Summer Pitocchelli Schwartzman

Prayers Baked in Rolls

(Image courtesy of author)

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For weeks, I struggled to find words to articulate my feelings on the October 7th massacre. Rather than write, think, or feel, I dove straight into volunteering through translation work, helping various non-profits and fundraisers, and writing about other people’s feelings and experiences during the war. 

I have always felt a connection to the simplicity of baking challah. My mother always made our challah from scratch–she would pile snowy mountains of flour and icy rivers of sugar into a bowl that can only be properly described as a cauldron, and made real magic. Occasionally, when I had the attention span, I was responsible for pouring additional flour on her hands to make sure the dough wasn’t too sticky. She would make 8 or 9 full-size loaves at a time and freeze them, and come Shabbat our house was filled with the heavenly smell of challot thawing and baking in the oven. 

In my days at midrasha, I missed my mother so much I picked up the mitzvah myself. Using an online recipe, I routinely made challot for my friends and my Shabbat hosts. While I never made enough to do the mitzvah of hafrasha (setting aside dough in memoriam of the Temple’s destruction), I still maintained the habit throughout most of the year. During COVID-19, this was an additional comfort for myself and those around me as I stayed in Israel to finish out my year. Each time I made the bread, I would turn off my phone and focus on the task at hand; giving myself a well-needed break from obsessively checking the news, and clearing my mind of the concerns and doubts that COVID caused.

Four years later, while obsessively checking the news for any update about our soldiers and captured Israeli friends and family, I spent much of my time looking for the next project–anything to help! I am not a soldier, but I am shocked that so many of my friends have been called up. Some of my friends have already paid the ultimate sacrifice, and in between the grief, I wait with growing apprehension for other soldiers I am close with to send any indication that they are alive and well. 

A week ago, I asked my mother to send me her challah recipe–I was worn out from all of the anxiety, and I just needed a taste of home. While looking over the instructions, I realized that rather than quartering the recipe, I could just make more and donate the extras. I had recently read in a group chat about a movement to bake homemade challah rolls for our soldiers, so I reached out to find the closest drop-off point. 

Baking 50 challah rolls is difficult. It is intense and, with only a toaster oven to my name, it takes all day: yet I was happier than I had been in weeks. I imagined happy chayalim (soldiers) eating my mother’s challah, enjoying it just like I had as a kid when my brother and I would fight over the end piece of the loaf (the best part, in our united opinion). I wondered if my challah rolls would make it to the bases where my friends were stationed, and if they would recognize my handwriting on the wrapper. Most of all, I prayed our people would return home and that I wouldn’t have to grieve anymore. Just like the end piece of my mother’s challah, I hoped for an end to the conflict that we all could accept happily. 

So what is the conclusion? Is there one? I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m baking 50 challah rolls again this week and, as I’m writing, my apartment smells like home–because it is home. 

May we all merit to return home again. 

About the Author
Summer made Aliyah from Atlanta in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon arriving, she proudly served as a lone Bat Sherut at Hadassah Hospital. Summer currently studies biotech at Bar Ilan University while editing academic publications on the side. When not studying, Summer enjoys good coffee and traveling with her husband Yoni, with whom she frequently collaborates on publishing Israel photography on social media, and his book “Living Vision”.
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