This past Thursday night I took part in the Great Challah Bake along with hundreds of other Jewish women in Baltimore. It started at 6:30 p.m., which is the exact time my children go to bed. I hadn’t thought about having my husband put my 1-year-old son and 2.5-year-old daughter to bed that night, but he was a trooper and didn’t blink an eye (or shed a tear!). At 6 p.m. I told him I was off to bake with others, some whom I knew and most whom I didn’t.
Arriving at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, the parking lot seemed packed. Mostly SUVs and minivans filled the lot. That’s when it all felt real. Seeing these women come together—finding the time, making family arrangements, and actually physically getting there…so many women!
It was really a beautiful gathering. Everyone smiling, excited to bake with friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers—something so different than what they ordinarily do. Some of these women make challah every week in their own kitchens. Some buy challah at the store. Some don’t even think twice about having challah. That’s what the crowd was made up of: every kind of Jew, religious to barely observant. It didn’t matter on that night; for this special Shabbat everyone was there for challah.
My friend and I stopped to say hi to friends at different tables as we made our way to find our own seats. As we arrived at our table we met up with our two friends and their 5-year-old daughters who were so excited to be there. I looked around and noticed many daughters throughout the nearby tables. I even noticed one of my old students and her mother. The way these mothers were able to not only come together with all of these other women, but also make this a bonding time between them and their daughters, was incredible. How often is it that you actually have the time to do a complete activity with your daughter, without the phone ringing, without someone walking in and distracting you, and with your daughter fully present? It’s too rare and I suddenly became sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to share this experience with my own daughter. I was happy to share it with all of these women, some of whom are my close friends, but I wanted my daughter to feel this joy that I was feeling.
And then it hit me: I will bring some dough home for her to knead, shape, and bake, so she does actually get to make challah too!
Soon, the speakers began and prayers were said. And then the dancing! What dancing it was! Religious music to pop music and back again, the 10-year-olds moving right along next to the 70-year-olds. The lyrics didn’t matter, just the movements—the hand-holding and the swinging and the circles widening and embracing whoever decided to join. It was so festive and warm. You could feel the pride in the air.
As I was leaving, I ran into one of my daughter’s teachers and it suddenly dawned on me: I realized what I needed to do for my daughter for her to get a glimpse into the experience that I just had without her actually being there. I went to the closest table and quickly kneaded the small amount of dough I had left out for her to knead, shape, and bake the next day (along with the two challahs I had braided for our Shabbat). I kneaded them all together to make one large ball, just how I originally started before I began to shape away. I then made 16 small balls. Twelve of those balls would be for all of the children in my daughter’s class, two would be for her two teachers, and two I would make into tiny braids for our family. I separated the two for our family and put the ones for my daughter’s class in a separate container.
The next morning, when my daughter woke up, I explained to her what I did the night before and how I got to make challah with so many women, some of whom were her classmates’ mothers. I then asked her if she would want to get the chance to make the same challah with her classmates. Just as I had made the dough with my Jewish community, she could participate in the challah-making process with her own small Jewish community, too. I explained to her that we would have less challah at our house, but we would help make sure that all of her classmates have challah at their houses this Shabbat.
She was so excited she even told me that she did not want to eat the challah that I had shaped, but that she wanted to eat the challah that she was going to make with her friends instead. I realized that she wasn’t insulting me—it was her way of saying she was proud to eat the challah that she got to make in her own community, the same way I was proud to eat the challah that I got to make in my own community with thousands of strangers for the special Shabbat that people all around the world were celebrating.
I can’t wait to do it again next year, and I hope my daughter will be able to join me. If she is still too young, I will definitely make sure she gets a little experience of the challah bake in her own way.