Category Archives: Jewish Sabbath

Keep calm and carry on? A return to tradition

Flashback to March 14, 2020. COVID-19 was the top news story. My daughter Julie and her family were leaving for the Orlando airport after a week’s stay. We had spent a few days on the beach and been delighted  by news of the birth of our grandson in a San Francisco hospital. We had cancelled our planned visit to Magic Kingdom the day before Disney announced it was closing the park that weekend. Instead, we spent hours in a community pool making sure we weren’t too close to anyone else. 

Julie’s last words as she got into her rental car were, “Mom and Dad, promise us you will stay safe!” She begged us to skip our plans to see Death Trap, which was being performed by our local theater group that evening. She must have called her brother, because Adam FaceTimed us an hour before we were to leave for the play. “If you stay home, I will keep the camera on your new grandson for the next hour.” Seeing our grandson won. We had no idea we would be feeling its effects—masks; sheltering in place; cancelled trips; cancelled events; hours of Netflix’s and puzzles; new variants; tragically, loss of friends to the virus—for the next two years.

Within the first month of the pandemic, I decided that celebrating with a Sabbath dinner every Friday would bring some joy. I polished my grandparents’ candlesticks; bought a new Kiddish cup on ebay (I must have lost mine in our move); brought out my embroidered challah cover, and located a friend’s challah recipe I had always meant to try. With some difficulty—the whole world decided along with me to make bread—I purchased flour, yeast, and sugar to make the traditional Shabbat bread. And I mixed and kneaded and braided my first challahs. Delicious! 

The following Friday, I was a little more confident. I made four small ones, and shared one with president of our (closed down) shul and one with a friend whose wife had just been placed in memory care.By April, I had totally embraced not only the baking process but also the spiritual elements. I learned that it was appropriate to say prayers during the kneading process, a way of feeding the body and the soul. I initially prayed for my family as well as our country and for all impacted by the pandemic. But my prayers soon extended to the sick, the grieving, the lonely. I kept a Mi Shebeirach list on my phone as reminders and often played Debbie Friedman’s version of the beautiful prayer as I kneaded the pliant, soft dough.

We developed a rhythm: Every Friday afternoon I baked the challahs, and just before sunset, Larry would head off in our car, delivering two or three still warm fragrant loaves to needy people in our community. When I couldn’t physically share them, I attached pictures of the challah onto an email with a note. “I kneaded prayers of healing into this loaf of bread. Thinking of you. Love, Marilyn.”

By the time Larry and I were finally able to travel to see our children and grandchildren in June 2021, I was a seasoned challah maker—to a point. Baking bread in someone else’s kitchen proved to be a challenge. In San Francisco, I realized the sound of the mixmaster cranking out the initial steps of challah process woke my grandson from his nap. In Colorado, the 9100 foot elevation resulted in loaves that looked more like amoebas. I had to learn to work around nap time and altitude. 

Meanwhile, I was tweaking my technique. I replaced the butter in my friend’s recipe with canola oil, which meant less noise and more kneading time, my favorite party of the process. Rocky Mountain challahs, I learned, needed to go into the oven immediately after braiding to prevent over-rising. A straight egg yolk wash resulted in browner, shinier loaves, which Larry wholeheartedly approved “This is the way challah is supposed to look,” he said, biting into the harder crust.

Over the past two years, I have baked and shared dozens of challahs, many that were appearing on our shul’s Zoom services. As our world finally has begun opening up, however, finding the time to make the challahs on Friday has been more difficult. I “cheat”by making seven or eight loaves and freezing 2-4 braided unbaked challahs, to be defrosted and baked when needed. (I still feel Jewish guilt when I use that shortcut!)

Friends have asked me if they could buy my challahs or even sell them at our Farmer’s Market. I decline, telling them emphatically I am not starting a new career. Instead, I offer them my challah “recipe,” a nearly 3000 word tome with numerous tips. Recently, I even invited two friends over for a “challah workshop.” After we all enjoyed slices oof the warm loaves smothered with butter, they went home with a batch of the still-rising dough they had prepared. They sent me pictures of their finished creations, beautiful in their own right. I am just following an old Yiddish expression: “Give people a challah, and they eat for a day. Give them a recipe, and they become challah bakers!”

Initially, I was hopeful that this would be the last article I would be writing about the pandemic. Two vaccines and two boosters later, Larry and I have pretty much resumed our lives. But there are now disturbing numbers that show another upward trend. Will we have to resume mask wearing? Sheltering in place? Only time will tell. 

