The braiding of a thousand hallot

Before she knew it, Beth Ricanati had not only become something of a baker, but she had a consistent and centering ritual in her life that she could count on.

Connected and grounded: Beth Ricanati. (photo credit: HANH NGUYEN)
Connected and grounded: Beth Ricanati.
(photo credit: HANH NGUYEN)
Beth Ricanati did not grow up in a home where halla-baking was part of the weekly routine. Raised in Ohio in a Reform Jewish family, Ricanati always felt very culturally Jewish, but was not privy to much Jewish history or ritual. About 10 years ago, she and her husband, who were then starting a family of their own, were living in Cleveland. Ricanati is an internist (in adult internal medicine) and was working a grueling schedule at the Cleveland Clinic, a large teaching hospital. With three small children and a very demanding career, Ricanati began to feel overwhelmed. “I was trying to do it all and be all,” she recalls. “It was too much. I remember sitting on the floor of our playroom with our youngest child who was about three or four at the time. She pointed to my head and asked me why I looked like a grandma. I wasn’t yet 40 and I had a white streak of hair. I was literally wearing my stress. It was such a potent message that I needed to do something and get a better handle on this.”
It was around the time of Rosh Hashanah 2008, and her friend, Abby, suggested that she try making halla. The suggestion took Ricanati by surprise, as she was not a baker. But for some unknown reason, it sparked something inside of her and she decided to give it a try. “So I made halla for the first time and it was the most incredible experience because for the first time in a really long time, I just stopped,” Ricanati shares. “I was present at the kitchen counter. I made it by hand without using a mixer or a KitchenAid, which I still do to this day. So there I was with my hands in the bowl of dough and it was wonderful to just be present for once. Then a couple of hours later when I opened the oven door and that smell permeated the house, it was so amazing. I was hooked immediately. I did it again the next week and kept doing it.”
Before she knew it, Ricanati had not only become something of a baker, but she had a consistent and centering ritual in her life that she could count on. Her family also began to count on it, as well as her children’s friends. Some 10 years and one move to LA later, Ricanati still bakes halla every Friday, and the overwhelming stress and anxiety that once plagued her has dissipated. “Now I have this meaning in my life that connects me and grounds me,” Ricanati says. “I feel more present in every part of my life because of it. I love the history of halla now that I’ve gone back and learned about it. We’re living in this incredibly stressful time and it can be overwhelming. I love to think on Fridays that I’m making halla in LA, while my friend is making it in New York. I just met a woman recently who is baking it in London, and I know women who are baking it in Tel Aviv. It is so cool that we’ve been doing this for 4,000 years. It makes me feel less stressed and less overwhelmed, and a lot more connected when I think about how we’re all doing this all over the world. I really love that.”
About five years ago, Ricanati realized that she had learned many valuable lessons through baking halla every week, and that she wanted to share them. She decided to put them in a book. Like becoming a baker, becoming an author was never an aspiration, or something Ricanati had set out to do, but somewhere along the way, it happened quite naturally. Now that the book, titled Braided: the Journey of a Thousand Challahs, has been published, Ricanati is able to hear the stories of other women who relate to her journey. “It’s really fun, Ricanati said. “I’ve learned that so many women have stories around the ritual of making halla.”
BRAIDED IS part memoir, part mindfulness handbook, and part recipe guide. Ricanati includes the recipe that her friend gave her when the journey first began 10 years ago. “Besides learning about my story, if you’ve never made halla, by the time you finish the book, you’ll be able to make halla,” Ricanati adds. “I’ve had people reach out and tell me that they made halla for the first time. They’re sending me pictures, which is really great.”
Much to the chagrin of her children, Ricanati prefers plain white halla (which is the recipe that is included in Braided). She doesn’t usually add to it. However, she is beginning to broaden her horizons by learning some new recipes that she may try in the future. Other women have also shared recipes with her since the book came out. Currently, the only time she diverts from traditional white halla is on Rosh Hashanah when she makes a round version with apples and honey.
According to Ricanati, the response to Braided has been fantastic. People are latching on to a couple of different aspects in particular; they are excited about the story itself, and of course about halla. “They seem to really latch on this idea of needing to slow down, be present, and have a mindful activity in your life,” Ricanati shares. “It doesn’t have to be baking halla honestly, maybe it’s gardening, or exercise. It’s just important to have a meaningful ritual in your life. This mindful ritual, which I’ve been engaging in now for 10 years, has really helped me to feel less anxious and more present. I’ve also realized that some of the lessons I’m learning on Friday, spill over to the rest of the week. For example, you have to wait for the yeast to bubble and poof and then later on, you have to wait for the dough to rise, so you have to have some patience. I think about it during the next week if I’m feeling impatient, that I need to just slow down and everything will be okay. The recipe I use calls for four cups of flour. It’s two cups in the beginning and then two more cups. I used to just add them all at once, I didn’t think about it because I wasn’t a baker and I didn’t appreciate the nuance. Some weeks, it came out really heavy. So now I play around with how much flour I add, I’ll add two cups and then one and a half. I see what the dough needs. It’s like in life. You can always add, but you can’t take out. Maybe one of my kids needs an extra hug, or maybe I need to pay a little more attention at work. Whatever it may be. I’m reminded of that every week.”
This 10-year journey culminating in the writing of Braided has affected Ricanati profoundly as a physician. Now, when she meets with her patients, she talks a great deal about stress management and how important it is to have some kind of mindfulness practice in life. Stress affects health, which can make us sick. Ricanati has seen it again and again. If a patient is not feeling well to begin with, stress will make them more sick. But Ricanati has found an effective solution; simply stopping and baking bread was the best medicine she could prescribe for women in this fast-paced world. Her halla journey has also affected her practice as a Jewish woman. Ricanati’s family now has Shabbat meals all together; baking halla has become an anchor for the entire family.
“My hope is that this book sparks a conversation and that it inspires others to think about what kind of rituals they’re incorporating in their own lives that have some meaning and that help ground them and make them feel a little more present,” Ricanati says. “It doesn’t have to be big and complicated, it can be as simple as making a loaf of bread. The reason I chose the name Braided for the title is because I felt I was braiding together a lot of different things. Part memoir, part cookbook, and part how-to. Within the book itself, it’s braiding the history of halla with being a mom and medical stories. I’m braiding together the community. It’s a great metaphor for a lot of things, and of course, the bread itself.”