Braid­ed: A Jour­ney of A Thou­sand Challahs

By – September 16, 2019

Braid­ed: A Jour­ney of a Thou­sand Chal­lahs is a guid­ed tour on the author’s quest to find spir­i­tu­al ful­fill­ment through the act of bak­ing chal­lah for her family’s Shab­bat din­ner each week. As a doc­tor who spe­cial­izes in women’s nutri­tion­al health, Ricanati’s bak­ing is part sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment, part search for reli­gious mean­ing. Ricanati’s 10 year com­mit­ment to this sin­gle obser­vance has shaped her iden­ti­ty and adds depth and weight to her insights, when read­ers con­sid­er the con­sis­ten­cy of her actions and her ded­i­cat­ed practice.

Rica­nati orga­nizes the book by giv­ing read­ers a step-by-step guide to the ingre­di­ents and stages of bak­ing chal­lah. The approach makes it sim­ple for read­ers with less kitchen expe­ri­ence to fol­low along, while more estab­lished cooks will be able to relate to her emo­tion­al con­nec­tion to a par­tic­u­lar piece of cook­ing equip­ment. Ricanati’s writ­ing can be breath­less­ly enthu­si­as­tic, and her zeal for her top­ic fol­lows read­ers through­out the book. While she can’t promise the same reli­gious enlight­en­ment she expe­ri­enced through bak­ing chal­lah, it’s hard to resist her call to the prac­tice, just to find out what happens.

For read­ers to whom fresh, home-baked chal­lah is a nov­el­ty, Ricanati’s expla­na­tions about the reli­gious sym­bol­ism of the bread pro­vides help­ful instruc­tions. How­ev­er, not all read­ers will be able to obtain the farm-fresh eggs she uses, or fre­quent the bou­tique shops where she pur­chas­es ingre­di­ents and sup­plies. A more crit­i­cal approach to the his­to­ry of chal­lah and oth­er Sab­bath breads also could have made this work more attrac­tive to a wider audience.

Rica­nati is at her best when she pro­vides con­text for how and why chal­lah bak­ing is mean­ing­ful for her. She opens up the con­ver­sa­tion about how indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies nav­i­gate their reli­gious lives. She encour­ages her read­ers to think beyond the obser­vances of their fam­i­lies of ori­gin, and to reflect on how rit­u­als can change both in their sub­stance and mean­ing over time. How is the chal­lah that we bake today dif­fer­ent from what we baked 10 years ago? This is a ques­tion that can be asked of so many parts of Jew­ish life.

Deb­o­rah Miller received rab­bini­cal ordi­na­tion at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and daugh­ter, where she serves as a hos­pice chap­lain and teacher.

Discussion Questions

Many con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish women expe­ri­ence lives of alter­nat­ing explo­ration and exhaus­tion. They pur­sue demand­ing careers and work to improve an imper­fect world, all while endeav­or­ing to cre­ate warm and expan­sive fam­i­ly lives. Beth Rica­nati, a physi­cian, describes how her week­ly com­mit­ment to bak­ing chal­lah has become her way of blend­ing these com­pet­ing goals. Of this heal­ing process, she writes, Now anoth­er moment of trans­for­ma­tion, though this more for me than for the bread itself. I break off a lit­tle piece and recite a prayer after the dough has risen and before I braid it. I always feel my blood pres­sure low­er when I pause to say this prayer — I feel phys­i­cal­ly bet­ter, calmer for recit­ing these words.” Ricanati’s inspir­ing mem­oir, which includes recipes, demon­strates how an ancient rit­u­al remains pro­found­ly mean­ing­ful in the twen­ty-first century