I Bake Challah To Remember My Late Husband and Son – Kveller
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I Bake Challah To Remember My Late Husband and Son

Every time I braid the three strands of dough, I associate one strand for each member of my family. I am deeply missing the two other strands. 

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The ingredients for challah are simple: yeast, water, sugar, flour, eggs, oil and salt. I take out my stainless-steel bowl. I put in a tablespoon of dried yeast and pour in warm water. I add sugar or honey and stir. 

In a separate bowl, I whisk the eggs and add them to the yeast mixture. Then I add the flour, one cup at a time. I used to use both whole wheat and unbleached white flour, but my son Hillel preferred it when I just used white flour, complaining that whole wheat made it “too healthy.” 

But now, in my Florida kitchen, I am making this challah only for myself. I turn to the joy of breadmaking amid my grief that defies chronology. I’m thinking only of my late husband, David, who died almost 16 years ago, and Hillel, who died 10 years ago this September. I’m longing for a connection to my late family and to our Boston home. 

Challah was a family favorite. Our Friday night Shabbat dinners were both a Jewish and secular ritual, a way to make sure we were all together as a family, enjoying dinner and marking the end of a week. These days, the grief I feel takes away some of the joy I used to have making the challah. Particularly as I begin to braid it. Every time I braid the three strands of dough, I associate one braid for each member of my family. I am weaving together a family that’s no longer a family — unbraided in loss. I am deeply missing the two strands. 

David died at the end of the summer when Hillel was 16. His death pulled me into an immense sea of sadness. I learned to enter the sea of grief slowly, though oftentimes overwhelmed by its intensity. Two years after David’s death, I began looking for full-time work as a college professor. Soon, my job search began to widen outside of the Boston area, and I started interviewing across the country. When offered a position in Boca Raton, Florida, I decided I could live and work there amiably. As the time got closer for my move, sadness saturated our home. Was I ready to leave?

It didn’t help that Hillel was weary of the move, too. “You are selling the only home I ever had — the house I grew up in.” I tried to reassure him that we’d be making a new home in Florida. He’d be able to come there with his friends. But the third strand was missing. We were both feeling the emptiness David’s absence created. You can’t braid two strands.

In bread-making, single-celled yeast organisms give off carbon dioxide gas as they feed on the sugars in the flour. The carbon dioxide gas released during this process of fermentation gets trapped in the elastic dough, causing it to rise. This takes time and patience and reminds me of the process of grief and recovery — allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to be broken as I let myself feel the pain of living without my loved ones. 

Hillel went away to college to Arizona in 2010, the same year that I accepted a full-time teaching job as a nutrition professor in Florida. His substance use disorder spiraled out of control during his freshman year and by March 2011, following an intervention, he was admitted to a residential in-patient rehabilitation center in Utah. Hillel was in and out of both in-patient and outpatient treatment centers and trying to stay sober from 2011 until his death in 2014. At the time, I had no idea that David’s death and my move to Florida would fit into the constellation that propelled the downward spiral of his substance use disorder.

In the middle of the summer of 2021, several years after Hillel died, I took a short break from work and pandemic fatigue and flew to Boston from Florida. Although physically, I live in Boca Raton, emotionally, I am still living in Boston — the home I no longer have. 

As I was planning my trip, my friend Katrina said, “Do you realize that when you speak or write about Florida, you say ‘my condo,’ but when you speak of Boston, you say ‘my home?’” 

My Florida friends asked if I was going for fun and vacation, and I replied, “I need a change of scenery. I’m going to visit my brother and some friends. I want to go to the cemetery to be with David and Hillel.” 

Arriving at Boston’s Logan airport on a warm, humid Friday morning in July, my dear friend Joyce picked me up. As we drove to her house, I breathed in the familiar early summer smells of New England — wilted lilacs and fresh cut grass. I paused. I’m home. It’s where my shattered heart beats peaceably; the “better place” all the well-wishers who eschew grief speak about.

Driving along Storrow Drive, we pass Massachusetts General Hospital, where David worked for 37 years as a physician, directing the pediatric intensive care units. Looking at the boats moving on the Charles River, I recall the summer that Hillel was 11 years old and sailed on this very river in a community boating program. David was still alive. I hear Hillel. “Mama, it’s so much fun; sailing makes me feel alive and so good!” he exclaimed. He made new friends that summer, from England, and sailed with them. Hillel excelled at sailing. It soothed his anxiety. 

Now I stare out of the large windows of my condo in Florida — my sadness softened momentarily by the calming view of the clear, turquoise waves gently folding onto the sand. In the kitchen, I stir down the sponge of the challah — a mixture bubbling with yeast, water, sugar and flour. Then I add the oil, salt and flour, deliberately. One cup at a time. When it becomes difficult to stir, I turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead. The rhythmic motion lulls me into a trance and I see Hillel ripping apart a warm just-baked loaf of the bread. 

I brush an egg wash over the three strands before putting it into the oven. As the challah bakes, I feel that David and Hillel are close to me. I hear their whispering, loving voices. For tonight, my condo is my home.

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