Sacred Time

How Challah Helped Me Grieve and Create Community

My grandma was the one who did Judaism. You wanted brisket, grandma. A Passover Seder, a holiday meal, latkes, hamantaschen — all grandma.

I’m going to give some props to my mom. She made the best noodle kugel in the world and got me scholarships so I could do Jewish preschool, day camp, overnight camp, BBYO regional events and Israel trips, just like all the kids whose parents weren’t divorced. But the Jewish house, that was Grandma Katz.

Growing up, we all laughed knowing that when everyone was over, Grandma Katz would only move between the kitchen and the dining room. When she died in March of 2014, I remember going through her kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio,  just a few miles from my childhood home. I took the red mixing bowl, the yellow kitchenaid, the blender, the waffle maker, I went from drawer to drawer and cabinet to cabinet taking as much as I could. Her things became part of my life. The kitchen table from her house was the image we used to announce the upcoming birth of our daughter: one more place at the table, coming August 2018.

Early in the pandemic, as my daughter neared age 2, the realization hit me: this little Ruthie, named after my amazing Grandma Ruth Katz, would actually never have the Jewish grandma experience that I had. Since I moved to Lexington, my mom is too far away to be the go-to holiday house.

However, for Hanukkah of 2020, my mom sent me a book that changed my life: Braided, by Beth Ricanti. Like everyone else I had attempted sourdough in the early days of the pandemic, finally indulging my pregnancy vision of babywearing and breadmaking. It turned out the starter was too hungry and never started; and Ruthie was hungry enough that my hands were plenty full.

But this book woke up something in me — that I needed to step up into the role of matriarch. If Ruthie was going to have a Jewish life, it was all me.

Grandma Katz never made challah, though she dutifully bought one at Kravitz's every Rosh Hashanah. I called my friend Reva and asked if she’d help me make challah. I told her that my favorite part about the book was not the challah making, but the reflection process that Ricanti wrote about that happened while she was making the dough. Each week while kneading, Ricanti would take stock of her week: what are you celebrating, what are you mourning, what are you grieving, who needs extra care and support. The baking would become a physical connection to an emotional experience. Because Reva and I were seeking intimacy through this process of baking together, we decided to do our mixing by hand and in the bowls that we each had from our grandmothers’ kitchens.

And so on the first Shabbat of 2021, Reva brought her blue bowl and I got out our red one, and something new and very Jewish took root. We lit a candle to mark the entry into our baking, just as we lit candles to enter into Shabbat. We would each make our own batches, in our own bowls, alongside each other.

Since my recipe makes two loaves each week, and I only have a family of 3, I started giving my extra challah away. Sometimes a neighbor or friend who needed cheering up, to someone that had been sick, to someone who had a celebration, to someone who we knew well, or to an acquaintance who would turn into a friend through this simple act of handing someone something still warm from the oven. Jewish, not Jewish, it didn’t matter.

Soon, our secret challah project became known. A friend of mine suggested that I start a challah Instagram account. And so every week, I posted pictures on Instagram and Facebook. Through this, we invited family, friends, and acquaintances into our kitchen. Many have watched my daughter grow up through social media. So many people have commented on how much joy they have seeing my daughter make challah. All the adults who see her tell her how much they love her challah making. We’ve become famous in Lexington, and the community that I have longed for has risen from this baking project.

The tradition has evolved. What started with a red bowl and mixing by hand shifted to the magic of a faded yellow and now retro KitchenAid, whose age is miraculous when considering her lifetime in grandma's kitchen and now mine. With a smaller child, it was really special watching the transformation of ingredients become the challah dough slowly and with effort. And now I watch Ruthie turn on the mixer and adjust the levers for the right speed at the right time. In these 3 years, I’ve watched Ruthie go from watcher, to helper, to doer, and I just hang back and make sure nothing goes horribly awry.

Instead of sticking with the tradition of doing hafrashat challah and throwing a portion away, Ruthie makes her own tiny challah. We went from plain, to filled, and now to color and design. But what stays the same is the connection: somehow magically I have both my daughter and grandmother with me at the same time every week.

This is the magic of Shabbat. I light the candle before starting the dough, and Ruthie climbs up on the counter. Here we are, all of us together. The matriarch that has passed, the one I have become, and the one that I am raising.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


How to Bake A Loaf of Challah — Beth Ricanati, MD

Hafrashat Challah,

How Challah Helped Me Grieve and Create Community
Carly Sachs
Carly Sachs

Carly Sachs (she/her) is a poet, writer, and yoga teacher living in Lexington, KY where she works as the PJ Library Coordinator for the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass. Find her on Instagram at @challah_at_y_all.

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