The first time I made challa was around seven years' ago. We'd recently made aliya, and I was having a yearning to try and be a bit more 'earth mother-y' and 'Jewish mother-y'. Because I was really dumb, I thought it would be a 'bonding' activity to do, that first time, from scratch, with my two small girls. Because I was really, really dumb, I thought it would be amazing to bake those challas fresh, on Friday, ready for Shabbat.
It was a disaster. The flour went everywhere except the bowl. When we finally got to the dough stage, at least a challa's worth got stuck to my kids - in their hair, on their clothes - and another good amount got smushed all over the table.
By the time the challas actually got into the oven, I had an hour and a half left until Shabbat came in - and I still hadn't really cooked anything else. To add insult to injury, the challas came out tasting gross. They didn't rise properly, they weren't cooked through enough, they definitely weren't yummy.
The whole experience put me off baking challas for a good year. Ok, it's one of the central mitzvoth for a Jewish woman, but this Jewish woman stuck up her white flag and admitted defeat.
In the meantime, we moved, and a few months' later, I found myself in a situation where I was living in rented accommodation with half my furniture in storage, and I couldn't really see how that was going to change any time soon.
So I made a deal with G-d: "G-d, I really hate making challas. BUT - I've been reading a lot about what a blessing they bring into a Jewish home. G-d, I'm willing to offer You a deal (I was pretty arrogant back then, but let's continue…): If You pull some strings for me, and find us a Jewish home in the right Jewish community for us, I promise to make challas with a blessing at least once a month."
I didn't wait for G-d to act first. We have to take the first step, and show we mean what we say. I went and bought two kilo of flour, and started baking. I learnt a few lessons from the first disastrous attempt: no kids were allowed anywhere near the kitchen; and I started baking Thursday morning.
It was less stressful - but the challas were so bad, I threw them out for the birds to eat and told my husband to buy some in.
The same thing happened the next month. And the next month. One of my neighbours came round and saw all the bread on the wall next to my house, and wanted to know if it was Purim (I still don't get the connection - maybe someone out there can enlighten me?)
I signed up for a baking course, and things got a bit better: I threw ice cubes into the oven, and made sure it was properly hot before I shoved the bread in. Better, but still not great. The challa just wasn't yummy.
I tried my neighbour's recipe; her mum's recipe; my friend's recipe; my husband bought me a challa book with about 70 recipes in it - every single one I tried flopped. Some months were better than others, but I can't say that anyone in my house looked forward to my home-baked challot.
In the meantime, G-d had come through on His part of the deal: we'd moved into a great house that we'd got for a steal. I was stuck. Part of me had thought that when I made that deal, I'd automatically get a lot of Heavenly help to actually make the challas edible and delicious.
But a deal is a deal, so I kept going. Every now and then, I'd try yet another recipe, but the results were always the same: tasteless, bland challa. I went healthy, and started making tasteless, bland spelt challa. I calmed down a bit, and started making tasteless, bland wholewheat challa. Again, there was some slight improvement, but you'd think that after five years, the challa would be amazing, or at least preferable to the stuff we were buying in the supermarket.
Last month, the challa making time rolled around, and I went to talk to G-d about it. I can't pretend: I had a serious attack of yeoush, or despair. G-d, what's the point of me wasting all that time, and all that effort, to make ick-tasting challa every month? Maybe I should just stop kidding myself that I can actually do this mitzvah? I've thrown everything I have it, and it seems to be permanently stuck at the 'yucky, ick' stage. What's the point of continuing?
Then, I got my answer: the point was not to make great-tasting challa. If the challa tasted so good that people actually wanted to eat it, and looked forward to it every month, then I'd have a lot of satisfaction, and a lot of pride, and probably, very little spiritual merit from doing the mitzvah.
This way, I'd had five straight years of pure mitzvah, with very little earthly enjoyment. G-d was delighted with my disgusting challas, and I should carry on.
It wasn't the answer I was hoping to get.
As I said, I'd had enough of all the apparently fruitless baking and kneading. But if G-d loved my bad bread, ok. Good enough for me. I got my big challa bowl out, and I thought to myself: let me try another recipe. If it's going to come out bad anyway, I may as well experiment…
On his last trip to the UK, my husband brought me back a cookbook that was full of bread and lard recipes. (I don't think he spotted all the pork recipes when he was flicking through it in the airport).
It's definitely the most pig-heavy, traif, un-Jewish cookbook I have. In the middle of the bread chapter, there's a recipe for challa. I've been through all the holy challa recipes. The tried-and-tested-no-fail-500-generations-via-my-Bubbe recipes. The Beis Yaacov 'even a six year old can make this' challa recipes. Nothing. Bubkiss.
It was time to try that dairy challa recipe (with butter!) in the traifest cookbook of all time. I made some adjustments to the recipe to make it pareve (bread has to be 'pareve' according to Jewish law, or halacha), and with a heavy heart, I got baking.
What do you know. That challa turned out to be absolutely delicious. It had a great taste, a great texture. I actually enjoyed eating it…
I've learned a lot of things from my challa making. I've learned (again) that Hashem values the effort far more than the outcome, which is really down to Him anyway. I also learned the value of persevering, sometimes for years, even when it looks like you're not getting anywhere. And I've also learnt that sometimes, there are traif challa recipes in very traif cookbooks just waiting for a Jew in Israel to read them, use them, and to elevate those sparks of kedusha, or holiness, that are still stuck in Galut.
The last thing I learnt is that 12 tablespoons of yeast was a massive typo…. ;)
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Check out Rivka Levy's new book The Happy Workshop based on the teachings of Rabbi Shalom Arush