Before spirituality became contagious, like a yuppie sickness, I considered myself spiritual; that is, I worshipped nature and “frolicked in the autumn mist” and babbled about the sunsets and the sounds birds make. But maybe that’s not because of spirit.
I am religious in my habits: the way I make morning coffee, the way I postpone playtime until my work is finished, how I worship the four-o’clock beer. I adore tradition. Just before Easter break, I pick my Jewish daughter up from her Catholic school early enough that she misses mass, and we have a girls’ lunch—at the same place every year.
It’s Rosh Hashanah, and since I first learned in 2006 how to make homemade challah from my friend, Maya Sprague, I have made it my new holiday—challahday—tradition. I spend the day of our celebration—which is nothing more than a loud dinner with my loud family—baking. I listen to music (today, The Records* and Jim Carroll, which go together perfectly because I have loved them long and well). I take pictures of the dough and marvel at the yeast’s magic and curse the sticky strands that never braid the way I want them the first time.
I love the Jewish New Year because it’s exactly when a new year should be: the kids have settled back to school, I have settled back to writing, and the air has settled—both cool enough to be renewing and warm enough to coax a little red into the last tomatoes. I love that this holiday makes no pretenses, that it’s about sweetness and life. I love the tired joke about blowing the chauffer. I even love the whole phrase, l’shana tova tikatevu: may you be inscribed for a good year. That’s the loose translation. The longer version is, “May God write you down in his book for a good year.” Even though I don’t believe in a supreme being (unless you count Bob Schneider), I do believe in the righteousness of the Golden Rule, which, more than God, is the foundation of every religion on earth. The earliest version is the most beautiful and the most simple: “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.”**
I don’t make resolutions on the Jewish New Year. This is about sloughing off the old skin and returning to the things that make me glow. And it all starts with the baking of the bread.
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Maya Sprague’s Challa, I Love You
2 t sugar
2 pkg. yeast
2 C warm water (105-115°)
6 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 C oil
4 t salt
8+ C flour
1 egg yolk mixed with a little water
2 T sesame or poppy seeds (opt.)
Note: I divide this recipe in half and make it in two separate bowls for two loaves. To one of the bowls of wet ingredients, I add ½ C raisins, 1/8 C cinnamon, and ¼ C honey. Braid the rolls separately.
2. Mix the eggs, oil, salt, and sugar. Add foaming yeast.
3. Add flour to wet mixture, one cup at a time, then turn out on a kneading surface dusted with flour.
4. Knead until dough can be handled without sticking, adding flour as needed. (I have never been patient enough to get to that point, so if you find yourself adding more and more flour, just stop and continue with step 5.)
5. Cover dough ball with a dish towel and set in a warm, draft-free place for two hours.
6. Punch dough. Braid. (See Maya’s cool video, or braid in three strands.)
7. Put braids on an oiled stone or baking pan; cover, and leave to rise one hour.
8. Brush bread with egg yolk/water mixture. Moisten finger with egg, and press seeds into the challah for decoration (opt.).
8. Bake at 350° until a rap on the bread sounds hollow (about ½ hour to 45 minutes).
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