Written by Dara Kaye, ETA’09-10
The thing is, I’d never actually made challah bread before. I am only half Jewish, and even then it’s the wrong half, since Jewish heritage is matrilineal and my mother’s a sort-of Congregationalist from West Virginia by way of Connecticut. So while my family usually made an effort to have dinner together every Friday night, homemade traditional Jewish yeast breads were decisively not on the menu.
I have no idea why the first time I felt the need to bury myself in challah, apple honey cake, and a kilo of tzimmes for Jewish New Year was as a 22-year-old living in Korea. Honestly, I wish I could tell you.
But there I was, in Korea of all places, in a small kitchen with a giant rice cooker but no microwave. I’ve got to tell you — it wasn’t going well. I’d planned this as the sort of this thing that I could do with my host brother and sister to bond and teach them about Jewish traditions. While I’ve never been religious, I’ve always sought out Jewish communities when traveling or living in new places, and I knew that keeping some connection with Jewish traditions would be important for me while in Korea.
Unfortunately, while telling them about the significance of each Jewish food, I realized about halfway that I had absolutely no idea why challah is braided, or what the deal with tzimmies was beyond my parents wanting me to eat vegetables without complaining. And I should totally know all this stuff. I was a Jewish Studies minor, after all.
If I’d thought about it, I could have looked all this up on chabad.com beforehand. But it wasn’t until helping my host brother David beat the senses out of a massive lump of bread dough, and watching Chandi lick the excess flour from the floor (I told her to stop, but Chandi’s a monolingual mini poodle, except for the one English world I taught her — “sit” — by bribing her with bits of apple. Seriously, what’s up with Korean dogs and fruit?) that I realized that if I was going to teach them about my traditions, I was going to have to struggle to remember them myself. Oy vey.
I should probably have started by telling you that I lucked into the best homestay family in the world. My homestay sister Caroline, who is 12 years old, brilliant and the hardest-working elementary school student in the universe, speaks near-fluent English. My homestay brother, who is 10, also brilliant and wants to be either a fighter pilot or Optimus Prime when he grows up, generously lets me call him by his English name David. That’s great because I sound like I’m eating marbles when I try to say his Korean name (which I was pretty sure was “Fabio” for a month when I first got here).
But my super awesome homestay siblings were kind enough to bear with me as I tried to remember the relevance of honey and apples and why one braids challah. Since they weren’t in any way aware of the existence of Jewish people before I suddenly moved into their house, they were pretty interested in the whole thing. Besides, they were just as interested in the idea that one could make bread at home as in Jewish custom.
Korean kids don’t cook or bake, which is totally alien to me — I loved baking with my mom as a kid, and I can’t remember being so young I didn’t have a decent popover recipe memorized. But Caroline and David had never cooked or baked anything other than instant noodles before (not an exaggeration) so it took some time to explain how to level off a cup or a teaspoon, how to knead dough, and how to follow a recipe.
I bake frequently at home, often enough to be pretty confident that things will turn out well. The challah dough looked like I thought bread dough ought to look, but as we waited for the bread and cake to bake, I started to feel the pressure. Would it do justice to what I set out to do? To share an ancient tradition, to show the kids that they could cook, to teach them a traditional food and to have delicious bread in the house? Would it rise enough and taste good, or had I left out some crucial ingredient — say, the second Jewish parent? Or… nutmeg or something?
Reader, I baked it.