I come from a family of Russian immigrants. Growing up, my mother was once found spying on her grandfather who was secretly tying tefillin and was immediately thrown out of the room. No questions were allowed. Yiddish was only whispered between adults. And no scent of challah permeated the kitchen on Friday nights. For my mother, Judaism was both a fact and a secret—she knew she was Jewish, but she had no idea what it really meant. Only upon moving to America could she have the opportunity to begin learning, exploring, and passing Judaism onto her kids.
Although I learned the most in my family about Judaism by going to a Jewish day school and shared much of what I discovered with them, my family has remained culturally Jewish, rather than spiritually Jewish. We learned, but we just did not make the move to practice, especially when it came to Shabbat. Buying and eating a slice of challah on Friday nights counted for us, and that was perfectly fine.
So, when I had the opportunity to bake challah in college for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. I loved baking, but I had never participated in this ritual before. I didn’t buy the ingredients. I didn’t choose the recipe. But, the moment I started mixing, I knew that something special was about to happen.
Although we can learn about the power of tradition and appreciate objects when they have been given to us, nothing can compare to the power of action. No theoretical lessons on challah-baking and no store-bought challah could prepare me for the spiritual meaning I would find behind waiting for my very own challah dough to rise, kneading my very own challah dough ball, tearing off a small piece of that dough to bless, braiding the beautifully imperfect strands, lovingly washing it with egg whites, sprinkling sweet toppings onto my masterpiece, and watching it bake golden brown into my very first self-made loaf of challah.
With each step, I felt the generations of women before me, slaving in the heat of their kitchens for the benefit of the families they love and nurture and for the faith that they uphold throughout our people’s history of migration and assimilation. My five senses engaged in this process to make a truly memorable lesson on the importance that this seemingly small tradition holds.
The moment I tasted my challah, I called my mom. “I made my very own challah! It’s so good! We have to try it; it’s a spiritual experience!” She was proud and happy for me then, but didn’t hold me to my promise to make challah with her.
About three years later, I am finally fulfilling that promise by taking her to her very own first-challah baking experience. It won’t be in the privacy of our home, but in the presence of thousands of women during the Baltimore Shabbat Project’s Great Challah Bake. We will be surrounded by women who proudly and openly practice Judaism. This will not be like the moment she was shunned from her grandfather’s room. This will be the moment she realizes that she does not live in a world where she has to hide her Judaism any longer. This will be the moment that I have a chance to pass tradition up to her, rather than only expect to have her pass it down to me.
Next week, my family will participate in the Baltimore Shabbat Project. For one Shabbat, we will not just learn, but we will do. We will bake challah, we will participate in a Friday night service, we will share a festive meal, and we will listen to the Moshav band usher in a new and rejuvenating week for us after Havdalah along with thousands of our fellow Jews.
My mom and I will not only connect to the generations of women before us who have kept Judaism alive through challah-baking, but my family will connect with the Jewish people who continue to keep Judaism alive through prayer, Torah, ritual, and community. To counteract the increasingly violent and intolerant news we hear of every day, my family will choose Judaism. We will choose challah. We will choose love.