Heddy Abramowitz
Artist Living in the Eye of the Storm
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Breaking bread: Challah as a sign of the times

A close look at the braided bread that is a ubiquitous presence in Israeli culture

Winter brings with it certain smells that trigger memory. Burning wood in fireplaces. Bread baking. The temperatures drop and I buy yeast. For me, no food spells comfort more than yeasty fresh bread still warm from the oven.

Peer Challot © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
“Peer Challot” © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

Not that I bake as often as I would like. The best of the local bakeries are so good it seems like a superfluous task.

Bread baking is more than a cold weather thing in Judaism. Flour, water, leavening and eggs, and some spiritual elements are the alchemy that combines to make challah, the traditional braided loaves that are an integral part of the weekly Sabbath (Shabbat) and holiday meals.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I responded to curator, Laura Kruger’s, invitation to tackle the subject of challah for the current exhibit at the Hebrew Union College Museum in lower Manhattan, “The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat.” The exhibit explores contemporary takes on the Shabbat day in art and the catalogue can be viewed here.

I set out to make a personal album of bakeries that are stations in my routine. The four selected photographs culled from that album are on display in the exhibition which is running the entire academic year.

Baking challah in Judaism is not, in itself, an act of religious observance. However, the commandment “to take challah” is one of the three observances that are specifically associated with women in traditional Judaism and is biblical in origin.

Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. (Numbers 15:20)

This involves removing a bit of the unbaked dough, with or without a blessing, depending on the amount of dough, a symbolic act of remembrance of the Temple and a connection to God through the ancient priests (Cohanim). Thus the most mundane of chores is elevated to a higher spiritual plane. Many women consider the lengthy process of making challah an appropriate time to include their supplications for health and recovery, fertility, finding spouses for those searching and other personal prayers in this, their private conversation with their Maker.

"Book of Prayers (Sefer Ha Tefilot)" frontispiece, Amsterdam, 1705 C. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
“Book of Prayers (Sefer Ha Tefilot)” frontispiece, Amsterdam, 1705 © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

The image shown above is the frontispiece of an Amsterdam prayer book from 1705. It shows the three traditional obligations on a woman:  family purity (ritual separation during her menstrual flow), lighting candles for Shabbat and holidays, and the taking of challah.

There is hardly a locale in Israel that does not have fairly easy access to these twisted Shabbat breads. Every supermarket and many tiny convenience stores stock this as a matter of course. During our recent heavy snowfall, which cut off hilly Jerusalem from regular deliveries and pretty much put the city in siege, local volunteers took it upon themselves to distribute challot in affected neighborhoods. Of course, the grocery stores had long ago been stripped clean of any baking supplies.

It is when traveling that we Israelis become newly aware that challah is not something that can be taken for granted. Many seek out Chabad  houses to obtain this Shabbat basic. Researching  where a kosher bakery can be found is often part of an observant Jew’s advance travel planning, beyond the itinerary. And for those who live and observe Shabbat in areas without kosher bakeries, planning ahead may include complicated logistics when visiting larger Jewish communities in order to keep the freezer stocked.

No easy feat this photographic challenge. The aromas alone envelop the casual shopper, let alone the serious shutter-bug taking shot after shot in the peak shopping hours before the quickly approaching Shabbat.

In my Jewish Quarter neighborhood, franchises of well-known bakery chains have arrived, something unheard of in the earlier years of the neighborhood. In those days, the only locally produced fresh bread was from the pita bakeries still working daily on Habad Street or the products of the big industrial bakeries.

Ne'eman Bakery 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
“Ne’eman Bakery” © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

One newcomer, Ne’eman  bakery, offers freshly baked challot, the classic Israeli bakery bread; white flour, lightly glazed with a sesame seed sprinkle. Tray after tray stacked taller than myself on a rolling cart, these are the typical challot which grace many a table. But, in terms of price, this is mid-level. Families on a stricter budget. especially large families (“families blessed with many children” in the local parlance) will choose a more generic and simpler choice from a supermarket.

Next door to Neeman is an Arab-owned pita bakery. This photograph, taken before a subsequent renovation, shows the display case offering not just the traditional Arab breads, including sesame bagels, flat breads, za’atar or onion pitot, but, in a quirk of cross-culturalism, also a twisted challah bread made from the pita dough. Not to worry, the orthodox residents of the Jewish Quarter can patronize this store, because it is under the strictest supervision of a Mehadrin Kashrut (kosher) supervisor, complete with certificate. Their customers include Arabs, whom I am told also enjoy challah. In a riff on the old ad, it still seems “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy challah.”

"Arab Bakery, Jewish Quarter" ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
“Arab Bakery, Jewish Quarter” ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

The end of my search took me to the belly of Jerusalem, the colorful and vibrant outdoor market Machane Yehuda. As a devotee of the shuk for over 30 years, I have witnessed the waves of its evolution. Earliest ventures required a bit of fortitude, stall keepers would not sell less than a  kilo bag at a time, patience was lacking for struggling Hebrew speakers, the scene included competitive screaming in chants to drum up business, fish jumping right out of the stall was not uncommon. The range of produce was basic, nothing more than run-of-the-mill cucumbers, peppers, eggplants and oranges. Politicians made the shuk an obligatory campaign stop, but, otherwise, it was the territory of amcha, the hardworking guys with rough hands. Chaotic, and lacking amenities, it was a challenge, but affordable and very real.

The years of exploding bombs during the intifadas discouraged many of the old-time shoppers, and improvements followed to entice the middle class and the well-off into the shuk. Exotic and esoteric were still years away.

Now, with franchise stores peppering the area, chef-run restaurants and up-scale eateries encroaching from every side, it seems the authenticity of the shuk experience is itself a sort of endangered species. Almost weekly one sees a butcher’s stall becoming a steakiah grill, a bakery becoming a hipster bar – replete with an open professional kitchen to view. Celebrity chefs are drawn here like bees to honey. And no wonder, what has always been an amazing market is getting its due.

Ugat Chen, Machene Yehuda, © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
“Ugat Chen, Machane Yehuda” © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

This last of the four photographs exhibited shows the kind of exchange that is fast disappearing, as the stalwarts give way to the trendy. This  bakery worker gives a piece of his mind to the customer while another selects from the overwhelming choice of sizes and styles of challah.

As the market again re-invents itself, the wafting aromas of the challah breads will be an anchor in the weekly rhythm. Challah is at the center of every Shabbat meal. A constant in a changing world.

The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat, Hebrew Union College, 1 West Fourth St. (Between Broadway and Mercer) continuing through June 27, 2014 (see website for more details).

About the Author
Heddy Abramowitz is a Jerusalem artist. Born in Brooklyn, NY to Holocaust survivors, raised in the southern Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., she shelved her career as an Israeli lawyer in favor of her first love, painting, and exhibits her art in Israel and abroad. Some say she is a lawyer in recovery, others just shake their heads. Believing that art communicates when words fail, she reviews Jerusalem art exhibits in English to broaden audiences for art made in this unique city. She also occasionally weighs in on current events. Living many years in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City significantly affected her outlook on living here, a work in progress. Good dark chocolate is her one true vice.
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