Zooming for Challah
Two of Leah Neiman's challahs (courtesy)
The internet has been popping with real-time challah baking sessions since shelter in place began. These free pre-Shabbat meet ups nourish a hunger for recipes, relief, rituals, and relationships.
Despite nationwide yeast and flour shortages, longtime bakers and novices convene online, kitchen to kitchen and screen to screen, to bake away the tensions of the pandemic. Participants trade tips on yeast, kneading, and braiding, sharing their favorite recipes and techniques.
Longtime challah baker Melissa Block offers “Making Challah Together” from her home in Chicago. Despite the challah she always keeps in the freezer and even when she runs low on ingredients, she insists on baking fresh challah weekly. She “so enjoys it, yearns to connect with it, [and is] excited about each aspect.” Block also shares her love of challah by organizing the successful annual religious school fundraiser “Knead a Night Out” for her synagogue. Join her at Making Challah Together for upcoming sessions.
Leah Neiman started the “Challah Baking for Dummies” Facebook group at the end of 2019. Noticing lots of baking groups, she had “realized there was nothing for challah. I stopped everything and started one!”
Now its more than 1,500 members discuss anything and everything challah. Even though Neiman herself has been baking challah for many years, “... each time I do it its like a meditative practice. The traditions of braiding and kneading connect me to the broader Jewish community. No matter how busy I am I always enjoy it.”
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder reflects about her recent Facebook Live challah meetings that “people enjoy seeing rabbis at home and even making mistakes.” Abusch-Magder measures out flour from her 20-50 pound bags to create her specialty challah with cookie butter and chocolate. Or, on the savory side, it could be zaatar and feta; sometimes salami, onions, and mustard. For Abusch-Magder challah baking for the past 30 years has been a deep spiritual practice. Now, she notes, it “gives your week some shape, especially at this crazy time ... people are seeing that challah can be comforting. Learning is not so complicated. They are trying Jewish in ways they have not done before.”
Technology is the perfect ingredient for the weekly Zoom Challah Bake Classes organized by Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Webby Awards Founder Tiffany Shlain. The international and intergenerational sessions and conversations weave into her decade-long practice of baking challah with her daughters each week and into her book 24/6 Unplugged.
Since the stay at home started in California she has hosted guest bakers such as New York Times best selling author, Roxane Gay, Gefilteria’s Jeff Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, the founders of LA’s Challah Hub, Elina Tilipman and Sarah Klegman, and food writer Jake Cohen. At future zoom bakes, Shlain will converse with scientists and artists around the unprecedented issues of the world today.
Shlain’s daughter Bluma joins the morning meeting to knead the dough and then her daughter Odessa demos braiding at the afternoon time slot.
While the yeast “blooms,” Shlain convenes conversations with what she calls her “Zoom shtetl.” When she asks participants who they are baking for, responses include: healthcare workers, my own sanity, everyone who’s lonely out there, and those can’t go out of their homes.
When Shlain invites descriptions of favorite acts of kindness from the past week, bakers say: our city exploded in hearts, working at the food bank, making cookies for UPS driver, the building’s help list for volunteers, leaving groceries outside the market for people in Italy, making masks for others. Shlain encourages each attendee to “knead all of your love into your bread and knead all of your stress from the week away.”
And, so fear, distance, and isolation dissolve, at least momentarily, in the commonality of internet conversations that begin ostensibly about comforting food, challah, and then expand into interpersonal nurture and personal Jewish growth.
Other recent on-line challah options:
Professional Chef: Uri Scheft, co-founder of Breads Bakery and author of Breaking Breads patiently guides people through designing post-Passover shlissel challah, organized by the Jewish Food Society Friday after Passover tradition.
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher at Shaarey Tefillah in NYC bakes his favorite challah from Chef Einat Admony’s book, Balaboosta: Bold Mediterranean Recipes.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr observes the custom of segullah with her weekly challah. She invites her online followers to name the sick: “If you’d like me to include the name of a loved one in need to healing, please let me know by 11 AM Eastern…” reads a recent post with a photo of challah dough rising.