If it is OK with you, I’d like to end this grim 2019 to talk about … challah.
But first, “Seinfeld.” Namely the episode about Jerry’s friendship with Keith Hernandez, the great Mets first baseman. George is gaga when he spots Hernandez at the gym:
GEORGE: Wow, Keith Hernandez. He’s such a great player.
JERRY: Yeah, he’s a real smart guy too. He’s a Civil War buff.
GEORGE: I’d love to be a Civil War buff. … What do you have to do to be a buff?
I get it, George. I often complain that outside of whatever tasks I’ve acquired to justify my salary, I have no mastery or expertise. I envy the respected physician who also plays violin in a string quartet; the nonprofit executive who constructs crossword puzzles — hell, anybody who knows a real lot about something other than their day jobs. But like George, I’ve never been inspired to put in the work to actually master anything.
A friend put me into a tailspin of self-doubt earlier this year when he contended that everyone deeply “knows” five things — that is to say, is a buff in at least five areas. His areas include baseball, the Holocaust and, until he reached middle age, recreational drugs. I was stumped. I couldn’t think of one thing — again, outside of my job — that I do or know exceedingly well or better than anyone else. I tell myself that I am a polymath, with a wide range of knowledge and interests. But in truth I am a dilettante, which is a buff with no attention span.
Which brings me to challah. I’ve lately started baking loaves of challah for Friday night. I love “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, which is essentially a celebration of buffs: amateur bakers who have raised their hobby to an art form. The show teaches you virtually nothing about baking, but suggests the time, passion, creativity and willingness to fail that goes into mastering a craft — Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours. (While I am at it, allow me to recommend another Netflix baking competition, “Nailed It!”, in which terrible bakers are given impossible challenges. It only celebrates a willingness to fail.)
I knew I would never attempt a summer mille-feuille layered with Pimm’s-soaked strawberries and cream. I don’t have the time and don’t need the calories. But I thought I could handle a challah.
For advice I turned to Shannon Sarna, who runs the Nosher Jewish food website and was a colleague of mine when I worked at 70 Faces Media. Shannon is the author of “Modern Jewish Baker” (Countryman Press, 2017). It’s an inviting, unintimidating guide to Jewish staples like challah, babke and bagels. Shannon teaches you the basics, but also goads you into experimenting with new flavors and fillings. She describes herself as a “half-Italian, half-Jewish girl from upstate New York,” and it is in that spirit that she sees Jewish baking as a “way to merge old and new, and create something that is comforting but also unexpected.”
I also took a baking workshop at my synagogue led by a fellow congregant, Marc Melzer, a lawyer who is also a formidable challah baker. Like Shannon, he is not afraid to braid Nutella or plum jam into a traditional loaf. Marc led us through the basics of yeast, kneading and proofing. Before the workshop, I didn’t know my oven had a proofing setting, or what it could possibly be for.
I’ve now baked four or five loaves with varying degrees of success. But even when they were bad it was hugely gratifying to have made them myself. It put me in touch with what Matthew B. Crawford, in “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” calls the “satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence.”
And there is a spiritual side. The challah ritual transforms the mundane into the delicious into the holy. It’s the opening act of the Friday night meal, and turns the dinner table into an altar. Just the ritual of blessing the bread slows you down just enough to remind you that this isn’t just another meal. A well-baked challah is simultaneously an offering to God and to your guests.
If challah doesn’t speak to your spirit, that’s OK too. In his brand-new collection of essays, “Enlightenment by Trial and Error” (Ben Yehuda Press), the rabbi, scholar and meditation teacher Jay Michaelson writes about the tendency of religion to focus on the “reason” for doing a ritual rather than on the simple beauty of the act itself. The rabbis have a lot to say about how much challah and matzah you have to eat to fulfill a mitzvah, and the mystical meanings of, say, serving two loaves on Shabbat. About the sensual pleasures of a fragrant loaf, not so much. Michaelson worries that a “system of holy, legal sanctification” detracts from the “appreciation, delight, awe, and wonder that is a precondition for an individual’s authentic spiritual evolution.”
The essay’s title is “Fresh Baked Bread.”
I know myself well enough to say that I won’t be putting in the time or effort to really master challah-making. I’m no buff. But I’m gaining some manual competence, the kind that makes my Friday nights sweeter, and my spirit slightly more evolved.