This coming school year I am the challah lady at my children’s Jewish Day School. I will be the point person for all things kneaded and doughy. In another life I was the challah lady at my children’s pre-school. “What is it with you and challah?” my family asks me. A rhetorical question. By now they should realize that I not only love bread, but I believe in it.
I believe in the work ethic, succinctly laid out in Genesis, that puts bread on the table. By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat. I believe that bread is paired with the most foundational fact of our existence stated in that same verse because it is so basic to life—you [shall] return to the ground for from it you were taken. For you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.
I believe that bread is a staple of hospitality. Even though Abraham was recovering from his self-inflicted circumcision, when he saw three itinerant strangers approaching his tent he ran to Sarah and asked her to “knead flour and make cakes” so he could properly entertain them.
I believe in the bread of the Exodus. Unleavened bread is the bread of our affliction. But this is also the bread that marks our transformation from refugees to free people who must never forget what it feels like to be downtrodden. Every year at the Seder my mother and aunt sang in Ladino: Todos que tengan hambre venga y pase. All who are hungry come and eat with us. Todos que tenga de menester come con mosotros. Let all who have needs in addition to hunger come and eat with us. The bread of our affliction is the bread of opportunity. It is also my inspiration for Abraham and Sarah-like hospitality.
“Man does not live by bread alone.” This verse in Deuteronomy is so frequently cited that cliché subsumes its profound meaning. I think we need to understand that we need more than food to sustain a meaningful life. Contrast this notion to the verse in Lamentations in which “the enemy spread out his hand on all her treasures…All her people are sighing, searching for bread.” This is the sixty grams of bread allotted to my brothers and sisters in the concentration camps. This is the bread that the writer Primo Levi fantasized about on his perilous and circuitous route home to Italy from the fires of Auschwitz.
I asked my son if he knew why the challot for Rosh Hashana—the Jewish New Year— are round. He said the circular shape represents the year that goes around and then begins again. I then asked him if he thought the challot might also represent a spiral that ascends towards something higher, something better. “That’s true roundness,” he said.
I believe that the spiral challot that I will distribute for Rosh Hashana are bound up with my hopes and prayers for a sweet new year.
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