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Category: shabbat

the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

baking with henry

it is friday, a friday. it will soon be shabbat. it is time for baking with henry. henry and i bake challah together. henry is my teacher.

henry lives downtown. in a tall black building.

i live in a leafy little town 12 miles north. in a stone-and-shingle, two-story house.

we bake over the phone.

henry is jewish. i am catholic.

henry is a grandfather; he talks about growing up in germany, before the nazis erupted. every friday night, he tells me, stewed chicken or brisket main-staged the meal; the challah, his mother’s opening act.

challah, the braided egg bread that is the sustenance of shabbat, the sacred canyon of time stretching from sundown friday to sundown on saturday, marking, each week, the seventh-day rest at the end of God’s original creation.

i am a mother, a wife, married to a fine jewish man. we have two boys, growing up jewish and catholic. together, we lift up shabbat, wrap up our harried work week with the pause and the majesty of blessing bread, blessing time, at our table.

i have, over the years, made shabbat mine. i sink into the rhythms of friday, sink into the rhythms of unfolding shabbat. i slow cook on fridays. i pick and choose from the book shelf, finding a passage worth reading, a thought worth shabbat. i put out the candles. i bring out the wine. i reach for the yarmulkes, or little skull caps.

and, after years of wishing i could, i now bake for shabbat.

henry is sifting through my lumps, leavening my learning. henry is teaching me challah.

he came to me in an email, with story attached.

last year, typing away on a 10-year anniversary book for our synagogue, i culled recipes for a few trademark foods. the rabbi’s brisket. his wife’s gefilte fish. henry’s challah.

with recipe in hand, i decided i had no excuse not to roll up my sleeves and insert fist into flour. i did what henry had written. thoroughly blended all dry ingredients; added oil, eggs, water. kneaded for 5, then for 10, finally upward of 15 minutes, in search of the elusive dough state, “moist and elastic.”

it was then that i made my first call to henry.

add water, just one little drib at a time, he advised.

i followed orders.

place dough in warm spot to rise. about 1 hour, he had written.

two hours later, accidentally out longer than planned, i came home to dough that had let out its air.

i put in a second call to henry.

that night, we broke bread but it was more like we were breaking a flat-shelled turtle. this was challah without the rise. this was challah gone flat.

henry called the next morning. he was with me now, and wanted the word on what in the end had come out of the oven.
and so it went, week after week.

i progressed. sort of a reptilian progression. one week a turtle, the next week an alligator. it would be weeks before the soft twisted mounds looked anything like the challah in the bakery windows.

and then my kitchen was demolished. so all baking stopped. but it is a new year, and a new kitchen.

so henry and i begin baking again.

the flour is measured and dumped. the yeast, quick-rising, mixed in. i know how to knead. i know that one hour’s rise, not two, and not three, is essential.

best of all, i know henry’s number, even in florida.

stay tuned for the reptilian report.

all right, all you bakers. anyone willing to go on record with a tried-and-true challah tale? pictures to come, if you promise not to laugh…

Henry’s Berches Challah Recipe
_
_
Makes 1loaf
_
_ 1 Pkg Instant Yeast*
_ 3 cups Unbleached Flour
_ 1 TBS Sugar
_ 2 tspn Salt
_ 5 oz. +/- Warm water
_ 1 TBS Vegetable Oil
1 Egg white (save yolk for egg wash)
* simplifies and speeds baking

_
_ Toppings
_ To taste: Poppy seed, Sesame seed, Kosher salt, etc.
_
_ Thoroughly blend all dry ingredients in a large mixing
bowl. Add oil, egg whites, and water. Mix thoroughly using
an electric mixer with paddle attachment (or hands) until
dough forms. Get dough as smooth as possible in mixer.

Remove from bowl and knead a bit more by hand until silky smooth. If
dough sticks to hands, add a bit more flour; if dough is too dry,
add a little more oil for elasticity. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes.
Dough should be moist and elastic.
_
_ Place dough in oiled, covered bowl, in a warm spot, to rise.
_ About 1 hour. Gently deflate dough and divide into 3 lots.
Roll each lot into a rope, about 10 inches log, and braid to form the finished loaf.

Place on lightly oiled baking sheet for a
second rise, (or use a parchment paper lined sheet, which makes for less clean up) until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
_
_ Brush loaf with beaten egg yolk (beat yolk with 1 tspn water),
paint top and sides of loaves, and sprinkle with
_ favorite topping: poppy seed, sesame seed, kosher salt etc.

_ Place in oven until browning begins. Lower temperature to
350 degrees and continue baking until golden brown and
loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. It is best, though, to use an instant read thermometer and bake to 190 degrees internal.

If loaf brown too quickly during baking, tent with aluminum foil.

Baking time about 30 minutes. Cool on rack.

after i struggled with this version, henry sent a tutorial, titled, “challah, one step at a time.” i’ll send–or post later–if you, too, need henry over your shoulder.