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challah

Love & Challah: How I Found My Place in Judaism

Challah rolls

 

Years ago I told my husband that if he expected me to give up cheeseburgers and shrimp cocktail for bagel brunches and heavily salted meats, I was going to need some backup. Though I was raised in a conservative Jewish home in Allentown, PA, my ideas of Judaism were mixed up with my ideas of a social life, which is to say that the boys I liked were decidedly not Jewish.

I made Christmas cookies one year with a junior high school boyfriend’s mother, flinging the dough around his dressed-up-for-the-holiday home when I accidentally lifted the hand mixer out of the bowl, probably gesturing in some handsy Jewish way.

I was as out of place there as I was around a good friend’s Shabbat table–a table where she and her four siblings would fling jokes at each other wildly, like the flying Christmas cookie dough, but less sweet. And then they would bench, singing the
birkat hamazon
(blessing after the meal) and other songs with gusto while I mouthed the few parts I knew from camp, before giving up and letting myself feel the weight of not belonging to anything in particular.

I dated a lot of non-Jewish boys in between junior high and adulthood. I even seriously dated a hippied-out, Catholic man, eyeing his mother’s cookies neatly stacked in their Christmas tins, breathing them in but not breathing deep. Because sitting in a Christmas Eve midnight mass in rural Pennsylvania, I found myself more lost than ever.

But then I met a man who would wear a suit on our first date and I would tell him I didn’t believe in organized religion and he would tell me that he didn’t either. That he believed in tradition and remembering who you are, where you come from. And his brown eyes and his twirling me on a downtown city street and his choosing The Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain from my CD collection would convince me.

We danced a hora at our wedding that left us sweaty and disheveled with leis around our necks and rings on our fingers, and years later we would have children and a dining room table and every Friday night since we try for an early family meal. My husband has backed me up as promised, coming home early, just on Friday, just that one day a week. Just for tradition.

And now, harried and busy the way we all are, I take a minute each week not to bake a challah but to buy one and to make a special meal and to set the table and to sit or sometimes stand, sautéing something–while my husband blesses my children’s heads. My daughter holds his hand on her head with her hand, making him repeat long life–long, long, long, long, long, she says–while I catch my breath.

A few weeks ago, though, we couldn’t stay at home for dinner, courtesy of ongoing renovations–a blessing!–and we had to leave for the few crucial Friday evening hours. So we hurried to Main Street for sushi where we met my husband on the street as he got off the train from the city. And before we walked in to the restaurant, he pulled a freshly baked challah out of his bag–and he put his hands on my kids’ heads and said the blessings. Then he looked at me.

“Street Motzi,” he said, smiling.

And right there at that moment, I felt that belonging that happens when you’ve created something from a good place. When you have backup, when you’ve given a lot and gotten a lot and when something really takes hold.

The kids were delighted. I was delighted. I was getting to eat a salad with ginger dressing while my kids ate challah that had been blessed on the street at sundown.

Found at long last, I took a deep breath and dug in.

Shabbat Shalom.


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