Non­fic­tion

Braid­ed: A Jour­ney of A Thou­sand Challahs

By – September 16, 2019

Braid­ed: A Jour­ney of a Thou­sand Chal­lahs is a guid­ed tour on the author’s quest to find spir­i­tu­al ful­fill­ment through the act of bak­ing chal­lah for her family’s Shab­bat din­ner each week. As a doc­tor who spe­cial­izes in women’s nutri­tion­al health, Ricanati’s bak­ing is part sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment, part search for reli­gious mean­ing. Ricanati’s 10 year com­mit­ment to this sin­gle obser­vance has shaped her iden­ti­ty and adds depth and weight to her insights, when read­ers con­sid­er the con­sis­ten­cy of her actions and her ded­i­cat­ed practice.

Rica­nati orga­nizes the book by giv­ing read­ers a step-by-step guide to the ingre­di­ents and stages of bak­ing chal­lah. The approach makes it sim­ple for read­ers with less kitchen expe­ri­ence to fol­low along, while more estab­lished cooks will be able to relate to her emo­tion­al con­nec­tion to a par­tic­u­lar piece of cook­ing equip­ment. Ricanati’s writ­ing can be breath­less­ly enthu­si­as­tic, and her zeal for her top­ic fol­lows read­ers through­out the book. While she can’t promise the same reli­gious enlight­en­ment she expe­ri­enced through bak­ing chal­lah, it’s hard to resist her call to the prac­tice, just to find out what happens.

For read­ers to whom fresh, home-baked chal­lah is a nov­el­ty, Ricanati’s expla­na­tions about the reli­gious sym­bol­ism of the bread pro­vides help­ful instruc­tions. How­ev­er, not all read­ers will be able to obtain the farm-fresh eggs she uses, or fre­quent the bou­tique shops where she pur­chas­es ingre­di­ents and sup­plies. A more crit­i­cal approach to the his­to­ry of chal­lah and oth­er Sab­bath breads also could have made this work more attrac­tive to a wider audience.

Rica­nati is at her best when she pro­vides con­text for how and why chal­lah bak­ing is mean­ing­ful for her. She opens up the con­ver­sa­tion about how indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies nav­i­gate their reli­gious lives. She encour­ages her read­ers to think beyond the obser­vances of their fam­i­lies of ori­gin, and to reflect on how rit­u­als can change both in their sub­stance and mean­ing over time. How is the chal­lah that we bake today dif­fer­ent from what we baked 10 years ago? This is a ques­tion that can be asked of so many parts of Jew­ish life.

Deb­o­rah Miller received rab­bini­cal ordi­na­tion at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and daugh­ter, where she serves as a hos­pice chap­lain and teacher.

Discussion Questions

Cour­te­sey of Beth Ricanati

  1. Braid­ed is an inti­mate book, a look into the life of a har­ried physi­cian-moth­er who finds her­self while mak­ing chal­lah week­ly at her kitchen counter. After read­ing her sto­ry, how would you char­ac­ter­ize Rica­nati? Which of her sto­ries is most res­o­nant for you; and why?

  2. How has read­ing Braid­ed affect­ed your thoughts about need­ing to be more mind­ful in your own life? Has your behav­ior changed as a result of read­ing this book? If so, how?

  3. The author writes about her belief that food is med­i­cine. How has food impact­ed your own health?

  4. Rica­nati writes late in the book, I knead for my needs.” What does she mean by this? How does knead­ing (or any tac­tile art, i.e. knit­ting, gar­den­ing, etc) ful­fill your needs?

  5. How much do you think the com­mu­ni­ty aspect of bak­ing chal­lah plays into its ther­a­peu­tic effects? Have you ever baked/​cooked with oth­ers; what has that expe­ri­ence been like for you?

  6. The book is struc­tured as the recipe that the author uses week­ly to make chal­lah, each sec­tion a line of that recipe. What is the effect that it has for you? Which sen­tences, para­graphs or sto­ries in Braid­ed stayed with you? What sig­nif­i­cance do these have for you?

  7. The author is a woman, a moth­er, and a physi­cian. How do you think her gen­der impacts the sto­ry; does the need to have a mean­ing­ful rit­u­al have gen­dered implications?

  8. Mak­ing chal­lah has become the author’s mean­ing­ful rit­u­al. What are some of your mean­ing­ful rit­u­als; are they done in iso­la­tion or can you share them with oth­ers? Have you passed these down to your chil­dren or oth­er fam­i­ly members?

Many con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish women expe­ri­ence lives of alter­nat­ing explo­ration and exhaus­tion. They pur­sue demand­ing careers and work to improve an imper­fect world, all while endeav­or­ing to cre­ate warm and expan­sive fam­i­ly lives. Beth Rica­nati, a physi­cian, describes how her week­ly com­mit­ment to bak­ing chal­lah has become her way of blend­ing these com­pet­ing goals. Of this heal­ing process, she writes, Now anoth­er moment of trans­for­ma­tion, though this more for me than for the bread itself. I break off a lit­tle piece and recite a prayer after the dough has risen and before I braid it. I always feel my blood pres­sure low­er when I pause to say this prayer — I feel phys­i­cal­ly bet­ter, calmer for recit­ing these words.” Ricanati’s inspir­ing mem­oir, which includes recipes, demon­strates how an ancient rit­u­al remains pro­found­ly mean­ing­ful in the twen­ty-first century