A delicious Jewish tradition

June 2024
Helaine Ortmann

I’ve never been the kind of person to join a club; save for one misguided effort as a teenager. I’m referring to the time I pledged for a high school sorority because my older cousin Barb had. The same reason I studied clarinet. 

(That did not go well. Two memories yet linger. First, my parents’ good-natured suggestion that I need not bring the instrument home every weekend to practise; and second, my music teacher asking me in open class if I really were Syd Levy’s – the bandleader’s – daughter.)

Back to the sorority. Among the orientation antics we endured was the requirement to make and saturate tissue flowers with perfume and then wear them, pinned all over our clothes, for the day. So overwhelming was the fragrance for classmates and teachers (this long before there were scent-free policies), the office sent us “pledges” home to shower and change. Mortifying; and all the motivation I needed to resign from the sorority before I was even accepted.    
Why then would I say yes to my cousin Reesa’s invitation to join her at the Aish Thornhill Community Shul for their monthly Challah Club? 

Was it the in-person demonstration of the art of dough-making that I craved; having learned to make challah via FaceTime during the pandemic? Or, could it be, almost six decades later, that I was mature and secure enough to revisit the idea and experience of belonging? 

My cousin pulled out all the stops for my visit. After a busy work day (hers), she prepared a delicious air-fried salmon supper, and, following a dessert of fruit and homemade chocolate truffles, she presented me with a “loot bag” of riches from the dollar store: a large white flat-bottom shissel (mixing bowl), mixing spoons, and set of measuring cups and spoons. 

We arrived at the shul where Alissa, one of the organizers, greeted me warmly. I quickly took in the scene: a standard hall with round tables covered by white plastic cloths, equipped to fit 35 to 50 people. In the centre of each were the ingredients that would, in the next hour or so, produce about four good-sized challahs per maker: a 10-lb bag of flour, a 5-litre container of canola oil, yeast, sugar, eggs, and salt. 

In anticipation, we donned our aprons (colourful, some challah-themed) and gloves (optional), and “schmoozed” with our table mates. On my right, Silvana, an Argentinian, was speaking to her friend in Spanish. That animated a conversation about family backgrounds, having grown up in a mixed Sephardic-Ashkenazi house where my father, aunts and uncles, and grandmother Vinucha spoke Ladino, especially when they didn’t want the “children” to know what they were talking about. 

Moving from group to group where we voiced the names of loved ones who were sick and in need of healing, Alissa led the group in the refuah shlema; a compassionate and heartfelt prayer. After a collective amen, it was time to get down to business; the laminated Aish challah recipe clear and present on each table to guide us in our evening’s mitzvah. 

We dissolved the yeast and sugar in four cups of warm water (what you would use for a baby’s bath) and set it aside to foam and bubble; measured 12 cups of flour into the shissel; made a well; and added in the rest of the ingredients. We kneaded, adding more flour as we went to make a soft and elastic dough—not too sticky, not too dry—for 10 to 15 minutes. With not a stand mixer in sight, the room of women was, to use sport parlance, “locked in;” at one with their dough. Focussed as I was, I heard my cousin coaching me on, saying “it’s going to be fluffy; look at those air bubbles.” 

After taking a photo of the seven women at our table and posing for a collective group shot, we wished each other well and left the shul with our precious cargo, bedded down under layers of saran wrap, to rest overnight in the refrigerator, double in size, and ultimately emerge as variously braided and seeded baked loaves to be enjoyed with our families. 

As a retired person living in Hamilton, Helaine seeks out opportunities in everyday life to nourish mind, body and spirit.