Monthly Archives: June 2020

Challah–A Delight for the Soul

Every Friday afternoon since the corona virus has turned our world upside down, I have been baking fresh challah. I revel in the process: the measuring, the gradual rising, and especially the eating. But it has become so much more. As Roche Pinson wrote in her book, Rising: The Book of Challah, “We make challah from a place of commitment to nourish ourselves and our families in a way that goes beyond mere physical feeding and watering.”

Even though I can’t remember ever baking a challah before,  two recent encounters with fresh-out-of-the-oven loaves motivated me. Last August met my future daughter-in-law’s parents in their home at their weekly Shabbat dinner. Along with the candle lighting and the kiddish, we all joined in the prayer over Carol’s freshly baked challah, a tradition she has maintained for decades. The taste of her delicious bread stayed with me throughout the coming months.

On one of the last services at our synagogue in Kissimmee before services were suspended, we congregants enjoyed home baked challah made by Liz Ross. The daughter of a Jewish mother and an Inuit chief, Liz had discovered her spiritual roots as an adult. As the only Jew in  Unalakleet, Alaska, her only choice was to make her own challah to accompany her holiday meals. Years of experience yielded a wonderful, sweet bread. 

On that first quarantined Friday, I decided a home made challah would be a perfect comfort food.  I pulled out my friend Flo Miller’s challah recipe that I had stored in a recipe file for years and gathered all the necessary ingredients: yeast, flour, sugar, butter. I mixed and kneaded the sticky dough with my KitchenAid’s dough hook and covered it with a cloth tea towel. After it had risen, I shaped the dough into three challahs, brushed on the egg wash, and let it rise again.  Once out of the oven, Larry and I dropped one of the loaves over on the doorstep of a friend who was spending Shabbos alone in  as his wife was in isolation in the memory unit of a nearby nursing home. 

As the two loaves waited under my mother’s challah cross stitch covering, I lit the Shabbat candles that we had placed in my Grandma Annie’s brass candlesticks. Larry recited the Kiddish over the Manischewitz wine, and then we both recited the HaMotzei over the warm braided bread. We sat down to our first Shabbat dinner in quarantine. 

The following week, Larry and I headed to Publix at 7 a.m. as part of a “seniors only” shopping trip. I immediately headed to the baking aisle to stock up on my bread making supplies.  I obviously was not the only one baking. Yeast, like toilet paper and hand sanitizers,  had completely disappeared from the shelves, with flour, sugar, and eggs in short supply. We grabbed what we could and headed home.

Fortunately, the flour, sugar, and egg situation improved. Initial attempts on purchasing yeast online, however, were miserably unsuccessful. Amazon offered a three-pack of Fleischmann’s for $25, price gouging at its worst. I sent out an all-points bulletin on FaceBook, and three friends dropped off some packets they had in their cupboards. They each got a challah in return. Soon after, Amazon offered a one-pound bag of yeast. Despite the fact it was twice the normal price, I snapped it up.

Thus began my Friday ritual of making the bread and giving one or two of my loaves to others. As a thank-you for two homemade masks. As a “Mazel Tov” on finishing chemotherapy. As a wish for safe travels to their summer home.  If the bread came out of the oven too late for delivery before sundown, we dropped it off the next day with a suggestion to warm it up, toast it, or make it into French toast.

Each week, I tweaked the process. Too much flour made the bread tough. An extra egg yolk made for a richer taste. Covering the bowl with a tea towel and then loosely wrapping it in a garbage bag helped in the rising. Slamming the ball of dough on the counter a few times removed extra gases—and relieved tension! Raisins were a wonderful addition. Creating a challah with six braids or more will take more practice.

One night, when an afternoon nap killed chances for my normal bedtime, I went on YouTube and found a series of  challah baking videos made by Jamie Geller, the “Jewish Rachel Ray.” An Orthodox Jew who made aliyah to Israel in 2012 with her husband and six children, Jamie’s  demonstration added a spiritual component that touched me. Although she is a professed “shortcut queen,” Jamie said she eschews a dough hook in favor of kneading the bread by hand to infuse her love into the loaves. She uses that time to pray for her children, her family, for people in need of r’fuah sh’leimah [complete healing].” 

The  next Friday, I used an electric mixer to start the process but then turned the dough onto my floured countertop and began kneading. Like Jaime, I prayed for my children and grandchildren, who are physically so far away but always in my heart. I prayed for the wellbeing of my friends and family. I prayed for my friend Kathy who is on her way to recovering from COVID-19. I prayed for Minnie, a beautiful baby born at 29 weeks who will be spending her first weeks of life in a NICU unit. I prayed for Jesse, who just lost his wife Heddy to cancer. And I prayed for all those impacted by COVID-19, the sick, the grieving, the lonely, the unemployed, the hungry. Was it my imagination, or did the challah taste especially sweet, especially delicious that Friday night?

This week, the need for prayers is even greater. Along with the pandemic and devastating unemployment numbers, our country is marked with racial strife and protests—both peaceful and violent. So this Friday, I will knead my challah dough with additional prayers —for George Floyd (May his memory be a blessing) and his family, for our country, for the future of democracy. And as the beautiful, sweet braided loaves rise for the final time, I will call my elected officials to repeat the words of Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, “We stand in solidarity with the Black community as they yet again are subject to pain and suffering at the hands of a racist and unjust system…. Systemic injustice and inequality calls for systemic change. Now!” Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who brings forth bread from the earth. Amen

Marilyn Cohen Shapiro, a resident of Kissimmee, FL, is a regular contributor to the (Capital Region NY) Jewish World and the Orlando Heritage Florida Jewish News. She is the author of two compilation of her stories, There Goes My Heart (2016) and Tikkun Olam: Stories of Repairing an Unkind World. (2018). Both books available in paperback and e-book format on Amazon. You can read more of her stories on her blog, theregoesmyheart.me. 

