Wednesday Evening Bakers

On the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah 2010, Rabbi Fitzerman used part of his  sermon to describe a "sensual Judiasm" of meaningful spiritual practices and the creation of personal Jewish experience. All involve the body in a significant way. Here is an excerpt about a new project in challah baking:

"What I’m trying to describe is disengagement from the world of professional expertise, the ready made, the off-the-shelf. I hope it's clear that I value craft, the eye and hand of a gifted worker who can fashion things that are beyond my skills. But I’ve gotten equal pleasure from doing it myself. One of my favorite seder plates is a rough clay platter that Alice and I were given for our wedding. But there’s also an odd little platform I built of stoneware that is precisely scaled to the size of our table and accommodates the crowd of other dishes.

My favorite menorah is the one Nina made that features polymer clay portraits of our entire family. None of these objects is perfectly made. But in their vital readiness, they accomplish their purpose and fill my soul with deep satisfaction. All of us can do the same.  Of these raw materials is tradition born, the natural transmission of skill and experience. It means that we reengage at a different level, to claim one small part to feel a larger wholeness.

The materials themselves hardly matter, except insofar as they give you pleasure. At different times in my own working life, I’ve taken joy in lumber and clay and paper. But that hardly describes the available range. I’ve seen Jewish peoplehood, with all its delights, deepened and affirmed in the Synagogue kitchens. It’s the holiness of butter and sugar and eggs. The spirit that lives in flour and salt.

A summertime ago, after Alice’s surgery, the doorbell rang and it was Karen Goldberg. In her hands were God’s own challas. Imagine the very best challahs you have ever tasted, then multiply by two and add thirty-six. They marked the imaginary border of Poland and France, with the traditional look of Ashkenazic braiding, and the sweet, eggy depth of a perfect brioche. They were fragrant and moist and fresh and warm, with the texture that comes from the hands of an alchemist, turning yeast and gluten into the Garden of Eden. Just in case you’re having trouble imagining, I happen to have a visual aid. Here are Karen Goldberg’s challot, a triumph of Jewish life in Maple Ridge and a gift to every Jewish heart on the planet. I raise them toward you in exultant joy.

How were they made? Here’s the deal. I begged Karen to teach me to make these challot. Mine are good. Hers are better. But some of you can certainly do better than I can, and Karen is ready to train us all. On Sunday morning, on September 26th, Karen will be in the kitchen of the Synagogue. Upper limit is "we’ll see when we get there." No cost to you for supplies or materials. Call the Synagogue (583-7121) to reserve a place!

At 10:30 a.m., we’ll make the dough. At 11:15, we’ll set it aside to rest while Karen explains rising and braiding. Sometime before noon, you’ll walk out the door with a perfect challah dough that’s beginning to rise. Some time later, you’ll punch it down at home, braid the loaves and put them in the fridge, where they’ll begin a second, refrigerated rise. When the dough is ready, you’ll put the loaves in the oven and 45 minutes later, you’ll have fresh challot. When they come out of the oven, you will bless God and Karen, and your own good fortune in your Jewish life.

Now that’s that what we’ll do on the 26th. Beginning with the very first week in October, we’ll be doing the same every Wednesday evening. Make the dough in the Synagogue, take it home to bake. Make the dough in the Synagogue, take it home to bake. We’ll be the guild of "Wednesday Evening Bakers," working under the tutelage of Karen Goldberg, organizing the week around the Sabbath Queen, working with a dough that rests for two full days. What will it be like when you finally bake it? The gorgeous scent of it will change your life.

And that’s the part of it that I can’t wait to see. The act of making will transform us utterly. It will put us back in our Jewish bodies and give us a chance to work our Jewish hands.  We just need a chance to try things out. On Chanukah this year, I hope that some of us will be rolling candles, while others try their skills at dipping wicks. On Passover, I hope that we will be baking matzah. By this time next year, I hope that we’ll have made a dozen shofars. Someone might help me with a dozen shroud sets.

But for the moment, I’m imagining the Synagogue kitchen, the place where many of us experience making, men and women, old and young. We are more than a community of study and prayer. We are more than a community of scholar-thinkers. We’re also a community of cinnamon rugelach. We are also a community of poppyseed hamentashen. That and barley soup and chrain and lokshen..."