When I wrote this mid-April, I was on a challah hiatus. Instead, Larry was enjoying sponge cake, Passover popovers, and matzo brie. But Passover ended next Friday. I soon will be pulling out the ingredients for the challah and donning my special apron. Stay safe, my friends.Better yet, Keep Calm and Bake Challah.

Cohen family noted Shabbat with fish in the 50’s, but now is a different story for Marilyn. 

Friday was Fish Day.

No, we weren’t Catholic. Growing up in the Fifties, in a small predominantly Catholic town, fresh fish was often available on Friday. Looking back, I am not sure if it was really that fresh. Yes, Lake Champlain was three miles away, but I don’t think local fishermen provided the fillets that lay on top of the ice in the Grand Union. 

There was a second reason Friday was Fish Day. My father managed a department store, and Pearl’s,  along with the other stores in Keeseville, was open until 9 o’clock every Friday. Dad hated fish, so my mother would make some variety of it on that night. If it wasn’t fresh, it is a frozen block or two that my mother defrosted, covered with bread crumbs, and baked along with frozen french fries. When she wanted to save time, she heated up some Gorton’s fish sticks. 

Friday dinners were  a contrast to our Monday through Thursday, “Father Knows Best” routine. Dad would come in the back door at 5:30 and immediately sit down at our formica topped kitchen table. We children took our places, assigned after one night of our fighting who sat where.

“That’s it!” Dad said. “Wherever you are sitting tonight will be your place from now on.”

Dad sat at the head, his back to the radiator and the yellow linoleum tile on the wall. When she wasn’t putting food on the table, Mom took her place at the foot, her back to the old white Kelvinator range cook stove with its double oven. Jay, the only son, sat to his left. Laura, the oldest daughter  took her place next to Jay. Bobbie, the youngest, sat to Dad’s right. I sat in between Mom and Bobbie. 

Dinner was usually chicken, potatoes and a vegetable that had been peeled off the waxed box and boiled in a pot on the stove under done. Occasionally, we would have spaghetti with Ragu. Notice I did’t say pasta. In the 1950s, the only pasta available was macaroni for macaroni and cheese and regular old fashioned spaghetti noodles. Who knew of ziti or angel hair or cellentani?

Our dinners were usually over quickly. By 5:55, Dad had pushed himself away from the table. While the children dutifully moved to their bedrooms to do homework and Mom washed the dishes, Dad headed for the back room and the television set. The local news was followed by Huntley and Brinkley. The rest of the night was filled with Perry Mason, Checkmate, and other early television shows. In those days before remotes, Dad would rely on us post-homework to change the station. This did serve an educational purpose: When Bobbie was in kindergarten, she was having difficulty learning her numbers. It was a “Eureka” moment when our family realized that Bobbie had no problem changing the channels to Burlington’s WCAX (Channel 3) and Plattsburg’s station WPTZ (Channel 5). 

The Friday night  late closing provided another benefit to the four Cohen children. As we had no school the next night and Dad wasn’t home to dictate what programs we watched, we ate our dinners on TV trays in front of our favorite programs. This included The Mickey Mouse Club, with our favorite Musketeers, Annette Funicello and Tommy Cole and a little later, The Flintstones. By the 1960s, both my parents worked at the store, and I was old enough to look after Bobbie as we watched Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, and Route 66. 

Where did synagogue fit into this picture, especially in our Reform congregation that only had Saturday morning services for Bar Mitzvahs? Mom finally got her driver’s license in 1955, just before Bobbie was born. Driving the 30 mile round trip up and back to Plattsburgh with four children tow, especially in the winter, was out of the question. It was not until the mid-Sixties that Mom would make the trip with Bobbie and me. Although we all attended Hebrew school though Jay’s Bar Mitzvah and all of our confirmations, a traditional Shabbat dinner with challah, candles, and a Kiddish cup was not even a consideration. Dad worked, and it was Fish Friday!

In fact, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Larry and I started our own tradition. Last March, I became fully invested in baking challahs each Friday for ourselves and those friends whom we felt needed the comfort of a golden loaf straight out of the oven. We began lighting the Shabbat candles, pouring a glass of Manischewitz, and putting my cross stitched challah cover over one of  the warm loaves. How could we do all this and NOT set the table and prepare a special dinner, whether we were participating in our twice-monthly Zoom services or just enjoying a quiet sheltering-in-place meal at home?

As we and our friends are vaccinated it is time to invite a couple or two or three to share this all with us. I look forward to carrying on this tradition with my children and grandchildren this summer. Yes, I have come a long way from Friday fish sticks in front of Annette Funicello and the Flintstones

First published in (Capital Region NY) Jewish World May 13-May 27, 2021. 

Picture (Fried Fish at home.jpg) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.