Grandma Rachel's Challah



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Growing Up Jewish

by Shirley Coles © 2003

Fridays were always a very special day in the home of my grandparents. Not only did sundown mark the beginning of Shabbat, but there was much cooking and baking going on and the house smelled heavenly. My mother and I occupied a small room across the hall from the kitchen and, when I would sit doing my homework after school, I knew what we would be having for dinner that night without ever leaving my desk. Grandma Rachel was considered to be one of the best challah makers in our community

Mingled with the aroma of roasting chicken, apple stuffing, potatoes and her special carrot dish called tsimmus (which was definitely not a favorite of mine), was the unmistakable perfume of baking bread…challah. My mother and my aunts used to ask Grandma to teach them how to make the beautiful, braided and shiny loaves, but she stubbornly kept the secrets to herself. If they stepped up quietly behind her while she worked the sweet dough, I would hear her stamp her foot and say what sounded like "gay, gay, gay aveck".

One afternoon, homework done, I walked into the kitchen to inhale to my heart's delight. Grandma looked up."Vas vilst du, Tsureleh? I was all of twelve at that time, the eldest granddaughter. She and I had been friends and gin rummy buddies for a long time and she knew I was not seeking to become a baker of challah. Thus, I was allowed to stand close and watch as her busy hands kneaded and punched, shaped, and then braided the fragrant dough. Not only did she make one large bread, but there would be a smaller version which she placed on top of the first. It was a veritable work of art.

"Kally" is hard to say, Grandma," She looked at me and giggled, her round tummy shaking under the flowered apron. "Nisht kally," she said, patting my face with a floured hand, which made her laugh all the more. "It's chhhhhhalahhhh…with a chhh. Make like you have something caught in your throat and need to spit it out." It took a couple of hard coughs but I got it right. Then it was time to put the loaf into its pan and into the oven. I knew that the next time I saw it, there would be a golden brown masterpiece ready for Friday night dinner.

But one mystery remained. Grandma had removed one small piece of dough from the rest before she baked it. This little nugget was baked and then burnt…yes, burnt! After all of that, she would say a tiny prayer and throw it away. She watched me. My mouth must have been open in amazement. "Better close your mouth, Tsureleh, or a fly might go in. I think you are old enough to hear why this is done." It was a long time ago, and I may not be remembering correctly, but I believe the little piece of burnt challah dough was supposed to commemorate the destruction of the Temple.

The Temple, she said, was the center, the heart, of Judaism, the source of blessings, and it was where the High Court or Sanhedrin sat. It was where sacrifices were offered, and the source of all prayer. It was the meeting place of all Jewish people when they gathered to celebrate the Three Festivals. "Tsureleh, when the people came together to daven and dance and be with one another in friendship and love, it made us strong. When the temple was destroyed by fire, we lost those things. We have to remember and mourn and cry for this and then rebuild…always rebuild."

I cannot eat challah without smelling that wonderful aroma of baking bread, without seeing my Grandmother's hands creating it, without hearing her voice, without feeling her soft, floured hands on my cheek. The lesson of the burnt offering has come back to me many times in my life. Whenever dreams are shattered or faith weakened…whenever we lose heart, we have to remember first to mourn the loss of the strength we can find in each other, in our roots, and then we must find our way back to them and rebuild anew.

Challah is not merely a beautiful and delicious bread to me….it is Grandma Rachel, it's part of all she taught me about who I am and that I am a part of a rich and precious heritage. She is gone from me now, but never lost. With every one of my senses, she is immortal.

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from the February 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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