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Week 7: "Challah-it-Forward...Forward!"

Daniel Barash

It's the first Saturday evening of November, Halloween has come and gone, Shabbat is over. What to do?

Stay up really late preparing ten pounds of challah dough, of course. Seriously? You bet!

This is the situation I found myself in two weeks ago, the night before I was going to lead the first of a four-session "Family Cooking Havurah: 'Challah-it-Forward' and Build Community, Together!"

I had barely begun my challah-making adventure, and here I was, about to conduct a challah-baking class--how did this crazy turn of events come about?! It actually sort of fell into my lap, via a longer chain of events. The quick narrative: Soon after I started Challah-it-Forward in September, I was on the phone with Rachel Brodie (CJO-Chief Jewish Officer!) of the San Francisco JCC, and while brainstorming ideas about my shadow puppetry work over the coming year (I am a Teaching Artist who uses this unique art form to explore stories across the curricula), I mentioned the challah project, and inquired as to whether she thought families within the wider Jewish community might be interested in baking-it-forward as well. Initially thinking that baking and puppeteering were two distinct parts of my life, and not really related at all, Rachel made me re-evaluate by suggesting that I use shadow puppetry to perform the "Challahs in the Ark" story, which had in fact helped to inspire me to pursue the baking project in the first place. A puppet version of the tale could provide similar inspiration for families to "take the plunge" and challah-it-forward themselves! After more conversation, a date was soon set to pilot this program model with JCC preschoolers and their families in The City By The Bay!

Soon after this, I was on the phone with Tehila Hendel, Family Engagement Director at Palo Alto's Oshman Family JCC. It just so happened that the JCC was in the process of organizing a Family Cooking Havurah for this fall, and when Tehila heard about my project, she invited me to lead the four-session series. 

And that is why I found myself standing in the kitchen, kneading ten pounds of dough, wondering what I had in fact gotten myself into! Contemplating what would befall me if the dough didn't turn out right, too dry or too oily, too salty or sweet. Luckily, I had an incredible resource to help me out, Maggie Glezer's "A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World." The author literally takes the reader around the world, sharing challah traditions and recipes from kitchens across the Jewish Diaspora. Different chapters cover breads from the Ashkenazi, Sephardic, North African, and Near Eastern Traditions. She even has a section entitled "New Traditions," featuring whole-grain recipes. 

The recipe I chose for my inaugural class was Ashkenazi Czernowitzer Challah, a very-moist (courtesy of generous amounts of oil) loaf that is virtually fool-proof. After preparing five-recipes-worth on Saturday, I drove to Palo Alto early Sunday morning, a huge pot of dough filling up my car with the aroma of anticipation! After setting-up-shop for the class (with needed help from Tehila and Co.), the families arrived, and the mayhem began! First I introduced the ideas behind the baking series; the joys of baking together as a family, and then sharing with the wider community, fulfilling the Mitzvot of Gemilut Hasadim (Acts of Loving-Kindness). The families then kneaded, braided, and egg-washed the dough I had prepared the night before. As these loaves were then placed in the ovens, I helped the families make new dough from scratch, which they later took to bake at home!

While the baked loaves were cooling, I shared the "Challahs in the Ark" story, and helped them to create character and scenery shadow puppets. We then re-enacted favorite moments from the story, further reinforcing the values held therein. All this, with the aroma of fresh bread surrounding us!

Finally, the families each received the two loaves they had made. One was (for the most part) eaten immediately, and heartily enjoyed. The other loaves were then brought up, en masse with families in tow, right then and there, to the Moldaw Residences (located right on the Taube Koret campus), where a group of seniors were having lunch. The joy on the faces of the seniors for having received the bread, and the families for having given the bread, was palpable and powerful. Who would have thought that the mixing of flour, yeast, water, oil, and eggs could create such a memory?

The clean-up and drive back to Berkeley were exhausting. I was tired. But I was also somehow more awake, more alert to the power of simple gifts that bind us together as families and as communities. And when I walked into my home and saw my family waiting for me, I picked up my daughter and held her close, hoping to convey my gratitude for the simple gifts she has given me throughout our journey together thus far.