Let's Eat

How challah has been bringing us comfort in times of stress

Why community bakes are a great way to come together and support Israel


Why is challah so comforting in in times of trouble? It’s not just the joy of eating thick, doughy slices slathered with just about anything. There’s also something special about creating our favourite bread — whether at a communal challah bake or peacefully plaiting our own loaves at home.

Since October 7 there has been an increase in communal challah bakes here, in the US and in Israel. Food writer Joanna Nissim says she heard of six within a mile of her NW4 home planned within a couple of days of the terrible news. She and four equally distraught friends decided to stage their own. Within hours, their group had mushroomed to 54, and Seed educator, Rebbetzin Joanne Dove agreed to head it. “It was only when she arrived and set up her Zoom that we saw she was also leading four others across the globe at the same time” says Nissim

She says the concept of a communal bake started to grow in popularity in 2013 with the launch in South Africa of The Shabbat Project. “As part this, thousands of women gathered to connect to their Judaism through the act of baking challah.”

This focused on the spiritual side where, as a group, the women ‘“take challah”. This practice is described in the Torah, and involves reserving a portion of dough for God. In biblical times it would be given to the priests. Nowadays, Nissim explains that religious Jews are still obliged to remove a portion of challah dough and make a blessing before discarding that piece. Taking challah (hafrashat challah) is a mitzvah (commandment) traditionally associated with women, applied in moments of joy or, as now, tragedy.

Since the outbreak of war, my Instagram feed on a Friday has been full of religious women reciting the blessings as they remove the handful of dough.

Nissim has noticed it spreading to the less observant: “Over the last few years, challah bakes have gone from being something practised primarily by religious women to something that women of all backgrounds partake in.”

Charlotte Clif Aybes (founder of Charlotte’s Sourdough) has also noticed the uptick: “I’ve seen more communal challah bakes — I’m not sure if it’s about the process of baking or the coming together whilst doing something positive and connecting with fellow sufferers that touches people.”

And although she takes challah with every batch, praying for a growing number of people listed on a piece of paper pinned to the wall of her bakery, she prefers to do it alone. “For me making bread on my own is more meditative, especially sourdough as you have to be in tune with various factors. To close your mind off and focus.”

For her, the comfort comes from the pure mindfulness of the breadmaking experience. “I can find it hard to switch off to meditate, but the physical activity of kneading dough allows my mind to roam. Bread baking has helped me a lot in the last few weeks to smooth out my emotions. It’s just you and the bread.”

Another professional baker who has long found challah making to be a form of therapy is Tami Isaacs of Karma Bread. “I came across bread baking by accident, having hit an emotional brick wall at the end of the fourth year of my master’s degree in child psychotherapy,” she says. “I wanted to do something with my hands, and I chose to knead dough.”

After a practical course she was won over. “I felt like I’d found the shell to my soul. Bread making is different to any other sort of baking. It you to be totally focused.”
For her it’s also about concentrating on who she is making the bread for.

“After the dough has proved; you’ve separated it and started braiding — that’s when I start thinking about who it’s for and I start putting my love into it. That’s where the love and the intent comes in.

“I channel my thoughts and love into those loaves, whether they’re Star of David-shaped loaves I’m giving away or braided for the people I love. “

“When I teach my challah-making classes, the gift I want to give people is to teach them how to really focus. I tell them to drop their shoulders and knees and after a few minutes they stop chatting and I can tell that they’re in the moment.

“And that’s where the soul soothing begins, which is what we need to escape the barrage of social media and news. The mind is not being bombarded when you’re in the moment and finding solitude and solace — and for me that’s breadmaking.”

Tami Isaacs: KarmaBread / Charlottessourdough / Joanna Nissim

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