This is an adaptation of our weekly Shabbat newsletter, sent by our editor-in-chief on Friday afternoons. Sign up here to get the Forward’s free newsletters delivered to your inbox. And click here to download and print a PDF of Your Weekend Reads.
Way back at the start of our lockdown lives in March, I edited an essay by Don Levan about how easy it is for everybody to make their own challah. He was a suburban dad who’d been doing it for decades, and said it took only 25 minutes — broken out in a bunch of steps that could even be spread over days. I was as excited to publish the piece and the accompanying video Don’s kids made to go with it as I was to make the challah myself. But I didn’t find it easy at all. And it came out “eh.”
My husband jumped in the next week, and for a few more, and the smell of challah baking in the house on Fridays sure seemed like a pandemic silver lining. But — I’m sorry, Gary — the challahs didn’t look as dreamy as the ones all our friends seemed to be posting on Instagram, and they tasted only O.K. We moved on to other cooking experiments.
Then we went on a family vacation and ate my sister’s consistently fantastic loaves. The next week our backyard Shabbat-dinner guests were the family of the Forward’s publisher, Rachel Fishman Feddersen, who has been making perfect challah for years. I decided to give it another try.
But the following Friday morning found me Face-Timing my sister at 7 a.m. when I simply could not get the dough to come together by hand, as Rachel’s recipe called for. I tried adding a touch more water. I tried the Kitchen Aid. I tried the counter. And then I dumped the whole thing in the garbage.
You’re good at a lot of things, I told myself, You have a big job. You are a decent mom. You are occasionally funny. You make a mean shakshuka and very yummy soups. You don’t have to bake challah.
It felt like something of a feminist triumph, throwing that not-quite-dough into the trash. I would be proud of my sister and my boss’s challah-baking, not jealous. I would admire my friends’ gleaming loaves on Facebook. I would support local bakeries. (I would eat fewer carbs!). I would focus on what I had, and not what I lacked.
And then: The very next week, my colleague Rob Eshman, who has been making challah and reading and writing about it for decades, announced that he was about to publish “the best challah recipe ever.” It was also the weirdest.
How I made peace with not being able to make my own challah — and then started doing it
It’s called “Tangzhong” challah because it’s based on an Asian baking method that creates the light, airy dough of Japanese milk buns. It was adapted by Avidan Ross, a venture-capitalist in San Francisco, who Rob hosted for a Zoom-demo. (“You almost can’t mess it up,” Rob said.) It has very distinct and precise steps, including putting dishtowels soaked in boiling water into the oven under the loaves. I couldn’t help myself; I had to try again.
That was seven weeks ago. I’ve made it almost every Shabbat since, to rave reviews. It turns out I can make challah — I’ve even gotten good at braided round loaves, both four- and six-strand — and I really like doing it (still trying to reckon with all the carbs).
I was thinking about this the other day when, at a Forward all-hands meeting, we broke into small groups and talked about what we would miss when — if? — the pandemic wanes and we go back to “normal.” Wearing sweats and comfortable shoes. Not wearing makeup or riding the subway. Integrating cooking dinner into the day rather than having to rush home and throw something together. Reading with kids on Shabbat rather than entertaining and going to shul. Walks in nature.
As colleagues ticked off these things, I kept thinking — what if we don’t miss them….because we hold onto them?
That’s the challenge for all of us as individuals and for our institutions. How do we use these months of madness to understand what matters most to us and our constituencies — and make sure we focus on those things? Can we leverage what we have lost to help us see what was wrong with whatever we were doing before? Why can’t we bring some of the simplicity and quiet that the lockdown has forced with us?
I’m going to try, starting with this: I’m not going to commute on Fridays. I’m going to work from home, writing this newsletter, and making Tangzhong Challah.
Let me know what you’re going to miss after the pandemic — or what you’re going to try to keep in your life — via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your Weekend Reads
Here are the stories I’ve selected for you to savor over Shabbat and Sunday. Click here if you’d like to download and print a PDF of them.