In my dreams, I sometimes find a hidden door in my Manhattan apartment that opens to a room I never knew existed.
I awaken with a start — and a sigh. Oh, how we could use that extra space, what with two growing children of the opposite sexes whose dynamics I once described on this page as “Enemies: A Love Story.” But to move? In Manhattan? This involves a nightmare of brokers and board applications, money and mortgages, all in an exorbitant market with limited inventory. I should know. After a decade of dreams, we are currently suffering through this headache.
The challenges of the move, however, have made me curious about a Jewish custom rarely practiced outside of the Orthodox world: that of baking “shlissel challah.”
The symbolism of the word “shlissel,” Yiddish for key, isn’t lost on me as we prepare to literally open a new door a mile north of our longtime home, but I’m even more enchanted by the blessings said to rise from these distinctive loaves. Shlissel challahs are believed to confer parnassah, financial well-being, upon the households in which they are designed and devoured. The loaves are made to look like, or contain, a key, or they are adorned with a tiny key made of dough. For at least 300 years, Jews have been making shlissel challahs on the Shabbat following Passover, according to Chana Weisberg, editor of the Jewish Women’s site of Chabad.org.
Even if I weren’t involved in a move, I might have been tempted to make them. I bake almost every Friday morning, my fingers knowing just when I’ve added enough flour, my mind momentarily at peace. On this morning, I steal glances at the back of my husband Jeremy’s head as I plunge my hands into the sticky dough. Outside, a machine produces a steady, calming hum. Spring sunshine streams through the window. Jeremy reads quietly. I am already so blessed. I am rational too, at least most of the time. Yet, in the words of the sensible Elana Elster, an Upper West Sider and fellow-baker: “Last year, I figured, how could I miss a chance at fortune? And I got into the game.”
The shlissel project starts off well enough. Dusk is already drawing near, and my children, Joel, 9, and Talia, 12, enthusiastically take on the challenge of designing this new shape. Joel searches YouTube videos; Talia has borrowed my house key as a model. I am intrigued by the concept of tucking the key inside rolls of dough, enfolded in parchment paper, though my husband Jeremy pronounces the idea “yucky.”
Jewish scholars point to different explanations for why and when Jews bake these distinctive loaves. One concerns “The Song of Songs,” which we read during Passover, and which includes the phrase, “Open for me, my sister.” Another interpretation relates to that first Passover in the Promised Land, when the Jews no longer received manna from heaven; they yearned for a key to open the “gates of sustenance.”
In the religiously fervent Jewish world, some reject these explanations and even go as far as to call shlissel challah “loaves of idolatry.” The practice, they complain, bears a striking resemblance to an old Easter ritual of baking keys, shaped like a cross, into bread, celebrating the rise of Jesus from the dead.
I’m not so anxious about the origins. After a week of the dry and flat bread of affliction, that first bite of challah transports us all. I’m thinking of good fortunes, about that hint of tangy yeast, about the heavenly texture of soft, springy bread, and how abstinence does make the heart grow fonder.
Alas, the moment doesn’t last. Jeremy rushes to the garbage to spit out a scrap of parchment paper.
“Can’t be,” I insist. “You’re making it up.”
“I was chewing on paper,” he says, still smiling.
A discussion ensues between my children over whose challah turned out best. They begin to war with their legs, each claiming the same territory beneath the table. Suddenly, Joel pulls my house key out of its parchment wrapper and pockets it. He giggles. My irritation grows faster than a ball of warm dough. I console myself: Next year, I’ll do better. Next year, as we settle into our new home, I’ll talk of gratitude and blessings while we shape our dough. In the meantime, maybe, just maybe, we’ll receive an unexpected windfall, hit a jackpot or win a lottery.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.