By Dana Lerner
It’s Tuesday night on the Upper West Side and seven young Jewish women have left their briefcases and Blackberries behind and are elbows deep in flour, mixing, kneading and braiding.
These 20-something professionals gather at the apartment of Rabbi Sam and Mandy Bregman to learn how to make challah, the traditional sweet egg bread served at Jewish holiday and Sabbath meals.
“I came tonight because hopefully this will be a tradition in my family for years to come,” said Ivy Bernard who works in television production in Manhattan.
“Besides this being a very social event, I like learning things for the future and something which will help me make an actual Jewish home for myself,” agreed Rachel Berg, 24, who works in advertising, as she waited for the dough to rise. “I grew up with challah in my home, so childhood memories came back to me while I was baking.”
Making challah is no easy task, though. “Now that I am married and a mother, challah is everything,” says Bregman, who is also in her 20s and wanted to run this class because of challah’s importance to her home. Often Aron, her toddler, helps. Together they bake knowing they are performing a mitzvah, or good deed.
“When I’m making challah, I always think of a woman having children, because it’s a very holy thing. You could also pray for someone looking for a husband or someone who is sick, but you say that you are cooking in the merit,” said Bregman.
The class is free, and the Bregmans hope to organize more in the future.
Challah comes from the word “chol,” which means ordinary or secular. Traditional Judaism teaches that God gives Jews permission to use his world, under the condition that they preserve its holiness. Life is ordinary and mundane, but with blessings and performing good deeds, or mitzvahs, the physical world is bonded with the spiritual. Baking challah reminds Jews of this possibility.
“Pour four cups of warm water in a bowl to activate the yeast,” Bregman tells the room crowded with young women attending to their six packets of the powdery mix.
“Oh, I smell it,” said Berg. “It almost smells like a pretzel.” The aroma of the mixture permeates the apartment. The yeast is left to rise for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, flour is poured into a large basin, and a voluntary challah baker makes a well in the middle, where the egg mixture and yeast will be combined and dispersed.
Standing opposite huge basins, mixing bowls and the supplies of yeast, flour, water, eggs, sugar, salt and oil, the need for instruction was clear as these sophisticated New Yorkers began a task Jewish women have undertaken for centuries.
“The most important thing to make challah is yeast,” said Bregman. “If your yeast is not good, and it doesn’t rise, you will not have challah. You will have matzah, sort of.” She trails off as everyone laughs.
It is customary for many Jewish women to bake bread for their families to honor the Sabbath, as one of the commandments by which a woman brings blessings into the home, such as lighting the candles on Friday night or providing the bread meal on Saturday. In accordance with Jewish thought, food is not simply to fill the stomach, but is also to provide spiritual sustenance.
Emily Estadella, a stylist, has baked bread before, but believes there is something unique in this process. “The blessings and braiding makes challah baking different because with regular bread you throw it into a pan or bread maker. This definitely takes more technique.”
The bread took on a larger meaning as fingers sifted through silky white flour resting at the bottom of a large fuchsia bowl.
“We are not spotting any weevils,” said Berg, as Megan Harris-Linton, 24, a science teacher at a Jewish day school, pushes the flour from side to side in search of the fly-like black bug. A bug would make the flour unkosher, and searching for them is a well-practiced task. “No weevils,” she said.
Eight eggs were cracked into a small glass bowl and checked for the presence of blood, which would make it trafe, or improper to eat.
“Add two cups of sugar to it,” bellows Bregman, as she pushes her chin-length auburn hair from her eyes. Her long, black skirt is powdered with flour. “And keep reading the recipe ladies.” After the search, the egg mixture is poured into the center of the bowl.
“Okay, use your hands to mix this together,” Bregman says.
“Cool!” beams Harris-Linton, as her hands plunge into the soon-to-be dough.
“Grab the challah dough from the sides as you go,” says Bregman. “Treat it like a pudding.”
“Look!” she says while admiring Harris-Linton’s work. “She’s putting a lot of love into it.”
Hands plunge into the doughy mixture and Bregman continues to offer encouragement. “Stir to the right in a circle with your hand and grab some of the flour as you go,” she says. “Oh, she’s got a strong hand,” she points out to one of the bakers.
After mixing the dough, challah bakers patiently waited for the dough to rise — about two hours. Friends gabbed, pizza was eaten, and Rabbi Bregman spoke about the week’s Torah portion.
Finally, when the slabs of dough had risen and had been punched down, it was time for the all-important braiding of the dough that gives the challah its distinctive shape.
“Over, under, over,” says Harris-Linton, as she weaved thick strands on a baking sheet. Bregman brushes each finished challah with an egg mixture. Olives, onions, garlic or rows of chocolate chips could be added to challah for flavoring, she says.
The braided breads must rise yet again before they’re baked.
Around 11 p.m., as oven timers went off, everyone was excited as their golden brown baked bundles emerged from the hot oven.
“It’s like my first baby,” Bernard says as she gazes at her finished work.
“It’s gorgeous,” Bregman says of the finished challahs. “Mazel Tov.”