I always wanted to learn to make challah but cannot bake or cook; I am that embodiment of the old Borscht Belt joke about the Jewish housewife whose husband complains that she can only make reservations....And then, as an amazing “Big Birthday” gift my dear friend Ulrika Citron, a remarkable woman of many talents but whom in this context I will refer to as the challah whisperer, came to my kitchen to show me the ropes, bringing with her the famous recipe of the legendary Katja Goldman. (Katja, in addition to many other important things, is a co-author of "The Community Table: Recipes and Stories from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan & Beyond".)
My wonderful housekeeper Kecha Jackson, a devout Seventh Day Adventist who helps me plan and execute my parsha dramas (see my shout out to her under “About”), learned to bake challah from Ulrika that day as well. Kecha and I often discuss Torah as we knead our respective
dough on Friday afternoons. Hers are delivered to her Brooklyn church where she has become famous for her gorgeous white loaves and has even taught challah baking to her fellow congregants. Mine, much less attractive than Kecha’s (see photo, need I say more?) have evolved into my own concoction, a mix of whole-wheat, white whole-wheat and bread flour. I serve what the French might call my jolie laide (beautiful/ugly) challot every Friday night to our Shabbat guests.
But here is one last word about challah and its deeper value.
A very dear friend of my sister's was a well-known columnist for a Jewish publication who died of ovarian cancer last August, leaving behind her husband and two young children.
I began baking challah weekly for her at the very end of her life because I wanted to reach out to her and didn't know how. And as much as she was suffering, she sent me beautiful emails from the hospital and later from home telling me how much she and her family loved my challah's rosemary and sea salt topping. I promised to teach her to make it when she felt better though we both knew that was just a dream.
On the day she was buried, I baked challah to bring to her shiva, and her husband, also a dear family friend, told me what it meant to him to have it there. It seemed to represent his wife’s love of life even at the end of her life.
And it was in honor of her son’s bar mitzvah last month that Kecha and I spent hours watching YouTube videos so that we could provide my friend’s favorite challah for her family’s simcha—but this time as a regal six-braid challah rather than a lumpy three braid loaf. We had unsuccessfully tried to master this for weeks and on that Friday afternoon before the bar mitzvah we miraculously did!
The gift, of course, was my friend’s to me. Every Friday, as I immerse my hands in dough, I think of this sweet, soulful woman who wrote so beautifully about her own Jewish journey. And I have come to understand that the act of making challah has a much deeper meaning than simply baking bread. It links generations of Jewish families who bask in the beauty of welcoming Shabbat—or simply bringing homemade comfort to friends—in whatever way resonates for them.