Women are given three special assignments in sacred Jewish texts — and Marianna Mintz is nearly elbow deep in eggs, water, yeast and more than a dozen cups of flour to fulfill one of them.
“I usually make challah out of frozen rolls,” she confesses, as other women at the table share their shortcuts in preparing the sweet bread eaten on the Jewish sabbath and holidays. Some buy it fresh from the market or get loaves from a relative who makes her own.
The women, young college students and grandmothers, are part of a group at Chabad of Greensboro, an organization focused on the spiritual needs of Jews.
They have taken on the challenge of making challah from scratch for the upcoming Rosh Hashana, which at sundown Friday will start the Jewish High Holy Days. The season will end 10 days later with Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of the Jewish year. The Jewish New Year is a time of repentance, mending relationships and putting things right with God and neighbor.
“A lot of the ladies here say they’ve never made challah or ‘not in 30 years,’ ” says Hindy Plotkin, who leads the women in the exercise. Plotkin and her husband, Rabbi Yosef Plotkin, who is director of the Chabad, offer workshops on Jewish traditions throughout the year for Jews and non-Jews.
The bread is a symbol of holiness, connecting families and traditions over thousands of years. Whether observant or not, many Jewish households eat sweet braided challah on the Sabbath.
Of the three prayers recited before dinner, the third is over two covered loaves of challah. The prayer gives thanks to God, “the one who brings forth bread from the earth.”
The week before the Jewish New Year, these women find that making challah takes cups and cups of flour and patience. At times the water added to the mixture must be cold, at other times, warm.
“I don’t cook — I’m learning, but I’m not so comfortable in the kitchen,” says graduate student Alyssa Samet . The women, about two dozen, work in pairs at a long dining table, with oversized mixing bowls.
A 25-pound sack of flour and bags of sugar sit at their feet.
“Don’t tell anyone how much sugar goes in the challah,” Plotkin says to raised eyebrows when she tells them to add two full cups.
An audible gasp follows the next directive: fold in 14 cups of flour.
“Sometimes it may take 18 or more,” she tells the women, skeptical until they see how easily the mixture absorbs the flour . There should be enough for each of them to make multiple rolls of bread.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever make it again,” admits Cookie Wiseman , as she is not nearly done with adding flour.
Some of the women begin to think the mixture in their bowls will never be doughy enough — and then it happens.
Before Plotkin directs them to divide the dough, she asks each to tear off a small piece to be thrown away — and to say a prayer. It is for those who perished years earlier.
Last, the dough must be braided. The traditional six- and three-braid loaves involve six or three legs of connecting dough and careful patterns.
“I need the remedial challah course — ‘Challah for Dummies,’ ” jokes Ricki Grasso , a retired educator.
But hers, too, would get Plotkin’s approval.