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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Challah links us to personal and national memories

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Why does the smell of a challah baking bring such wonderful memories?

As I walked in to my local bakery the other day, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of home and grandparents. I remember both my grandmother’s kitchen and my Bubby’s. Each was different. Each was filled with wonderful years of family, joy, laughter and definitely good food. Why is it that the aroma itself can immediately stimulate such intense feelings and nostalgia? Sometimes it seems that our heritage is wrapped up in that distinctive fragrance and taste, one that has so many variations, yet so many identical formulations. I hope my grandkids will have similar neural pathways – from nose to memory’s heartland.

(If you want to sell your house quickly, bake a challah for the open house. Let the aroma filter throughout. It works like a charm, or so a real estate agent once told my mother-in-law.)

The braided-challah tradition has for generations earned our esteem for its symbolic presence on our tables, and for its absolute sumptuousness. But it was not always so. The rich braided egg bread so easily identified as challah is actually a German/Austrian (Teutonic) invention – not Jewish at all. It was called holle and Jews picked it up in the 15th century. Gil Marks writes all about it in his very erudite and fascinating Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.

Isn’t it amazing to learn that what we think of as uniquely ours, as indigenous to our tradition, is in fact borrowed? So many people know this bread as Jewish bread. We have made it so. Not only is it untrue historically, but there are many Jewish communities that have used different bread forms for their Sabbath and festival challot. Some used different words for different kinds of breads, like berches, dabo and chapatis. Some Middle Eastern communities use large pita breads for this tradition. Today, even among some with other customs, the braided egg challah is spreading. It’s truly a scrumptious custom.

There is dispute as to the actual meaning of the word challah. It might mean portion, or thick, or pierced. It also refers to the portion of dough that’s burned in memory of the tithed bread given to the priests, the kohanim. Challah in the Bible referred to the 12 loaves in the Temple. There are some beautiful prayers said at the time of challah baking, tchines, private petitional prayers that women said as they put their challot into the oven.

The tradition of eating challah emanates from a biblical story told of the Jews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. During that time, they ate manna from heaven. They were commanded to rest on the Sabbath – no work, not even that of collecting their food, was to be done on Shabbat. The solution: a double portion of manna was “delivered” on Friday. In acknowledgment of this act, Jews put two breads on their Sabbath and festival tables to start their meals. The Sabbath loaves are covered, just like the manna was covered by the dew for protection.

Thus the symbolic meaning of the challah links the individual diner to history and to a national tradition of biblical proportions. It brings forward the glory days of a nation at its elemental beginning, finding its liberation from slavery, its moment of revelation at Sinai and then its slow growth in a long march to full nationhood. By linking challah to manna, certain vital themes are refreshed and established anew for each individual. All this through a lovely piece of bread.

Eventually, these loaves of bread come to dominate notions of festive meals and shared family times. The smell of the bread baking reminds people of all sorts of lovely times with siblings, cousins, parents and grandparents. The smell alone evokes the sense of belonging and longing. That is the essence of nostalgia.

It behooves us to learn about our rich and varied culinary customs. In recipes, we can see a heritage played out between symbolic food items and incorporated foreign items. The foods and associated customs indicate our historic intermingling among the nations. We have managed to keep our kashrut forms while learning the designs and tastes of others. We expanded and diversified and somehow made them uniquely our own. There is a wonderful story hidden in each of our culinary cultures.

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