My mother and grandmother never made challah. Here’s why I do, and why I love it.
On Friday afternoons at my house, the last 15 minutes before candle-lighting is classic pre-shabbos hysteria.
“Did you turn on the shabbos lamp yet?”
“Fill up the water urn — and don’t forget to plug it in!”
“Hey, it’s my turn in the shower!”
Throughout the madness, though, it’s the comforting, delicious aroma of challah in the oven that keeps me focused. Baking challah, for me, is a big deal. Let me explain.
Most Jewish women who make their own challah every Friday inherited the practice from their mothers and grandmothers. I wish I could say this. I wish I could call challah-baking a deeply ingrained part of my family tradition. A spiritual bond with the women in my family going back generations.
But it’s not true. Yes, my mother and both grandmothers were proud Jewish women. They prepared traditional shabbos fare every Friday. We ate chicken soup with dill (which they called the Jewish herb), roast chicken and potato kugel. But they would have balked, had anyone asked them to bake challah, too.
“Why go through all the trouble when I can get it fresh from the bakery?” I could hear my mother saying.
I never questioned their commonsense decision, and welcomed the ease of buying four small challah loaves every week. This was especially true while I was busy managing three active little boys at home.
But as I began longing for a more traditional Jewish lifestyle, and gradually became more observant, I was intrigued by an Orthodox friend of mine, Elaine, who baked challah every erev shabbos (every Friday before the Sabbath). Whenever she invited my family over for a shabbos meal, I found myself nibbling her homemade bread. I rarely did that with the store-bought kind I’d been serving at home.
Baking my own challah was intimidating
I asked her for the recipe but got intimidated seeing that the dough had to be kneaded for 10 minutes to ensure it rises properly. I’ve never been physically strong and was sure that my dough wouldn’t rise enough, making my challah look like puffed-up pita bread. And then there were all those bread-making rules. Monitoring the room temperature. Punching it down. Shaping it into loaves. Too much trouble, I sighed.
But then I learned that Elaine didn’t knead the dough by hand either; she used an electric dough mixer. Although I’d still have to monitor the dough as it rose and braid it into loaves, I wouldn’t be kneading it by hand.
So I bought a Cuisinart dough mixer and began making my own challah, using a basic recipe I’d found in some cookbook. To make it heartier, I substituted a quarter of the white bread flour with rye and whole wheat. The baked loaves were usually cooled off by the time I was ready to light the shabbos candles. So I wrapped them in foil, warmed them in the oven, and kept them in the oven after turning it off. Unwrapping them an hour later, right before reciting hamotzi (the blessing for bread), the challah was still tantalizingly warm. I served them with homemade guacamole and hummus. My husband and kids loved it.
Still, something was missing. Since the recipe wasn’t one I learned from my relatives, the challah felt generic. Tasty, but lacking any personal, meaningful connection.
Then six years ago my friend Judy, who’s a skilled challah baker like Elaine, told me about a challah recipe she thought might interest me. She found it in Maggie Glezer’s comprehensive Jewish bread-baking book, A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World.
A challah named after the city where my father was born and raised
“It’s called the Czernowitzer challah,” Judy said.
My mouth fell open. Czernowitz (pronounced tsher-no-vits) was the city where my late father was born and raised. It was also a major Jewish culture hub in Romania before the Holocaust. For years, on Friday nights after dinner, I would listen to him and his older sister Beyle reminisce about their hometown. Over a glass of tea they’d share stories about their relatives, former neighbors and friends in Czernowitz. Beyle even hosted Yiddish writers and artists who lived there before the war, when they visited New York — usually from Israel.
What amazed me now was not only that there was a challah recipe named after my father’s birthplace, but that Glezer even knew about this once very Jewish city. Few Americans do. And after my father and aunt passed away, I felt a gnawing hunger to learn all that I could about it. Czernowitz had a long, vibrant, Yiddish-speaking history, lasting from the 15th to the 20th century. In fact, by 1919 almost half the population of Czernowitz was Jewish.
Glezer writes that Czernowitz was known as the Vienna of Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. It was famous throughout Austria-Hungary for “its tolerance, civic beauty, culture, and learning.” The city passed through Romanian, Ottoman, and Austrian control and is now part of Ukraine and called Chernivtsi.
At its cultural peak, at the turn of the 20th century, Glezer says Czernowitz was populated and governed by Jews from Poland, Russia, Austria and Romania. In 1908, the city even hosted the first-ever Yiddish-language conference. Most of the city’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
Making the Czernowitzer challah for the first time
Glezer goes on to say that the challah is “not terribly sweet or eggy, but it is generously enriched with oil” and “holds its shape so beautifully during baking that it is a great choice for showing off any fancy shape.”
Judy told me about the recipe on a Sunday morning so I had to wait until Friday to try it out. I faithfully followed the instructions, with one difference. As I did with all my challahs, I substituted a quarter of the bread flour with rye and whole wheat. (It really is better that way.)
As I placed the silky dough into a large warm bowl and covered it with a kitchen towel, I hoped I wouldn’t mess up. But everything happened as it should. Within three hours the dough had puffed up to the rim of the bowl. I punched it down, braided it into four small loaves and let it rise some more.
I then used a trick I learned from Yiddish gourmet chef Eve Jochnowitz. I preheated the oven to 450 degrees, put the challah inside and then quickly lowered it to 350. That initial blast of high heat provides a jolt that allows the dough to expand one last time before baking, Eve said.
That evening, as I bit into the warm, slightly sweet and oil-rich challah, I closed my eyes and, chewing it slowly, savored the experience. What I relished wasn’t just the taste and delightful texture of the Czernowitzer challah. It was the visceral bond it created instantly between me and my ancestors. It was like coming home.