It started with Sarah – Traditional Jewish challah takes on a deeper meaning

Women including Michelle Tenenbaum of Newtown, second from right, hold hands and sing during the "Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500" at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

Women including Michelle Tenenbaum of Newtown, second from right, hold hands and sing during the “Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500” at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

The history that was simultaneously made and observed at the Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500 staged recently at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich needs some explaining.

First, the 500 refers to the approximate number of Jewish women who paid $25 not to break bread together, but to make bread together. At every place setting, there was a mixing bowl, one egg, two pounds of flour and enough yeast, water, sugar, salt and oil to make two loaves of challah, an eggy braided bread filled with meaning.

Second, while smaller challah bakes have been held in individual towns and mega bakes have been held in cities elsewhere, the big bake on Dec. 17 in Greenwich was the first for all the six towns — Greenwich, Stamford, Westport, Ridgefield, New Canaan and Fairfield — that belong to the regional Chabad association. (Chabad, also known as Chabad-Lubavitch, is a movement dedicated to promoting Jewish teachings and values.)

The chief of staff of the U.S. Israeli ambassador spoke and a singer named Kineret performed so energetically she had a lot of women on their feet clapping hands over their heads. But the main event was the mass challah preparation that had a lot of women on their feet kneading dough.

Finally, the gathering was timed to coincide with a Hakhel year that occurs only every seven years and, like challah, has its roots in early Jewish history. In Hakhel years, Jews were supposed to assemble at their temples to hear the Torah read. The challah tradition can be traced back to Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and originally entailed the commandment to break off a piece of dough to share with a priest. Hakhel has come to signify unity and challah, family nurturance.

The mega bake was dedicated to victims of recent terror attacks in Israel. But the mood was festive. The majority of bakers appeared to be younger women in the midst of life, and a sampling suggested they were not uniformly observant.

 

The "Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500" at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

The “Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500” at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

Speaking to the immediate mysteries of challah was Juliette Zuckerman, of Fairfield. She says she has attempted to make challah many times, but can’t seem to get it right.

“It’s not as easy as it looks, unless you’ve been doing it your whole life, which I haven’t. It can be too dense. You can over-cook it. You can under-cook it. It has to rise the right way. Even though it has few ingredients I think it’s easy to mess up.

“It can never be perfect and I’m aiming for perfection,” she says.

The "Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500" at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

The “Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500” at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

To make the dough the attendees could follow the step-by-step instructions on video screens. From the oil, which “represents energy connected to the soul,” to mixing in the flour, which represents “joy, the foundation of what you want the home to be,” each part had a special significance as noted by the instructors.

“We begin with the yeast. We think about loved ones and how we pray for them to grow and expand,” was the first directive.

Step five called for adding salt that one instructor says symbolizes the need for rebuke and discipline in the home. “It’s a reminder to use as little as possible, but as much as needed,” she says to the bakers.

Mixing the ingredients and then letting the dough rise “represents a moment of meditation and the reminder children must sometimes be given space to be themselves,” an instructor says.

Miriam Landa, co-director of Chabad Fairfield and one of the evening’s teachers, has been making challah for 10 years. What is hard to learn, she says, is how to make good dough. Adding just the right amount of flour and water is tricky — not enough flour makes a sticky dough and too much flour will result in a dense bread.

“You have (to learn) ‘to feel’ the dough,” she says.

At left, Sophie Liebergall with her mother, Anne Liebergall of New Canaan, kneads Callah dough during the "Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500" at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

At left, Sophie Liebergall with her mother, Anne Liebergall of New Canaan, kneads Callah dough during the “Fairfield County Mega Challah Bake 500” at Hyatt Regency Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Five hundred Jewish women from the greater Fairfield area, led by Challah-making teachers, Maryashie Deren of Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich and Miriam Landa of Chabad Fairfield, were tasked with mixing, kneading and making blessings for Challah dough that they then took home to bake. Bob Lucky/ Hearst Connecticut media

Braiding the dough, however, went well, Landa says. The women were taught a three-braid and a four-braid method, which most seemed to master before taking home their two loaves to bake.

Making two loaves at a time also is part of challah’s tradition, she says. One is for yourself for Shabbat (the Sabbath) and one is to give away.

Stacey Mintz, of Fairfield, begged forgiveness for not having the story of Sarah down pat and confessed to challah heresy.

“I personally am not the challah-baking type,” she says. “I like to buy mine at Trader Joe’s and heat it up in the oven before I serve it.”

But Mintz was earnest in trying to explain why she was there.

“Do you know what a mitzvah is?” she asks. “You bring light to the world. I wanted to come to be part of a group activity that represents the good in the world versus the evil.”

Each one of the bakers felt obliged to try to explain the deeper meaning of the event, but the most intent was Vivi Deren, who with her husband Rabbi Yisrael Deren founded the first Chabad center in Fairfield County, in Stamford, 27 years ago.

“The point is to come together for a holy purpose,” she says. “Unity is a big part of it, but unity has to be directed toward something higher. As Jews we believe that heaven has to come down to earth . … And we’re very practical about that. We’ll eat this bread and the bread will be sanctified because we’ll use the energy to be kind, to be good.”

Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist.