The 11th Floor

A Perpsective Overlooking Jerusalem, Israeli Life, and Talmud Torah

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Quest for the Hand - Challa

Last night at 2am the sky lent its blessing to the earth and I felt the rain from my room on the eleventh floor facing west. I might have heard the rain first, then felt its coolness. Unlike the common summer thunder storms of Baltimore, rain in Jerusalem is unheard of from May through October. One hardly has to think about the weather before leaving the house - always take a bottle of water and a hat. That's how its been since we've been here. While in Baltimore, Succot is a holiday of being outside in the crisp and cool autumn scenery, in Jerusalem it is a fairwell to summer and it is a prayer that the coming season will bring good rains and nourish the seeds of the earth. I noticed the first rain here, somewhere inside myself I had been waiting for it. And the soft tapping and splotches on my window sill were tiny gifts of reassurance, faithfulness, affection. May the rains this year fall as a blessing.

At 8am I walked to the neighborhood convenient store (makolet) in search of yeast. Shemarim. Shomer means to preserve/guard and when I saw shemarim in the supermarket yesterday I thought it was a package of preservatives so I didn't buy it. Oops. The convenient store didn't have shemarim so at 8:17am I borrowed some from a neighbor. At 8:25am I began making holiday bread. I was inspired by an exhibit at the Israel museum about bread in various religious communities; Jewish, Muslim, Christian. Bread for lifecycle events and holidays and rituals. There were breads for the high holidays and for hoshana raba (the seventh day of succot, considered the real day when the gates of repentence are closed - and you thought they closed on yom kippur!). Some breads were in the shape of ladders, symbolizing a connection between heaven and earth. Some were in the shape of hands - 2 hands spread open like God giving blessings or like people's hands open in prayer. (Insert other ideas of your own.) Some were round with hands embedded or overlaid on top. At 12:30pm I shaped the dough into 2 hands spread open to give, receive, plead, reach.

At 1:10pm I called my mom and told her about the bread project. She said, "I remember Grandma H used to make challa with a hand on it." She hadn't thought of it for years. I had to tell her about everything else I'd done that week and then go to the grocery store and get home in time to bake the hands before they rose too high. At 12:17am I called my mom again to get more of the hand-challa story. "It was round with a hand on top. It must have been for Rosh HaShana. Call Aunt S. - she made challa with Grandma H a lot." At 12:33am I called Aunt S. "The hand came out of the side, like it was blessing the dough. It lay over the top, the fingers were at the diameter." She gives me tips on how I might try to reconstruct it, but she never actually made this kind of challa with Grandma H. Anyone in our family who might have known how to do it is now dead. She thinks of another person to call. She'll e-mail me if she finds out the mechanics of the hand-challa. I wonder what else has been lost in the last twenty years.

This is the 21st century. I learn about my ancestor's traditions by paying 30 shekel to quietly browse through a multimedia exhibit and view chemically preserved poisonous bread WITHOUT TOUCHING, learning of its meaning by reading neatly typed, laminated cards in English, Hebrew and Arabic. I'm pretty sure that Grandma H's challa was number 9 (or was it 12?) in room 3, 2 tables to the right of the video about communion in a Greek Orthodox church. And directly in front of a gold-embroidered Sabbath table cloth from Iraq that depicted the menorah and ark and shewbread of the mishkan (tabernacle) and left six open circles for Sabbath loaves to be placed on the sacred table of a 17th century Iraqi home.

Great grandma H, I want you to know that tomorrow, at 8:30am I will try to shape a hand of blessing from dough that I can touch, that is not poisonous, and I will share it with family and friends at 10:30am and we will eat of it and think of you (the little I remember of you which is mainly that you had M&Ms in a tin cookie jar every time we came to visit). And maybe one day there will be an exhibit on grandma cookies. But I prefer learning how to make them from my mother, because it does not cost 30 shekel and I can touch them and they are not poisonous but sweet and buttery and full of love.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Pook. A beautiful story. Reminds me of how some Jewish mothers would bake bread in the shape of alaph bet letters that they then dipped in honey for their kinderlach.
I'm trying to figure out what to make tonight that'll last over chag. Chicken soup, I think. Lentil salad... perhaps a chili (although we still have leftover from Monday). My bananas are going brown and the milk is sour --> banana bread (cake, really)!
I hope your chag is going wonderfully. I miss you a lot. Just the convenience of leaving you a phone message or the off-chance of getting through to you!
Anways, so much love your way and good food to go along with it!

3:12 AM  
Blogger rahnle said...

Hey there you,

What a lovely story. I hope you found out how your grandmother made her Challa.
I am puzzling over how to make pumpkin pie here in Germany, where I have no oven, no pie tin, and no canned pumpkin. "Quasi" nothing, says my beau.

take care, S.

7:45 PM  

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