Five-and-a-half years ago, I baked my first homemade challah. I was 28 weeks pregnant with my oldest daughter, mourning the sudden passing of my mother-in-law, when one of my closest high school friends, Vicki Hervitz, suggested we bake challah together for Shabbat.
In the weeks following our loss, my family began the weekly tradition of enjoying Friday evening dinners together. Vicki thought it would be particularly meaningful to bake challah together, in honor of my mother-in-law, since one of the rituals surrounding challah-baking is to stop and think for whom you are making the bread.
I hesitantly agreed to the idea, since baking challah wasn’t something I ever thought I would do. Together, we made four loaves: two everything-flavored and two honey-flavored.
To my surprise, it was simple, requiring just a few ingredients and some time to allow for rising. I remember belly-laughing for what seemed like the first time in weeks as we talked and reminisced.
Baking challah that afternoon was exactly what I needed to begin the healing process.
A dozen years ago, Dr. Beth Ricanati baked her first challah. She was working at the Cleveland Clinic as an internist, had three young children and felt overwhelmed trying to be a mother, doctor and wife. That’s when a friend suggested she make challah for Jewish holidays.
Like me, Ricanati cautiously agreed. Using her friend’s recipe from a “Mommy and Me” class, she baked challah and felt liberated. The ritual was exactly what she needed to help her find her way again.
Ricanati explores that experience in her 2018 book “Braided: The Journey of a Thousand Challahs” (She Writes Press). Baking challah became a meaningful ritual that helped Ricanati manage stress. For me, it became a meaningful ritual I now share with my two daughters, Lila and Brooklyn. Our freshly baked challah is always a crowd favorite at Shabbat dinners.
I recently spoke with Ricanati about her Nov. 12 appearance at Temple Oheb Shalom, which is part of the 2019-2020 Baltimore Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Conversations Author Series, as well as Baltimore’s Festival of Jewish Literature.
What inspired you to write “Braided”? After baking challah that first time, I began rearranging my Friday afternoons so I could bake every week. I didn’t set out with the intention of making this my passion. It wasn’t until I did it for a while and was so excited for Friday afternoons that I realized there was more to challah-baking. I had learned some really powerful lessons and figured I couldn’t be the only stressed-out mother, and found solace and knowledge in my baking ritual that I wanted to share.
Describe the book.The book is a couple of different strands braided together; it’s part memoir, part cookbook and part self-help. Because I am an internist by trade, I felt I wanted to put a health-and-wellness aspect into the book. By the end of it, you will know my story, how to make challah and the history behind the challah.
The history? I grew up Reform and always thought challah was the braided bread you bought in the plastic bag from the grocery store or bakery. One of the most fun parts about writing this book was learning the back story of the challah and being able to incorporate those rituals into my baking.
For example, the challah isn’t the braided bread — it’s actually the separating of the dough. Once you make the dough, you break off a small piece, which is the challah, say a blessing over it and throw it away.
When there was a Temple [in Jerusalem], the challah was the offering given to the priest. But now that there isn’t a Temple, we do this as a symbolic gesture and a way to connect us to the past. Also, we are supposed to make challah in the merit of someone else, and I now do that when I bake.
What’s been the most impactful aspect of your journey? The biggest takeaway for me is the idea of having a meaningful ritual in my life. Seventy-five percent of chronic diseases are lifestyle-driven, meaning they are impacted by what you eat, whether or not you exercise and how you manage your stress.
Behaviors like baking challah are a mindfulness practice, a way to manage stress and be healthy. There is a lot of medical research about how tactile arts are great for decreasing anxiety. Furthermore, we know doing activities like those in a group setting can foster the sense of belonging and community.
It’s a stressful world we live in and finding ways to combat that is really important. This is a great, easy, fun way to do it, and at the end you are left with delicious bread.
Your favorite type of challah? Much to my children’s horror, I prefer plain challah, so that is 95 percent of what I make. However, we recently discovered the Everything but the Bagel [seasoning blend] and that’s a new favorite as well. Traveling around for this book has exposed me to all kinds of interesting challah recipes, like za’atar and olive oil and chocolate chip.
But personally, I like the simplicity of a plain challah.
The annual “Big Baltimore Women’s Challah Bake” will be held Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. For information about the Challah Bake and Dr. Beth Ricanati’s talk at Temple Oheb Shalom on Nov. 12, visit baltimoreshabbatproject.org/upcoming-events.
Watch Aliza Friedlander and her daughters making their weekly challah:
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