Every shabbat except the one in Passover, I bake challah for my family. I’m good at it and I enjoy it. I have a (mostly) foolproof recipe and I pretty much have it down to a science. Occasionally I bake for the Minyan breakfast, including an extra batch of challah, over and above the one I make for my family.
I recently took a Torah study class, at which I met Deb, a woman who had been brought up in a religious family and who had lost touch with her Judaism until taking the class we shared. She’d gone to yeshiva for high school, however, and retained ties with many old friends in that world.
Today is my fortieth birthday, and last Tuesday was my friend Anita’s ninetieth birthday.
I get a lot of satisfaction from baking and braiding challah for my family and/or friends. Baking challah is one of three mitzvot (commandments) that are specifically for women.
Deb from my text study class mentioned recently that one of her friends from high school, Chavi, had taken very ill and was in a coma. She is the mother of four young children, and one of her friends, Alicia, has been organizing challah bakers in her honor. There is a specific ritual, the challah hafrasha, that can be done with a prayer, and when a woman is fulfilling one of the three womens’ mitzvot, it is an auspicious time to pray. When Deb mentioned it, I was intrigued and offered to help, without knowing what was entailed. Upon investigation it turned out that one requirement was that the baker use five pounds of flour. That’s a lot of dough.
For several weeks, I’ve flirted with joining in on this mitzvah but I was apprehensive. I don’t keep kosher, I don’t speak Hebrew, I’m not particularly religious. I wanted to help but felt unworthy of the mitzvah and, frankly, lazy about the kind of commitment it would require.
As May approached, Anita volunteered to provide the breakfast for this past Saturday in celebration of her birthday. I had also toyed with the idea of doing so, in honor of my own, but I wasn’t fast enough to volunteer. And I was not about to arm-wrestle anyone, particularly Anita, out of the honor of preparing the breakfast for everyone.
I got email from Alicia every week (except the week during Passover) seeking volunteer bakers to do the challah hafrasha. Forty-three bakers are required, and once you’re on the list, you’re on the list. Every week, I’d fantasize about being the kind of person who could undertake such a mitzvah and every week I’d shrink from the opportunity. I asked Alicia all kinds of avoidant questions, secretly hoping to be told I’m not Jewish enough to do it, that my prayers are not worthy.
As May approached, I continued to bake every week, at least for my family, and usually for some other occasion, whether the Minyan breakfast or something at Akiva’s school or the Friday oneg at my synagogue. Some weeks I did quite a lot of baking indeed, and it always got done in time and pretty well.
As May approached, I thought often about how fortunate I am to be alive. I was diagnosed with IBD (ulcerative colitis) eight years ago, and the doctors tell you that after eight years with the disease, your cancer risk increases significantly. My friend Jonathan z”l had Crohn’s (which is also IBD) and died last summer, just after Gideon was born. Mind you, I feel very healthy, but Jonathan’s passing made me see that the eight years thing is not as theoretical as I might wish. Jonathan is the reason I had a big birthday party now, even though I only turned forty. Thank G-d I am in good health and able to enjoy my family.
As May approached, I was still on Alicia’s list and starting to think I should really try it. I did some arithmetic to see just how many batches of challah dough I’d have to make and tried to imagine where I would put all those bowls of dough. I thought about what I would do with the extra six breads I’d be making.
I called Alicia and asked all my avoidant questions, and what followed felt like the beginning of a genuine friendship. I expected to feel judged as being “not Jewish enough” and instead I felt welcomed — to do as much or as little Judaism as made sense for where I am right now. She spoke of Judaism as a lifelong process of learning and expressed her faith that I would one day be ready to take on the mitzvah of doing the challah hafrasha. She offered to send me a huge bowl since I knew I’d have to do it in two batches just to accommodate what exists (and doesn’t) in my kitchen. Alicia up-ended my stereotype of the religious community with her warmth, humility, generosity, and openness. We just connected. It helps that one of her sons is named Akiva. (What’s not to like?)
A plan formed in my mind: I could bake for my family as normal. I could offer to provide the challah for Anita’s oneg breakfast. I could provide challah for my birthday party so we could start eating the deli trays with a prayer instead of just mindlessly digging in. I could make French toast for my visiting family members sometime during the birthday weekend.
With the plan came symbolism. I wanted to braid Anita’s strength and survival with Chavi’s urgent need for healing. I wanted to braid my love of my family with my growing commitment to Judaism. I wanted to braid my gratitude for my very being with the knowledge of life’s fragility. I wanted to braid service to others with celebration of my birthday.
Thursday night, at 7:52, it became officially erev shabbat, and I started mixing and measuring and pouring. It was a long night, and my feet got tired. I didn’t always feel holy, but I did feel purposeful. As the dough was rising, I said the traditional prayer for Chavi’s healing, along with a personal prayer of gratitude for the sheer luck that allows me to be alive and healthy and close enough to my family to sometimes take them for granted.