Although I always seem to pick the hottest day of summer, it is a ritual whose heat and aroma wraps me in serenity, like the fine silk of a tallit.
Although I always seem to pick the hottest day of summer, it is a ritual whose heat and aroma wraps me in serenity, like the fine silk of a tallit. The warmth is actually an important ingredient, necessary for multiplying what needs to grow.
I begin early in the morning, as it will take the entire day for this ritual to be complete. I quadruple the recipe, beginning with yeast that, like us, needs substance (flour) and sweetness (honey) to grow. Eventually, there is an enormous mound of dough that I will fold in on itself over and over. Again, like us, touching and staying connected is necessary to stimulate the growth that will follow. While the making of challah requires patience, the results of one’s work are far more immediately apparent than, say, the results of raising children. So, really, making challah, though it takes the whole day, yields quick gratification, as these things go.
I divide the mound of dough into several large wads and place each in an oiled bowl in a warm oven. One advantage of doing this in the summer is that the rise is fast and pretty assured. Hours later, we are ready for a second knead. I think of this process as not unlike therapy. I don’t mean that kneading bread is therapeutic; rather, that in the kneading, we fold the dough into itself over and over, like what I do, metaphorically, with people who come to see me in my office, as we explore, over and over, the themes of their lives. Here, I fold horizontally, then diagonally, then on a different diagonal, approaching the dough from every angle, feeling the satisfying popping of the bubbles already present. There, I do something similar… approach a person’s life from a variety of angles, massage out, through understanding, the pockets of air bubbles that will, eventually, collapse, prevent further growth.
As the dough becomes silky, it is ready for the final rise. Dividing the full amount of dough into about 60 smaller balls, and each of these into 3, I roll out snake after snake, and braid them together, placing each braided mound into a greased mini loaf tin. These take over my kitchen, as I set 60 of them all around to rise. The rest is mechanics: bake, cool, remove, cool, wrap each in aluminum foil, and place each in a plastic baggie in the freezer.
Having canvassed everyone I know all year to save shoeboxes for me, having ordered two cases of eight-ounce bottles of Kedem grape juice (which, in the fourth year becomes Kedem sweet concord grape wine), having swathed each bottle in bubble wrap, having bought several dozen tea lights and a few small glass holders for them, I am ready for Wednesdays beginning in late August.
Each Wednesday, I pack two shoeboxes, each containing a frozen challah loaf, a bubble-wrapped Kedem bottle, and two tea light candles. Covering each box in brown paper, like lovingly protecting a new schoolbook with a cover, I mail the boxes, one to each child at college, priority mail, guaranteed to arrive in 2 days.
Here is what happens on Fridays: a flock of friends accompanies Joanna or Dan to the mailroom. They walk across campus together pulling apart the now-defrosted, softened challah, and drinking grape juice. I’m not sure that the package contents ever make it to sundown and Shabbat. But it doesn’t really matter. I have sent the substance and the sweetness that punctuates their week every Friday… and mine, every Wednesday. We share Shabbat and each other across time and distance.
Sheri Lindner, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and writer whose works have appeared in Jewish Currents, The Reconstructionist, Reconstructionism Today, Kerem, Jewish Women's Literary Annual, Ritualwell.org, The New York Times, and other publications. She was the associate editor of Jewish Women’s Literary Annual from 2013–2016. Her book of collected writings is entitled Opening Eden’s Gate.