By Rochie Pinson
Once in a while, particularly in the month of Elul, it’s great to look back on our lives, and see how we got to where we are right now.
Sometimes we surprise ourselves when we go all the way back and realize where it all started.
When it comes to my newly released cookbook, it’s especially helpful to have this answered, since that’s usually the first question I’m asked when people pick up my new cookbook (RISING! The Book of Challah). “So, what made you decide to write a challah cookbook?”
So here goes, I’ll attempt to answer (both for myself and for my ever inquisitive readers) and in the process, perhaps we will both discover something new.
My own story with challah begins in 1996—those that I actually made myself that is—if we start with the ones I’ve eaten… we’ll be here all day. It was a few short months after my wedding, when my husband and I were asked to go on shlichus to Kobe, Japan for the yomim tovim that year.
Their community was without a Rabbi at the time, and since my husband had spent quite a bit of time there on merkos shlichus, they were excited to have him back, this time with a rebbetzin who could cook for them! Little did they know that this particular rebbetzin was only 21 and didn’t know very much about a kitchen… more on that.
So off we went, with a suitcase full of idealism and tuna cans.
When we arrived in Kobe, a few short days before Rosh Hashanah, it soon became clear to me that as the rebbetzin (albeit a temp one) I was expected to make the challah for the community for yom tov. I had never even attempted to bake challah. Didn’t know much about what went on in kitchens in general, to tell you the truth. So, with my mother’s long-distance instructions scribbled on a scrap of paper, I attempted to make challah for the first time. It was a messy and time-consuming endeavor, (they may still be calling this the hurricane of ’96 in Kobe, for all I know) but I ended up with some 50 challahs, and they were amazing. I was hooked.
When we came back to New York, I decided that making challah every week should be a part of my home, in those days when I was still figuring out what my home would be like. And so it was.
I came to love challah baking, and felt that it was therapeutic and refreshing. It also occurred to me each week as I mixed, kneaded, shaped and baked my challahs, that the recipe for challah was very similar to the recipe for the life and home I was trying to build for my family and for our community. (We had since moved on shlichus to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn)
I started giving challah classes, small workshops that began in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen/dining room, and each week as I prepared for the class, I would discover new insights and new fascinating information about challah that I would incorporate into the class.
The classes grew, and my challah notes folder continued to expand as well. Space was limited, (and anyways, I liked the intimacy of the smaller group) so I began to write people down on waiting lists, and the waiting lists to be a part of the class grew to be months long. People who wouldn’t join the community for any other Jewish service or event, would eagerly sign up for a challah baking workshop, and I realized that teaching about the seemingly simple mitzvah of challah was a tremendous opportunity to introduce the central idea of ‘dira b’tachtonim’ into people’s lives.
I started to call challah “the gateway mitzvah,” for as I observed the effect that making challah had on people’s lives, it occurred to me that it opened up the gates for a life of Torah and Mitzvos, in the most gentle and non-threatening way.
The Rebbe always spoke about teaching Torah, “b’darkei noam.. u’ b’tokef/in a pleasant way… that is still purposeful.”
Who could say no to a challah, freshly baked and still warm from the oven on Friday night? And once you have the challahs… well, maybe we should get the family together and make it a shabbos meal. So there’s got to be shabbos candles (ring, ring, “Rebbetzin, I’m thinking we should light candles before we eat our challah? how do I do that?”) And if it’s a meal, we should probably break out some wine… and make kiddush! And so it went, story after story, of people who had attended the challah class, and started bringing more and more yiddishkeit into their lives.
Suddenly these people would be showing up to other programs. A Chanukah party, Megillah on Purim, even shul on Shabbos… ! And I saw with my own eyes the power that challah could have on people’s lives and their homes and families.
For this is what challah is all about. Taking the most mundane and common of all our needs—bread—our most basic sustenance, and elevating it to become something that is holy and a clear recognition that everything we have is from Hashem.
It’s the most basic way to bring G-dliness into the very heart of home and family—the kitchen. From there, it’s a direct path into the rest of the home and all of life.
Inevitably, at some point during each challah workshop, one of the attendees would ask me if I was going to write a book about this stuff, since there was just so much to talk about! And I always laughed it off. I had plenty going on… who has time to write a book?
At this point, my challah folder was stuffed to the brim with a huge amount of information about challah, fascinating historical facts, sources from the Torah and chassidus that spoke of challah, and of course, recipes and recipes and more recipes.
For the ones who needed their challahs to be gluten-free, to those who wanted it whole wheat, to others who wanted to have it without eggs… and of course, there were all the amazing ideas of things we could do with challah, to make them even more delicious, beautiful and special, and the challahs from different cultures that I kept hearing about from various members of the challah groups, and it goes on…
At this point my life had taken some unexpected twists and turns, (which life doesn’t?) I had started a challah blog and was writing down my thoughts on challah and life, and the ideas kept coming. And one day, I looked at the inevitable member of the challah class I was teaching who was suggesting that I put this all in a book, and instead of laughing off the idea, I embraced it!
And so began the newest leg of my challah journey.
I started this project as a book about challah, but knew that in order to bring these ideas to the widest audience possible, it would need to eventually be a gorgeous cookbook.
This way the mitzvah of challah would gain entrée into people’s homes and hearts, deliciously and unexpectedly.
And so, 3 years after I answered ‘yes’ when asked if I would put it all into a book, with hundreds of recipe attempts, thousands of challahs baked, weeks of photoshoots and many months of design, illustrating and writing behind me… here we are.
I had first debuted the project as a book about challah, (titled “The Rising Life: Challah baking, elevated” Orly Press 2015) with only my classic recipe and simple braiding instructions, so the reader could use the information in the book, and make her own challah.
With Hashem’s help, the response to that book was completely overwhelming, in a way I had never imagined. Phone calls, letters, emails and facebook messages from all over the world, attest to the fact that women need this information and inspiration, and that challah—as ever—is up to the task.
I hope and pray that with the release of my cookbook, (RISING! The Book of Challah / Feldheim publishers 2017) this beautiful and gate-opening mitzvah will find itself in thousands of homes across the world, spanning cultures and languages, and eventually bringing so many women and families back to yiddishkeit, in the most delicious and beautiful way. May the mitzvah of challah, and the mitzvos that follow it, help speed up the revelation of Mashiach, when the world will be ‘שבת כולו.’