Learning to bake challah, with a little Jewish tradition
MANSFIELD — On its own, challah is a soft, lightly sweetened loaf of bread. That’s only part of it. Ask anyone who is Jewish about challah, and you’ll hear about tradition, responsibility, family, childhood memories, the Sabbath, bar mitzvahs, and other celebrations, and holidays (except for the upcoming Passover table).
Over 350 women with all levels of baking experience came together for the Mega Challah Bake on March 18 in Mansfield to learn the time-honored ritual of mixing, kneading, and braiding the bread. The Bake, a collaboratiion of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and Chabad Jewish Center in Mansfield, cost $20, and featured a hands-on lesson, plus a challah to take home, along with a bit of history and tradition.
Making challah, the guests learned, is a mitzvah — or good deed — in Judaism. The process involves tearing off some uncooked dough and saying a prayer (bracha) before the loaf bakes. “The experience of making challah is a ritual, and an opportunity to have people come together, share experiences, and make memories,” said Fiona Epstein, vice president of Youth Services and Adult Engagement at JCC.
Teaching baking techniques to hundreds of women at once might have been a tough task, but the Bake was cleverly structured. Each table featured 10 guests and one leader, and the ingredients — flour, yeast, salt, water, sugar, oil — were already portioned and labeled. Tsivi Kivman, a challah guru from Mansfield, stood on stage and gave instructions on how to mix and knead the dough. As ingredients were added, Kivman explained their symbolic significance. For oil, she said, “On the one hand, it spreads quickly and easily, seeping through and permeating the substances with which it comes in contact. On the other hand, when mixed with other liquids, oil stubbornly rises to the surface and refuses to be absorbed by anything else.” When adding oil to the dough, she said, “think about integrating Jewish values into your daily life.”
For attendees, the words made an impact. “When you put in the sugar, you’re supposed to think about someone who needs healing,” said Lesley Engelson, a Narragansett, R.I., resident and first-time challah baker, who thought about a cousin with cancer.
Some said that the baking lesson helped them connect with their faith. “It’s an ancient ritual,” said Kathy Hershfield of Sharon. “Here we are thousands of years later doing what our foremothers did. It links generation to generation.”
That was on full display. Milton resident and avid baker Bebe Rosenstein came with her daughter Shari Holstein, and granddaughter, Aliza.“It’s tremendous to spend time with family,” Holstein said. “We celebrate every holiday together. Any chance to practice tradition is very special.”
Melanie Miller of Attleboro, a table leader, said she feels great when braiding challah. “When baking bread, there’s machines and whatnot,” she said. “There’s something intrinsic and deep within one’s soul when it comes to making challah.”
Canton resident Rivka Horowitz echoed Miller, and stressed the importance of challah-making reaching younger generations. “Jewish women are responsible for passing down the heritage,” she said. “A lot of that is through the kitchen.”
There was a charitable element to the evening. For the last three years, the JCC has partnered with New Hope, an Attleboro nonprofit dedicated to ending domestic and sexual violence in local communities. Rachel Glazer, of Needham-based Rachel G Events, who helped plan the Bake, said she loves the “tikkun olam” (healing the world) aspect of the evening. Mega Challah Bakes have been held in other cities, including Boston, but this was the first in Southeastern Massachusetts.
After a 45-minute break to allow the dough to rise, it was time to braid. Some women weaved dough strands with lightning speed, and others struggled mightily, but the consensus was that it was plenty of fun. Observant women who bake challah weekly imparted their tips to those trying to reconnect with the tradition, and mothers helped daughters. Bakers topped their challahs with whatever spices they chose, like rosemary or garlic (Aliza Holstein recommended a sweet version using Funfetti sprinkles), and took them home to bake.
“I’m not an observant person,” said Dina Rosenbaum of Sharon. “But this makes me feel part of the Jewish tradition.”