by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)
I’m in Cheryl’s kitchen. It’s fitting. In the nearly 17 years we’ve lived no more than a mile from each other, she’s been in my kitchen only a handful of times because she’s allergic to my cats. She gets miserable, and quickly, and symptomatic in a big, wet, unhinged kind of way. So I’m in Cheryl’s kitchen, again.
I know this kitchen well. Each summer since we’ve lived so close, I’ve taken care of her house when Cheryl and her husband and two sons go away for two months, to a Jewish camp in the Poconos where she’s director. Every day for those nine or 10 weeks I take in and sort their mail, flush all the toilets, feed the goldfish, check to make sure there are no mice camped out in the laundry room, water the plants, and generally make sure things are up and running.
But now it’s the other side of summer, and Cheryl has been home from camp for about a month. It’s a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, and I’m back in the kitchen; after having let myself in with my own key all summer, it’s always odd to have to knock, again, when I visit. Each autumn, in the week before Rosh Hashanah, I go to Cheryl’s kitchen and we bake challah together. To be precise, she leads me through the process, step by step, while making four or six of her own loaves at the same time. This has been going on since I moved into the neighborhood in 1988, two years after Cheryl and her family. In fact, I used to live so close to them that I could efficiently walk home and get some work done between risings of the dough.
So you’d think that after baking challah with Cheryl for 17 years that I’d have learned how to bake it on my own. I’m sure I could have picked it up, but early on I made a conscious effort not to: If I knew how to make challah on my own there’d be no need for me to do it with Cheryl, and I like the ritual. I play dumb, and it works. I like knowing that I can count on Cheryl, that this is something I share with her and no one else. I like to depend on her for this (even though I assert a tiny bit of my own culinary independence by making my challahs with one-third whole-wheat flour).
I always forget to bring an ingredient, too: Salt, maybe, or raisins, or egg yolks for the shine, any of which she lends me. Cheryl has huge, industrial-sized vats of poppy seeds, which she shares, and she’s the only person I know who owns, let alone uses, baking parchment (which, after it’s been in the oven, and the edges are browned, always looks like it was meant to be written on in Hebrew).
It’s not like Cheryl isn’t a good teacher; she is. I met her, in fact, when she taught the adult bar and bat mitzvah class I participated in at the Hillel at The University of Pennsylvania. Not having been a bat mitzvah at the usual time, I’d determined to pay myself back and do it before I was 30. My bat mitzvah was one of those big “M” memorable days, the type that become mythic and you pass down to your children. As I recited my portion I was totally unaware of my surroundings, of my minyan of friends who were there, of Cheryl, who was leading the service in the nasal voice that I now recognize as her davening voice – all that existed was me and the words. I was totally alone, while simultaneously unaware of the circle of well-wishers surrounding me, a pretty Zen experience for a nice Jewish girl like me.
For as long as Cheryl has had sons, first Jonathan and then Ari has been part of our challah baking. Whichever boy was old enough – but young enough — to want to help his mother and her friend bake challah would stand on a stool on the other side of the kitchen workstation, and help measure ingredients, or pour them in, or mix. He would receive his own clump of dough to play with and, as we did with the real challahs, separate off a tiny portion and burn it according to tradition, an attempt to replicate a sacrifice that makes baking holy. The first time Cheryl let each son knead the clumps of dough that would be used for the actual challahs has been a rite of passage, like the first time you play Candyland with a child without holding yourself back so you don’t win.
So we measure. We mix. When the dough becomes too difficult to mix with a spoon, we use our hands, getting in up beyond our wrists, and the smell of liberated yeast hangs over us like a cloud in a beer garden. We let it rise. We punch it down, and we knead it. Kneading is a funny business, I think; we give the dough mixed messages: We abuse it, beating it down with our fists, and we coddle it, encouraging it to open up like a flower, to unfold and reproduce itself. We give it time to breathe, and in spite of its apprehension that we’ll beat it down again, we ask it to rise.
We flour the countertops so the dough won’t stick when we roll it out. And then we braid it. To this day, I have not gotten the hang of rolling out three long dough “snakes,” then weaving them together in a motion that feels like when you turn the ropes in double Dutch, and finally tucking the ends securely underneath.
“Show me how to do it again,” I tell Cheryl.
“You mean you forgot from last year?” she says. “Ari, you remember how to do this from last year, don’t you?” She teases me. She shames me. We do this every year; it’s as predictable as my commenting that the poppyseeds look like ants. Cheryl makes a face I’ve seen many times, a sort of lip pursing that might make you think she was disapproving. By the time I met her mother, Bea, and saw her make that precise look, I had figured out that it was a disguise, a one-style-fits-all crusty cover to keep back the tenderness. Neither Cheryl nor her mother exude tenderness like other people you’d automatically peg as “sweet”; if you were in a room full of people you didn’t know, and you were hurting badly, they probably wouldn’t be the first ones you’d think to turn to for comfort. But you’d have made a mistake.
“Come on, just show me,” I say, and she does, demonstrating how she takes three strands of my dough and braids them evenly, and I remember the motion from when my mother used to do that to my hair when it was so long I could sit on it. Cheryl does this deftly, and the dough responds to her touch, knowing it had better or else. Then she starts to unbraid my challah, so I can do it myself, and I stop her.
“Just leave it,” I say. “I’ll do the other loaves myself.”
“Sure you will,” she says, knowing as well as I that in the end, she’ll rescue me. Cheryl will do whatever has to be done to help me turn out challahs that will impress my family and friends, challahs that have beautifully browned crusts and are soft and sweet inside, perfect for spreading with honey and wishing a “sweet new year” to everyone around my holiday table.
Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania. At the moment she is teaching journaling and creative-writing classes to people with cancer, and she’s working on a project that she hopes will be published as The Breast Cancer Journaling Workbook.