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Challah and the Men Who Bake It

A Jewish women’s ritual gets its guy on

Shira Telushkin
March 07, 2016
Photo: Platonic Studios
Zak Stern and his staff knead dough at his Miami bakery and cafe, Zak the Baker. Photo: Platonic Studios
Photo: Platonic Studios
Zak Stern and his staff knead dough at his Miami bakery and cafe, Zak the Baker. Photo: Platonic Studios

“I guess I just thought it was a religious skill I wanted to have,” said Sam Greenberg, 24, who works as a consultant for foundations in San Francisco and is a man who excels at the traditionally female art of baking challah. “I find it’s a really great way to start getting excited for Shabbat.” Greenberg, who uses a challah recipe he learned from a female friend, says he never really thought about the gender-bending implications. “I don’t really buy into the gender roles of Judaism or broader society,” he said. “I think people generally realize that it’s an awesome thing to do, and it’s starting to transcend gender lines, which I think is great.” He has taught one of his younger brothers to make challah, too.

Greenberg is not alone. Although historically the domain of Jewish women, challah baking has become increasingly popular among Jewish men. For many, it is a new way to honor Shabbat. They like the textured immediacy of the act, the way that homemade bread impresses Shabbat guests, and the personal touch that comes with using a family recipe. But while almost all the men I spoke with recognized the female associations of challah, the influence of its gendered heritage was less clear. Unlike candle lighting or immersion in the mikveh, the two other traditionally female rituals—both of which have retained strong female identities—for many, the feminine connotations of challah baking are faint. Most men got into challah baking for the bread and only incidentally became gender innovators.

Zachary Bleemer, 25, who studies economics at the University of California, Berkeley, never really considered challah baking a gendered act. “Honestly, when I first decided to do it, [the female associations] never crossed my mind until it was pointed out to me, which was a while after I started baking,” Bleemer said. “I don’t remember who it was, but I’m guessing it was a wry comment from my roommate.”

Bleemer began baking challah a year and a half ago, when he came home one day from his job at the New York Federal Reserve hungry for bread and found he had no bread in the house. Motivated by both a desire for good bread and familial connection, he decided to call his mother. “I like eating bread,” he explained. “There was no bread in the house. I had flour. And my mother has the best challah recipe in the country, so I called her. She was thrilled. And I knew she would be thrilled, and that was definitely part of why I called. I think the recipe is from her mother.”

Challah baked by Marc Tasman, an artist in Wisconsin. (Photo: Marc Tasman)
Challah baked by Marc Tasman, an artist in Wisconsin. (Photo: Marc Tasman)

While men’s challah baking is by no means unprecedented, it’s definitely still unusual enough to evoke particular interest, especially at communal potlucks. Levi Teitz, an Orthodox doctoral student in computational biology at MIT, grew up with both his parents regularly baking challah. Still, “it’s definitely true that it’s more associated with women,” Teitz said. “I’ve had friends say I would make an excellent housewife.” Greenberg jokes that his challah skills will make him “a good husband.”

The Jewish relationship between women and challah goes way back. All the way back, in fact, to temple times, when “challah” didn’t actually mean the sweet, braided loaves of bread eaten on Shabbat today—that reality dates back to late 15th-century Europe—but referred to the portion of dough one was required to donate to the priests. Known as hafrashat challah, or separation of the challah, this act is often done today symbolically, by burning a small portion of dough from a challah batch. Critically, if one has prepared a sufficiently large amount of dough, then the burning is accompanied by a blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us to separate challah.” Once recited, the baker (which basically all Jewish texts presume is a woman) separates out a small piece of dough, about an ounce, and burns it.

Over the centuries, a whole array of female rituals sprang up around this challah blessing. There are tkhinos, women’s prayers in Yiddish, specifically to be said at this time; prayers recited at this moment are supposed to be particularly potent. Today, female-only mass challah bake events have become especially popular in the Orthodox world. For many Jewish women, the feminine history of challah remains essential to their baking. Toby Hecht, a Chabad rebbitzin who lives in New Haven, is part of a whatsapp group where women can send messages before Shabbat asking other women for specific prayers as they separate the dough that Friday. Getting together a group of 40 women to pray for the same thing is seen as particularly powerful, and requests often center on pregnancies, marriages, and the health of family members. For Hecht, “there is real significance in groups doing it together, especially massive groups.” She is careful to “always make the required amount of challah, in order to be able to make the blessing.”

Ariel Pollock Star, a Modern Orthodox woman from Cincinnati, likewise only makes large batches of challah specifically so that she can recite the prayer on separating the challah. “I find that very meaningful,” she wrote to me, “particularly if the week has been a tense one in Israel, or if there has been a personal or family challenge.” She gets invited to mass challah bakings about once a year, though she finds the emphasis on challah as a women’s ritual at these events questionable. “To me, the idea of equating it with the wearing tefillin or counting in a minyan feels disingenuous and something like a false apology to Jewish women, when I don’t think apologetics are needed or helpful,” she wrote in an email.

