Storytime: Challah

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: Bread, simple as can be.

Second year of college. Unmoored from space and time, I step through the threshold of a doorway.

This door is in a quiet neighborhood full of houses with lawns, houses with lights on in the living rooms, houses filled with families having dinner.

I’ve been awake since 4am and I feel distinctly like the bottom of someone’s shoe. I work myself up when I’m trying to calm myself down. I pick nervously at my hands and count the breaths that escape the iron stronghold of my lungs.

You were invited. You are allowed. You are wanted here.

Trying to get my bearings, I wrap my hand around the door frame while I remove my shoes and pull my hair back in a ponytail to keep it out of my face. I’m a stranger in a strange land. Stomach twisted up in knots. Blood loudly rushing through my ears.

Intruder.

Everything is so soft inside the house. The light seems impossible gentle. Not dim but not so bright as to hurt when coming in from the darkness outside. The smell of roasted meat permeates the air. The walls painted in delicate cornflower blue and even the wooden stairs have rounded ended, softened with age and use.

I feel hard and solid in the face of so much ease.

I place my shoes on the rack next to the door and I stand there, stiff shoulders, parade rest. Laughing curls around the corner as two young girls fly at me. A soft sigh and a shift of fabric against itself follows them. A tall, thin woman with sharp features walks towards me, her hands in the pockets of her dress, her hair drawn up messily in a red handkerchief. She glows. She invites me in and apologizes for the children. I float behind her as she leads me deeper inside the house.

“Your first time here” she pauses to consider me, I turn my face away, “but you look like you might know how to do this.” Her voice is deeper than I expect. I’m tempered by the fact that I might be assumed competent but I can’t find my voice so I simply nod and stare harder at the floor.

I wash my hands and she hums slowly to herself. Her hands coming out of her pockets, leaning her hip into the counter as she returns to kneading dough. Once my hands are clean she uses one floured hand to point at another ball of dough waiting in a bowl nearby. I get to work, standing shoulder to shoulder with her. Letting the smell of yeast and the warmth of the oven wash over me.

After a few minutes she asks me about my family. I startle and nearly throw the ball of dough off the counter. I’ve been cut off from my family. For the past two years all my thoughts have revolved around the future instead. But here she comes to brings out ghosts of the past. She wants to know where I came from, how my hands know how to work a dough to silk. How they can twist and turn long ropes into braids and weaves. How my senses know just on sight or on smell when a loaf of bread is ready. These things don’t come from the future and they don’t come from classes and books. They’re not ready made or store bought. Instead they are built on memories. They are built on action. Bread is built in the place I am now, standing in a kitchen with a woman who hums and wants to tell me a story.

Without my reply she starts. She tells me of her mother and her mother’s mother and making the challah for Shabbat. She tells me of hearing the lilting song of her aunt and the laughter of her siblings and staying up late in the night to watch Yahrzeit lamps dwindle down to nothing because it made her feel close to her grandfather – like she was chasing the memory of him.

I don’t tell her I don’t believe in anything. That I like the tradition but religion is bread to me: a series of motions. I don’t say that I feel shunned and cut off and estranged from it because I am disconnected. Maybe I am disconnected from my feelings, or my mind, or my family. Maybe I am just disconnected from humanity.

Instead I tell her the stories that delicately link us together. Stories of tradition that echo hers. Stories of finding the affikomen before any of my cousins. Of being knocked in the head by the Torah as they brought it around, and stories from when I was very young and would stand in the kitchen (as we stand now) and my mother would braid bread (her hands flowing like water) while telling me stories just like this.

I push the last few bubbles out, then divide the soft dough evenly. Rolling each strand out between my fingers until the world disappeared around me. Bobbing my head to her hum. Counting out the steps to the time of her music. Swaying with the movements. Over, under, left, left, right, right, over, under, left, left, right, right. Something distant but still locked away in muscle memory. The tears run down my face. Hot and wet and I back away from the counter trying not to contaminate the bread. This bread is an echo of how life used to feel and how it doesn’t feel now. It’s so easy to make bread in someone else’s life but not in my own life. So easy to be surrounded by their warmth and their kitchen and their stories but so hard to be alone.

The woman puts her hand on my shoulder and leads me to a chair. Her youngest daughter comes and sits on my lap and offers me a slice of warm bread. I take it and close my hand around it.

“Eat up now, can’t have you collapsing from hunger” it sounds so easy when someone else says it.

After she places the loaves in the oven, she stands behind me and asks if she can brush out my hair. I touch it self consciously. It’s growing long again and I don’t have time to care about it. I nod though because giving in is easier than fighting and her older daughter brings a brush and hair ties to me. She sits in a chair across the way, smiling and fiddling with the plastic ties.

The woman’s hands come up to the back of my head and she slowly and methodically brushes out of my hair. Hands heavy and warm, steady when they lean against my shoulder. When she can run her fingers through without knots she brings a hair tie up to her fingers and then, just like the bread, her hands flow through memory making all the right twists and turns.

She hums as she does so. Strangely, I find myself humming as well.

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