It was a no-brainer for me to send my daughters to a Jewish preschool. I loved the program, the teachers, and the sense of Jewish community. The school didn’t celebrate Halloween or Christmas and the students dipped apples in honey for Rosh Hashanah and made latkes (OK, they were frozen from a bag) for Chanukah. They ate lunch in a pre-fab sukkah once or twice every fall and sang Jewish songs and read Jewish-themed books. I knew my kids would go to public school starting in kindergarten, but at least they would go to Jewish preschool.
The school sent home lots of things about being Jewish–Jewish parenting articles and Jewish activities we could do at home. And then one day, when my older daughter was 3, they sent home a challah recipe.
My daughter and I had enjoyed some simple baking projects before, and I wondered what baking a challah would be like. Of course, baking a challah is more complex than, say, chocolate chip cookies, but I was willing to try it. So that Friday, I set about making my first-ever challah. I didn’t own a Kitchen Aid mixer at the time, so I mixed and kneaded the entire thing by hand. With risings, it took about four hours from start to finish. I made a roast chicken, carrots, and potatoes to go along with it.
I didn’t know this would be the first Friday night Shabbat dinner of many to come; I didn’t know that 17 years later, I would still be making challah, and that over the course of those years, I would even expand my repertoire to include different challah recipes, and various Shabbat dinner offerings. I didn’t know then that I would invite friends and family to share our Shabbat dinner, and turn leftover challah into challah French toast on Saturday mornings. I didn’t know that the challah would tie me to Shabbat in a way I had never been tied before, that it would serve as a peace offering, a shiva offering, that I would bring it to family holiday gatherings (as a signature holiday round loaf)… I didn’t know anything, except that I had made my first challah and it tasted pretty good.
Shabbat dinner didn’t become a regular thing at first; it depended on what else was going on. When my youngest daughter was born, on a Saturday, in an emergency, and recovery was long and arduous, I couldn’t function very well, and Shabbat dinner was the last thing on my mind. My husband stayed home with me for a week. My mother was with me for a week. I got the flu. All the normal stuff that happens to parents of young children happened to me.
Then, three weeks later, I was alone with the baby on a Friday afternoon. I put her in her infant seat, stuck her next to me in the kitchen, and said to her, “Let’s see if we can make Shabbat dinner.” And I could. Shabbat dinner, and challah, made me feel normal again.
Since then, Shabbat dinner, and more specifically, challah baking, has dictated my Fridays. First thing in the morning, I mix the challah dough. I’ve had a Kitchen Aid mixer for about 12 years now, and it has faithfully mixed and kneaded for me, spoiling me so much that this challah-baking thing really isn’t too hard. (When people exclaim over the challah, I always tell them how easy it is and they don’t believe me.) The dough rises, I shape it, and it rises again. Its predictability is one of my favorite parts of the week.
For a long time, I was doing a lousy three-strand challah, but this summer, my daughter was home from college, and she was determined to learn to do a six-stranded braid. First she taught herself, and then she tried to show me. I’m going to continue to try to make the six-stranded challah braids even though I haven’t got it down just yet and she’s gone off to Europe for the semester. Maybe we can Face Time if I get stuck!
Every Friday night, I make a roast chicken or a roast beef, one of three potato recipes, roasted carrots, and a challah. I don’t deviate. I don’t like when my family schedules other things for Friday nights. Shabbat dinner is, at least in my mind, our time. And all because of a recipe in my daughter’s backpack one quiet fall afternoon 17 years ago.