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Apr 27 2012

Friday Night: The Key to a Good Challah

By at 3:51 pm

key-shaped challahLast Friday, exhausted and still jet lagged from our Passover travels to Canada, I found myself up at the crack of dawn, elbow-deep in challah dough and determined to make a challah–in the shape of a giant key! Apparently there is a custom before the first Shabbat after Passover to bake challah with a house key stuck inside of it and/or in the shape of a key. Known as “Shlissel Challah,” (shlissel means key in Yiddish), this custom is supposed to be asegulah, or good luck for sustentance or financial success for the coming year.

I had never heard of this this custom until five years ago when a friend mentioned it. At first, I dismissed it as the Jewish version of the old bake-a-file-into-a-loaf-of-bread-to-free-a-prisioner thing. But thanks to Rabbi Google, I found a few articles explaining what it was about and I was intrigued. There seem to be a number of different takes on the custom and how it’s practiced but most seem to agree on these things: (1) it hails from Eastern Europe; (2) flour and bread are considered symbols of livelihood; (3) the key relates to the gates of heaven which are said to be open from Passover until the Shabbat following, and it is an auspicious time to pray for financial success.

To key or not to key… at first, I was a little hesitant to take on a new custom. As an observant Jew, my life is brimming with “Jewish.” Yes, I am an admitted challah lover, and I especially enjoy baking my own challah. I do it on average once a month, making a batch that is large enough so I can fulfill the mitzvah of “taking challah” with a special blessing. I make my challah by hand and I find the kneading therapeutic and even bicep-friendly. I try to infuse my challah baking with spirituality to elevate my favorite carb into something more. I try to think about what each ingredient represents as I add them, and I usually make a six-stranded braid, weaving the six days of the week into Shabbat. But while I love all things challah, did I really need to adopt another custom, especially an obscure one?

At the time, I decided to try it because we had been trying for some time to buy a new home in a crazy market. The idea of a house key in the challah seemed like an appropriate talisman for our dream. And being a member of the “well, it can’t hurt” school, I went for it. (Sure enough, we did finally buy the house we wanted that year. Whether the shlissel challah worked its mojo I can’t say for certain, but I secretly give it credit.)

In the years since, I have continued the shlissel practice and I have noticed that the custom is really taking off. In the last couple of days, I could practically smell the key-shaped challahs in the pictures popping up in my Facebook newsfeed. There are also a plethora of articles on the web now elaborating on the custom and even YouTube videos showing how to make your challah into the shape of a key.

Perhaps it’s a sign of a post-Madoff/Great Recession world that Jewish women are embracing the bread-to-get-you-more-“bread” concept. But part of the reason I love it is that it feels like we are resurrecting another little piece of an almost-lost world. I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence that Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day, falls around the time of the shlissel challah. I remember asking my now-late grandfather about the shlissel custom the first year that I tried it. He was a survivor from Czechoslovakia, the youngest of what was once a family of 14 children. He said he did remember something about it. So I feel like in some small way it connects me to his mother, the great-grandmother I never met whose Yiddish name I bear, who died in a camp along with a number of her children.

So, as I repeatedly clicked “Like” on all those key-shaped challah pictures in my newsfeed, I felt a little triumphant that Jewish life all these years after the Holocaust cannot only thrive, but rise like the dough on my counter.


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