Even for women who don’t participate in group challah baking ceremonies, the baking still has female connotations. Leah Sarna, a student at Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains women as Orthodox clergy, said that for her, “the practice of making challah is very connected to a thousand years of women’s spirituality in making challah. There are all these tkhinot people would say when separating the challah, and yehi ritzons [other prayerful bequests], and they would pray for people in need of healing.” She added, “I always pray, when baking my challah.”

The blessing itself is seen as much more feminine than the act of baking. Hecht’s brother-in-law was actually the one who first began baking her grandmother’s challah and encouraged her to try the recipe, which includes adding a tray of ice cubes to the oven for a crispy crust. But she said he certainly isn’t on any challah prayer whatsapp groups. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar, an Israeli sociologist who has studied Jewish women’s rituals, has attended many mass challah baking events and described in an email how when rabbis present would suggest that men too should have to separate the dough and bless, the women just laughed. The moment of prayer is seen as so intimately female, it seems, that to extend it beyond the domain of women would be preposterously strange.

Of course, many men do see their own challah baking as deeply spiritual, and most who I spoke with also separate out challah, although none made batches large enough to require the blessing. Their spirituality, however, is more focused on the personal experience and less situated in a sense of communal connection.

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, who heads the Reform synagogue Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem, has baked challah just about every week since the spring of 1973. He relates powerfully to the symbolism of challah.

“When we put salt on the challah, we recall the lechem [bread] in the temple, and when we have the two challot, we recall the maan [manna] in the desert,” Weiman-Kalman said. “Challah symbolizes being fed by God.” For Weiman-Kelman, the physical creation also helps him prepare for Shabbat. “There is something that is very tactile, the mixing of the dough, when it becomes dough-y, and you keep mixing flour to it and it becomes dough, the meeting of it is also a very powerful experience, you literally push air into the dough and when you prepare the yeast and the dough, you have to use warm water … it has to be just right. Water for yeast is just like love: If it’s too warm it burns you, and if it’s too cold it doesn’t do its work.”

Although he said he got his love of cooking from his mother, he didn’t use her challah recipe. “I think I was a little daunted by my mother’s challah,” Weiman-Kelman said. “And, also, when I started my mom thought it was inappropriate for me to cook and bake. It was women’s work, not men’s work. She did not hide her disapproval. She would say to me: Why are you cooking, why are you baking, this is not what boys do. But I will say, to her credit, she is at my table every Friday night, and is by far one of my biggest fans and loves my cooking almost as much as I do.”

Connecting to relatives is also an important motivation for many men. For Eli Bildner, a student at Stanford Business School, baking challah is inseparable from memories of his grandmother. “My grandmother of blessed memory made amazing challah,” he said. “Everyone loved it. I learned her recipe when I was a junior in college, by baking with her and transcribing it. I was super close with my grandmother, who passed away about a year ago, and part of learning the recipe for me was because it was this amazing challah, but also to deepen my relationship with her. I’m now a challah recipe evangelist—I never miss an opportunity to send it out.” Indeed, he sent me a copy the next day.

For Bildner, the female associations are real but positive. “I like playing with things that are more traditionally female oriented. I like the playfulness of being the challah baker,” he said. “The fact that it has this heritage as something a Jewish mother would do is fun.”

David Harris, who works for the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, also likes being known for his challah baking and recognizes that its slightly unusual. While he acknowledges that his challah hasn’t gotten him any dates, “it has broken the ice a few time,” he wrote in an email. “It’s fun to talk about, and girls are impressed (more now that I’ve sort of got a passable braid situation going on).”

Ethan Schwartz, who studies Hebrew Bible at Harvard University and who baked challah almost weekly for the two years that he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, sees the feminine connotations as faint, but present. “I have never felt that this has in any way compromised my masculinity, or that I am ‘feminized’ when women see that I bake challah,” he said. “Part of it is that I identify as a feminist and have never particularly felt a need to guard my masculinity in that way.” His challah baking was practical, too. “There was a need. Store-bought challah is often terrible, and challah should be delicious to fulfill its role in this ritual meal. It wasn’t like I was oblivious to the fact that this was a counter-gender activity, but really I just wanted tasty challah.” He paused, then added, “I can’t emphasize how utilitarian my goals were in this.” In fact, now that he has found sufficiently delicious challah in Cambridge, he rarely bakes anymore.

It’s not too hard to understand why men are getting in on the act. Challah is delicious. Challah can be baked and enjoyed by anyone. While men might not (yet) be organizing challah prayer groups, baking is still a fundamental act of nourishing others. But challah is also what makes a meal a Shabbat meal. After all, any dinner party can come with wine, chicken, or even candles. It is the challah centerpiece that, visually and viscerally, transforms the table into a Shabbat table. And if the 20-plus people I’ve spoken to in the past few weeks are right, it’s not actually that hard to bake. Plus, that praise thing is real: People love challah, and by extension, challah bakers.

“It’s almost unfair how much credit you get for it,” said Sam Greenberg. “And it was easier than I expected. Though I often get worried that the dough isn’t right and then make a second batch, and then both batches come out totally fine. But it’s not a problem. Nobody complains about extra challah.”


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Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.