(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
This June, for the first time, I took the bus across Brooklyn to visit my long-lost second cousin, Rochel, living in Crown Heights. As it happens, we are both named after the same great-aunt, who lived next door to our great-grandfather in Kensington Market, Toronto, where my father, Howard, and her mother, Sarah, grew up. This side of the family had always been cast in the deep shadows of obscurity, but on this particular Friday a light radiated from the annals of family history to shrink those shadows' stature.
I rode the bus across Brooklyn, from my sister's apartment in Williamsburg (the upscale artists' lofts, not the haredi section), ascended a set of steep stairs in a semidetached house, to be greeted by a round, warm woman, her hair tucked up in a scarf, decked in an apron and hands full of halla dough. She introduced me to her husband, Yenkel, and to a smattering of her 12 children as they traipsed through the kitchen for snacks, for lunch or to eavesdrop on our storytelling.
The first thing Rochel asked me was whether I wanted to make a blessing over the separation of halla dough. Despite being a teacher of Jewish studies, I had rarely made the blessing over halla because at least a kilo of flour is necessary before separating out a small lump of dough to be thrown into the oven for burning. I had forgotten the blessing. So she prompted me, and said that we should have in mind so-and-so, a couple who had been trying to have children for years. There's a special segula (benefit) that one brings into the world when one utters the blessing: "Blessed are You, O Lord, our God... who has commanded us to separate out halla from the dough."
In biblical Hebrew, halla refers to the bread separated out as a gift for the priest: "As the first yield of your baking, you should set aside a loaf [halla] as a gift" (Numbers 15:20). Today it refers to the braided loaf of rich egg-bread that we eat on Shabbat. Though the original purpose of the mitzva was lost with the destruction of the Temple, the ritual of separating out a portion of the dough memorializes that dedication and marks a special time, in the lives of women, when we think of the needs of others as we bake for Shabbat.
According to Dr. Chava Weissler (in her article "The Traditional Piety of Ashkenazic Women"), many tekhines (supplications) were composed around the three mitzvot uniquely associated with women - halla, nidda (family purity) and hadlakat haner (candle lighting). For example, in Shloyshe She'orim (an 18th-century tekhine attributed to the legendary Sore bas Tovim), there is a beautiful prayer that relates to the parallel paths Rochel and I have traversed: Master of the Universe, we pray that you accept the mitzva of halla, and send great blessing on us wherever we turn. May our children not become strangers, and may we be able to provide for our children with a livelihood, I and my husband, by ourselves, over the course of a long life.
As we braided halla, we spoke of the unraveling of our family that took place after World War I, and the efforts she and I have made - in different ways - to undo that unraveling, to braid our lives together with the Jewish people. When our great-grandfather, Mordechai, left Poland before "the Great War," along with his eldest son, Hymie, he left behind his wife, Malke, and their three younger children, including my grandfather, Harry. Malke struggled through extreme poverty and starvation, waiting for the letter that would summon her and the children to a better life. Five years later, she reunited with her husband in Canada, but by then she had lost her will and her wits, and could no longer function as a mother to her children.
Hymie (Rochel's grandfather) stayed religious, but Harry left school after sixth grade to earn a living, and left the fold of Judaism. Though he fathered three sons (by my grandmother), he did not uphold his responsibilities, abandoning his wife and children before they reached bar mitzva - an alienation from Yiddishkeit and assimilation the consequences.
"Let our children not become strangers...," I whispered. Rochel, born into a Chabad family in Montreal, has always separated halla, and fulfilled the dream of a tight family and many children. My path has been more complex, as the awkward hands over the dough testify, completing one loaf to her six. But I have given my children Hebrew, the responsibility and joys of living in Israel; both my children serve in the IDF.
We brushed the halla with egg and an hour later the kitchen was full of the sweet smell of fresh bread. She handed me a loaf to take home for Shabbat, worrying that it didn't rise enough, but it was delicious, full of segula. It is written: "Man shall not live by bread alone" (Deuteronomy 8:3). But the love woven into that bread, baked into spiritual sustenance by the prayers of women, whether inarticulate or kneaded into words, can be source of "all that comes from the mouth God" and by that may we live.
The writer lectures in Hebrew Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>