Mulling the Essentials While Sheltering In Place

Some day—hopefully in the near future—the COVID-19 pandemic will be behind us. Medical interventions to those infected will alleviate  the pain, suffering, and deaths. A vaccine may be developed that can prevent others from becoming ill. Social distancing will no longer be necessary. We can go back to our lives, our jobs, our schools, our vacations, our celebrations.

Larry and I have been sheltering in place since March 10, leaving our house only for daily exercise and essential outings. We consider ourselves very fortunate.  We still get our pension checks and our social security. Even though we are  considered more vulnerable because of our age, we are—so far—not dealing personally with COVID-19 illness. We are not trying to balance working from our kitchen table while home schooling our children. We have few appointments and fewer deadlines. 

These past few weeks have given us a perspective as to what is important in our lives. Once we have the required essentials such as toilet paper, masks, disinfectants/hand sanitizers, and a well-stocked kitchen, what do we deem necessary to get through the COVID-19 pandemic? Here is my own Top Ten List.

  1. Real News

Larry and I have gotten a newspaper delivered to our doorstep since we bought our first house in 1976. When we moved to Florida, we immediately subscribed to the Orlando Sentinel. I can’t imagine my morning coffee without the news, and our life would be a little emptier without the comics and puzzles. In the same way, I look forward to getting the Jewish World  in my mailbox every two weeks to get the Jewish perspective. We have on-line subscriptions to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. They were invaluable to me before the pandemic but even more important now. 

  1. Exercise

Now that the pickleball courts, the pools, and the gym are all shuttered, Larry and I alternate between riding our bikes and taking long walks every morning. We get some fresh air and have the opportunity to wave and say hi to  friends and neighbors.

  1. A Sarong

If we were up north, we would probably be living in sweatshirts and pants. As Florida’s temperatures rarely go below 75 degrees, I love my sarongs.They are comfortable and no-fuss and keep the laundry to a minimum.

  1. A Kindle

Through the miracle of modern technology, I have access to public library with just a few clicks of the computer. If the book isn’t available, I place a hold and get an email telling me when it is available. Best reads so far: The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes and She Said; Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Help Ignite a Movement by New York Times writers Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.

  1. Amazon Prime and Netflix

We can’t go to the movies, and every live performance has been cancelled. But we finally have the time to watch all those series that were on our to-do list. Larry and I can recommend Unorthodox, Schitt$ Creek, and Bomb Girls. I also have The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Crown in my queue. 

  1. My Writing

Our calendars are pretty bare, but I still have my deadlines for the articles I write for the two Jewish newspapers.. Writing gives me a purpose. Recently, my articles about COVID-19 have helped me cope and put things in perspective. Once the article is published, I put it onto my blog and my FaceBook page. I love the sense of accomplishment I get from completing an article and love the feedback I get from those that follow me. (Hint! Hint! theregoesmyheart.me)

  1. Dinner

With all the restaurants closed and take-out options few and far between in our area, dinner is a main event. We even have a nightly happy hour with homemade hors d’oeuvres  Every Friday, we have a Shabbat meal complete with a kiddish, candle lighting, and a homemade challah. Ironically, along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, yeast has also been in short supply. I finally bit the bullet and overpaid for a pound of yeast on Amazon so I don’t have to worry about finding it in our supermarket. I make three or four loaves a week and drop off one or two to neighbors who need some cheering up. 

  1. Our Lanai

Our lanai, which looks out on a small pond and a heavily wooded area, is our favorite place in our home. We are entertained by Florida wildlife, including a resident alligator,  an assortment of birds, and a rare bobcat sighting. It is where Larry and I spend our afternoons, reading  our books and doing  our puzzles. The lanai table is my office, where I do my writing. And it is where we eat dinner every night. 

  1. Video Chats

The hardest part of our quarantined life is not being with family and friends. Our trip to California to see our grandson and our summer plans for Colorado are on indefinite hold. At least four times a week, we FaceTime with our almost five-year-old granddaughter. We read her books, tell her stories, and watch her play. We usually end the call with her “reading” a book she has memorized to us. Holding our grandson is impossible, but my son and daughter-in-law are good about setting up the camera so we can watch him for a chunk of time. We Skype with Larry’s side of the family on Sunday morning and Zoom with my side of the family on Monday night. 

  1. 10.Our Support System

Absolutely nothing that I listed above would not be possible without those who continue to work. People still deliver our newspaper, our mail, our packages we have ordered on-line. In our community, people still mow our lawns and pick up our trash and recyclables. Those who work in essential businesses— pharmacies, supermarkets, gas stations— still  fill prescriptions, stock shelves and run cash registers. A delivery service drops our groceries on our front porch. Most importantly, our first responders and all those who work in the medical field put their own lives on the line every day to try to save the lives of family members and friends who have been infected. I am so grateful to every one of them. We can best show our appreciation by doing whatever we can to prevent further spread of this epidemic. Stay safe Stay healthy. Stay home!