Challah-making tradition passes to next generation
By Lou Fancher
A 3,000-year old tradition enjoyed by children under age 12 proved the everlasting allure of bread.
On the backyard deck of Rabbi Yisroel Labkowski's home, boys and girls accompanied by a parent mixed water, eggs, sugar, oil, yeast and flour at a "Kids Mega Challah Bake."
Some used spoons, while others plunged in with glove-covered hands, and there were smiles all around.
The free activity, a project of Chabad of Lamorinda, introduced novice and some experienced challah bakers to a practice Labkowski said symbolized the Jewish people's dependence on God.
"When a Jewish woman would bake challah, she would take off a portion and give it to the priest. It shows that we know that everything we have comes from God. What's significant also is that it's a commandment from God that is passed on from generation to generation through the women."
This mitzvah, or biblical commandment, dates back centuries and although given expressly to women originally, boys and men also make the glossy, braided bread.
"My mother, every Friday, still bakes it. It's a special part of every Shabbat and holy holidays," said Labkowski. "Men make it as well; I make it when my wife cannot."
Labkowski's nephews, 6-year-old Nochum Labkowski and his brother, Joseph, 7, claimed to have made challah "more than 10 zillion times."
Dipping the bread in salt, they said, is a must-know aspect of eating it. Challah represents kindness; salt is a reminder of severity. Labkowski said that dipping the sweet bread in the "shock of spicy severity" teaches that kindness should always overcome the negative aspects of human existence.
The rabbi's wife, Tzipora Labkowski, led the young bakers through the process of waiting for bubbles, examining egg yolks to ensure no blood was present, adding flour "a little after a little" and other intricacies of the tradition.
Eleven-year-old Jamie Say of Orinda, said it was her first challah bake.
"My specialty is Belgian waffles," she said. "I started with a recipe, then tweaked it to make it really good."
Asked for her secrets, she was generous: "It's extra butter. Lots of butter. And mixing in yolks and egg whites separately."
Her mother, Jackie Say, said her family is Chinese and includes generations of chefs and caterers.
"I wanted for us to learn about other cultures and this seemed like a fun way," she said.
Lisa Fass of Orinda, said that having her children learn practices from her family's Jewish traditions was a way of connecting to the past in contemporary times. Her daughter, Kayla Smith, 11, said baking challah was a straightforward matter.
"I've made it lots of times at camp. Plain is my favorite. It's good with butter or cream cheese." she said. "When I first made it, I ate most of the dough, but it still came out good."
Rebecca Johnson, 10, whose mother, Mala Johnson, confessed to rarely making and instead, buying challah for her family, offered advice.
"Cut it up and put butter on it when you eat it. When you're making it, take your time braiding it. It will come out better."