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As Our World Implodes, I Bake Challah

Last week I had 6 dollars and 97 cents in my checking account.

And I’m not so worried. To me, money isn’t everything—bread is.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment with my three children and husband—who just recently went back to work as a line cook in Brooklyn, New York. We live with two faiths, two languages and two ways of doing just about everything. I’m not so naïve to think faith can save everything, but having a Jewish/Mexican Catholic household brings us its own dose of strength during these troubling times.

Our neighborhood has been declared a hotspot again. Stores are closed, and people aren’t leaving their houses. Many of our neighbors have gone to New Jersey. A lot of people outside of our community have developed a new hatred of Jews, blaming religious neighborhoods as coronavirus breeding grounds. 

In the midst of all this chaos, most ask, “When will this end already?” My family, instead, is at home baking challah. It binds us together. The baking of bread is a retreat, an affordable form of therapy for my dwindling bank account. Food helps us feel connected and stay sane.

My whole life I belonged to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue where men sit on one side of a partition, and women sit on another (if any women even show up at all). I grew up praying to God in secret, and was taught that the men’s prayers were heard first. Lunch and dinner should always be ready for the men in my family when they got home from prayer. Women prayed on the floor, in the closet, while we rocked babies or took out the garbage.

This year, as coronavirus was still rampant, we broke tradition. We joined a virtual Rosh Hashanah service at a Reform synagogue in Manhattan. On Yom Kippur we went to the beach and cried into the raging waves. On Kol Nidre, a service only men in my family used to attend, I sat in my kitchen with the lights off, some candles lit and listened to prayers through the iPad as I knit a scarf for my oldest daughter’s fifth birthday.

You could say that food brought my husband and I together; we met working at a restaurant. During busy shifts I reached into the bread bin by the kitchen station and swiped slim slices of French baguettes on reserve for customers. I poured generous portions of Spanish olive oil and sea salt onto plates and dipped the crunchy beige treasures into it, soaking up the oil and savoring the salt. Bread was my sustenance, especially when I worked while pregnant.

When I was almost nine months pregnant with our first child, Adrian gifted me a plate of migas aragonesas during a busy Saturday night shift. This typical “peasant food” dish from Aragon is traditionally made of fried, stale bread and pantry leftovers, and includes red grapes, rosemary and a fried egg on top. In between grabbing drinks for my customers and sitting down to rest my pregnant body, I savored the sweet, rich flavor of a four-hundred-year-old recipe. A recipe that came out of the golden age of Spain, when the Jews, the Moors and the Christians all lived together in peace; imagine that.

On Three Kings Day (Día de Los Reyes) Adrian always buys a rosca, a traditional Mexican bread eaten on January 6 in celebration of when the three wise men visited Jesus. The dried candied fruit on top represents jewels on a crown and inside sit six plastic baby figurines. If you cut into a piece of the rosca and get the doll, you have to make tamales on February 2 for the family.

On Sundays we buy conchas—a popular, year-round Mexican treat. These medium-sized rolls have vanilla, chocolate or strawberry sugar on top in the form of a concha, or “shell.” Conchas are remnants rom Mexico’s colonial era, when women in “New Spain” (Mexico) took ideas French and Italian bakers who visited. They developed pan dulce, the “sweet bread” of Mexico, which today we know as the concha.

So we remember our heritage and drive to the Mexican bakery every Sunday. We grab a tray and a pair of tongs, place the conchas onto our tray and pay for our bread with rolled up dollar bills. At home, we drink Mexican hot chocolate and dip the conchas right inside—as if in an old movie where all we have is bread, hot chocolate and each other. And for the most part this is true.

But then there’s challah. The challah of my childhood was never so bold as a concha, or as bejeweled as a rosca and it wasn’t even as creative as migas. A traditional challah is humble bread, and is eaten on holidays and the Sabbath.

This year, when everything seemed so different, challah became a messenger.

In my Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Midwood, some of the rabbis have started to wear masks. This is not so much for fear of the virus, but for fear of the rising anti-Semitism across New York City and beyond. Certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn have been singled out as hotspots, among them the Satmar community of Williamsburg, the Satmar community of Borough Park and the ultra-Orthodox community of Midwood.

A dangerous thing is happening outside our doors. In the midst of a global health crisis, I hear: “Why don’t you people wear a mask?” or “You people did this…” These scary times echo even scarier times. Often I want to run outside and tell my neighbors, “Seriously though, wear a mask!” But, they in turn, likely would respond: “You lack faith. What are you so afraid of?!”

Truth be told, I am afraid. Once you become a mother, you are afraid for the rest of your life. I am afraid that something will happen to one of my children. I often run to them in the middle of the night to check their breathing.

For me, it’s bread. I find solace in baking bread. Not a fancy rosca for the Catholic holiday, not a sweet concha, not even a whole meal; just a plain old braided challah. A humble piece of bread to remind me that dough takes time—just as life takes time—and that this horrible time will pass. Life isn’t a guarantee. It comes frayed and is born broken, so that we can savor it until we reach the last delectable bite.

Anna Keller

Anna is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn with her family.


Author: Anna Keller