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What I Learned Baking Challah For My Children’s Heritage Dinner

The news from Washington gets stranger and more disturbing each day. The pundits scream from our television screens. Columnists issue dire warnings in newspapers. Our Facebook feeds glow with loud echos of our own views. Whether we occupy the left or the right, unsettled feelings swirl ever more rapidly all around us. Staying upright on our narrow bridges of ideology requires an odd mix of concentration and willful blindness. But last week I discovered a sturdy guardrail that made my steps my sure and my hope glow brightly.

We had planend to attend Heritage Dinner at my children’s school, Davis Elementary, for some time. The classroom teachers had talked it up for weeks. Each class had created a “culture kite” featuring the ethnicities, ancestries, and home countries of their students. Fliers came home in droves and the school issued a robocall or two reminding us to attend, asking each family to bring a dish highlighting their cultural heritage.

“Daddy,” my children said, “we want you to bake challah for the dinner!”

How could I say no? So I set about baking a double recipe the day before the dinner in the midst of the meetings and phone calls and my daily work as a congregational rabbi. The dough rose as I worked with my staff on the evolving administrative needs of our religious school. I braided the loaves during a webinar on the place of halacha (Jewish law) in the Reform movement. I delegated the actual baking to my parents who had come to watch the kids while we attended a fundraiser in support of Jewish education. We came home that night to the smell of freshly baked Challah and two beautiful loaves sitting on the center island. A days worth of Jewish life mixed with the dough in those braided loaves.

With a crowd of hundreds, the dinner took place in Davis Elemetary school’s gymnasium among basketball hoops and climbing ropes. I cut the loaves into pieces to feed as many people as possible before heading back to the auditorium for the welcome program. We rose to our feet as an earnest 5th grader sang the national anthems of India and America. With a resonance developed through 30 years of teaching, a retiring social studies shared the history of immigrants in New Rochelle. Then the jewel of the program: a video of sweet children saying hello in the language of their homes, the language of their heritage: salut, hallo, ciao, yah sahs, hej, hola, ni hao, kon’nichiwa, shalom, salaam, merhaba, zdravstvuyte, and on and on. Children of every shade and color, every accent and identity, then all affirmed their connection to one school community: “I am Davis.” “I am Davis.” “I am Davis.” With over 72 cultures and countries and ethnicities represented at the school, even the most cynical among us felt the power and beauty of those simple words.

In the gymnasium, the frenetic motions and sounds of young families mixed with smells and tastes from around the world. Plates filled up with kimchee and kababs, empandas and chicken biryani, noodle koogle and canoli, pork buns and matzah ball soup. Sitting there, watching the parade of people and cultures, I noticed on each plate a little piece of challah, our hertiage braided together with those of my children’s classmates and friends. In that riotous mixture of taste and sound and motion, I found a sense of calm and optimism. I found a sense of hope that helps me drown out the noise from Washington, the cynics who say our future is bleak. I saw the future at a Heritage Dinner, the future in a slice of challah next to an empanada. That future shines with hope and understanding, peace and friendship.

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