‘Welcome to my kitchen.”
In this age of isolation, with the walls closing in, a singularly Jewish response has cropped up: challah-baking tutorials. More than recipes shared on social media, these tutorials offer comfort, beginning with the homespun and in these days exciting words, “Welcome to my kitchen.” A version of escapism that takes us from our home jails to kitchens full of flour, packs of yeast and countless metal mixing bowls — these videos are a homey kind of connection.
We have always been a nomadic people, dispersed throughout the diaspora. Whether in Pumbedita, near modern-day Fallujah, when we were arguing and recreating a new tradition after the exile of the Temple in Jerusalem, or under duress during Muslim rule in medieval times, when a torrent of Jewish textual creation sprang forth, exile has often led to a burst of creativity. Like the mystical explanation of Genesis called “tzimtzum” — that a contraction of energy leads to an eruption of energy — quarantine has always seemed to be a push for creativity.
Which brings me to challah-baking videos, the current version of Jewish ASMR experiences. These are autonomous sensory meridian responses — tinglings and feelings of relaxation that have nothing to do with sexual attraction — which many listeners and viewers have in response to different videos. These responses can be triggered off by the sound of a barber snipping a lock of hair, or the crinkling of a piece of paper or the soothing voice of a stranger. Researchers still don’t know what’s behind it.
In isolation, these comfort food-making videos fill a need we didn’t know we had, and one we can’t get at the local diner anymore since it’s shuttered. There have been an abundance of videos that cuddle us comfort in a time of crises — cute puppies, meowing kittens and dads finding out they were going to be granddads. But challah-baking videos have emerged as a source of solace in our quarantined times. For many, this time may be especially hard as we might be celebrating Passover for the first time on our own. A minor reprieve comes in the form of a braiding savant who artfully navigates the sticky dough into pretty golden brown challah.
For those who seek other forms of distraction and comfort, there are now a plethora of online options. Last Thursday, on the first day of new month, I absentmindedly tuned into a live recording of Hallel by a cantor. It was 11 a.m. EST, so I figured it would be me and five other folks who needed some background music while they worked. But more than 500 listeners joined the call. What would otherwise be my idea of hell — a crowded temple full of 500 people — ended up being a very pleasant experience.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have traded in land-based communitarianism for more a more nomadic lifestyle. What better way to usher in Shabbat than a live virtual Kabbalat Shabbat service from Milk and Honey, a Burning Man Jewish camp community. A willing participant could participate by dressing in all white in the comfort of their own webcam (BYOFD, Bring Your Own Fire Dances). After the singing and dancing with fire was over, I could switch to another Zoom experience, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs offering words of wisdom and solace.
There is another kind of silver lining to this confinement — virtual travel. Enter Jewish Heritage Europe, “an expanding web portal to news, information and resources concerning Jewish monuments and heritage sites all over Europe,” according to the site (jewish-heritage-europe.eu). The site coordinator, long-time travel writer Ruth Ellen Gruber, has been posting a series of links to a myriad of online experiences, from an online Auschwitz tour to an audio tour of the Museum of Jewish History in Girona in Catalonia, Spain. There’s also an aerial tour of the Jewish community in Trebic, Moravia.
The Jewish Museum London is hosting talks and games by museum employees on its Facebook page (Facebook.com/JewishMuseumLDN/videos). One could investigate Frankfurt historical sites through a click-and-find map (en.juedisches-frankfurt.de), or glimpse the ornate architecture of the majestic New Synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, on YouTube.
There’s also wonderful news for students of history, now cooped up in small apartments. On YouTube, one can go on a virtual journey inside the Jewish Catacombs of Venosa, in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. The recreation was made via laser scanner technology, but it feels like the viewer is back in the fifth century when the tunnels were constructed. Alas, the clip cannot make your apartment seem larger.
Regardless of the adventures one chooses, there are cultural and sensory experiences to help us feel more connected to the people singing with us onscreen or to those who sang our melodies thousands of years ago.
Eli Reiter’s column appears monthly.