When Key Challah Isn’t Meant To Be

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Right about now, my Facebook feed is beginning to fill up with images of stunning braided challahs just out of the oven. There will be others as the day unfolds, even more in the lead-up to candle lighting.

The pictures speak volumes about the irresistible lure of freshly baked challah, not to mention the magic of those first few bites on the Shabbos after Pesach. The moment is something akin to a lover’s reunion, one filled with anticipation, desire, and longing. Sure, we’ll look forward to challah the following Shabbos and every one after that until next Pesach, but it won’t be with the same intensity.

And then there’s the matter of the keys.

It’s the Shabbos of schlissel, or key, challah. As the custom goes, bakers place their keys into their challahs as a segulah, or good omen, for livelihood. Though I’m a late blooming challah baker, I dove head first into the key ritual from the beginning. I loved the mystery of secreting keys in the loaves, and the metaphor of opening up the doors of blessing. I ignored each counter story that insisted the ritual had pagan roots. So many challah bakers I knew did it, though when I asked, I learned that most, like me, had adopted rather than inherited the custom.

I carried on, grateful for the spiritual meaning behind it, until – in an odd twist of events – I misplaced our house keys several years in a row in the process. I was sure I’d positioned them in the loaves. Once, I thought I’d mistakenly given the loaf with our key in it to a friend, but her family didn’t find it either. Honestly, it was getting creepy. Where were all our keys disappearing to?

I never got an answer, and the keys still haven’t turned up. I did try one other approach to the custom after the last key went missing, baking challahs shaped like keys instead. Frankly, they emerged from the oven looking nothing like keys, though they tasted just fine. The final straw came when a loaf a patient had baked for my husband using his office key disappeared from his desk, the empty pan left behind and the key nowhere to be found.

This whole schlissel challah endeavor is about signs and omens, and here was one staring us right in the face. God had given up on subtlety and I finally took notice. Still, it’s been hard to let go, even as my husband reminds me over and over that our livelihood is determined on Yom Kippur. And so I try not to put too much stock in a key in a loaf, even one with powerful symbolism, even one I long to bake.

Today, then, is a big day as I pull out the ingredients to bake challah for this Shabbos and refrain from schissel challah-ing. I’ll miss it, but I’ve promised not to do it again. I’ll keep the house key stowed in my purse as I watch the parade of beautiful key challah images in my Facebook feed and read the accompanying stories about the power of this particular segulah. I’ll look for signs and wonders and good omens in the kneading and the shaping instead. But mostly, I’ll wait for the blessings to burst forth when we break the loaves open and savor every post-Pesach bite, because blessings, like keys, come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s magic power in both.

A Sound Investment

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A Portrait of Pesach in 20 Egg Cartons

A Sound Investment

I was at a wedding the other day when the conversation veered, not surprisingly, towards Pesach. I admitted how much I enjoy the holiday, while another woman in the community kindly disagreed. She confessed she wished it were over already and made me laugh with her description of the scene in her home. It’s so demanding, she said. What’s more, I’m a short-order cook for the whole eight days.

While I concur with her on both points, neither makes me love Pesach any less. The discussion did, however, leave me wondering why I harbor such affection for a holiday that tries the bodies and souls of those of us making it. And it’s only now, as I write from the trenches of preparation more than a week later, that I can finally articulate an answer.

To me, Pesach is magical. It has been since I was a little girl sitting by my grandfather’s side, my legs swinging beneath the seder table, and it’s a feeling that has continued to grow over time. Why? Because the holiday allows us to do something we can’t do at any other point during the year – to time travel.

Through both our storytelling and our other observances, we go back to where we came from, gleaning spiritual wisdom from our collective memory as a Jewish people, reliving the tears of our slavery, and exulting in our redemption. The holiday demands that we live in the present, too, making physical changes to our daily norms – turning our homes upside down to shake out the chametz and altering how we eat. And lastly, it leads us, with the hagada as our guide, to holy places where we can question our role in the world and define what matters to us, letting the answers determine where we go next.

This perspective inspires me to pin a lot of hope on this holiday. What we create during Pesach will, I believe, help shape how my sons think and feel about their childhood and Jewish tradition. I want them to remember with warmth and nostalgia that there was good in all that hard work, that I wasn’t just sleep-deprived and cranky the entire week before we tasted the first bite of matzah – even though I will be sleep-deprived and the tiniest bit cranky – and that there was a lot of love around our seder table.

So I plod along, talking to God as I cleanse our home of chametz and kasher the kitchen, grate the horseradish and make the boys’ favorite Pesach delicacies. The next few days of preparation will demand a lot of me, as will the holiday itself. I’ll be exhausted, to be sure. But the long-term returns, I pray, will be worth it, and that seems like reason enough.

Wishing everyone a meaningful Pesach.

Merri

P.S. To read more of more my thoughts about Pesach, check out my latest column in the Jewish Week and the NJJN,  Honored Guests at the Seder Table.

It’s Snowing, and I Have a New Website

It’s my favorite kind of morning. Snow is falling. Upstairs, my boys are sound asleep, happy to have the time off from school. I’m off, too, and these extra hours are a gift, wrapped up with the silence unique to a day like this. I’m sitting here with my coffee – one eye on the computer screen, the other watching everything go white outside the window.

Though I feel especially peaceful when it snows, I’m still nervous and excited to welcome you to my new website. Take a look around and let me know what you think.

It’s as if I gave birth to a baby and she’s crawling around on the Interweb. In fact, so many analogies to childbirth come to mind, I could go on and on – the months’ long gestation period and the labor pains and the feelings of gratitude and accomplishment that it’s finally out there. I’m now looking forward to watching her grow and hope you’ll join me for the ride.

This is my blog’s new home. My previous blogsite, which has been faithful to me since I began blogging in late 2011, will be retiring to a warmer climate, where she’ll finally be able to catch up on her reading.

To receive new blog posts via email, please be sure to sign up with your email address in the link on the sidebar. If you’ve already signed up, thank you. You’ve made my day.

In the spirit of Tu B’shvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, I thought I’d share my latest essay, in which I confess my jealousy of trees, which get to stand tall – far from the chaos down here. http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/our-lives-as-a-tree/

I look forward to staying in touch.

Merri