanship. We support each other. The output feeds our souls, our lives and also gives something beautiful to our family. We practice thinking that we sometimes need help. We practice thinking that we have help to offer. We practice thinking that with patience comes beautiful outcomes and sense of mastery. We practice thinking that sometimes getting a little dirty and sticky is part of the journey.
It’s clear why I look forward to Challah club every month and just as clear why I look forward to making challah each week. It is a time investment that nourishes me and my family in so many ways. If you’re reading this and went on the JWRP trip, you might be thinking that the trip was the same. I agree – I continue to reap the benefits and connect to our experience in Israel each week as my hands work the dough. It’s sisterhood and Kol Yisrael all at the same time. It is elevation in the most fundamental way.