When most people hear the word “ritual,” they immediately think of it in a religious context. The actions we do to prepare for the observance of a holiday, such as cleaning our homes of chametz before Passover, are rituals. The ways in which we mark a particular holiday are also ritualistic, such as going to synagogue and eating a holiday meal.
But in our modern lives, rituals go well beyond religious significance. The current “self-care” movement suggests many rituals that one can make part of their regular practice. Incorporating these rituals, such as burning palo santo sticks or meditating with crystals, are a way to find calmness, peace, grounding and harmony in our otherwise frenzied lives. It is in this vein that my dear friend Beth Ricanati discovered the ritual of baking challah for Shabbat.
Beth did not grow up baking challah or even observing the commandments of Shabbat. Not until adulthood, when her life was moving at a pace that was too hectic, did she find solace and comfort in the simplicity of baking challah. After nearly ten years of weekly challah baking, Beth recounts her experiences in her 2018 memoir, Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs, which was named a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, the winner of the Wilbur Award for Nonfiction and Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards Finalist. In addition to her success with this book, Beth is a wife, the mother of three teenagers and a practicing physician!
I had a chance to sit down with Beth during a visit at my home and talk with her about rituals and her experiences with baking challah. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
Jewish Food Experience®: Prior to challah baking, were there any other rituals that were part of your life? If so, are they still present?
Beth Ricanati: Making challah has become the first sustained meaningful ritual for me. I have been able to maintain this ritual for over ten years in part because I keep it simple! The recipe is just six ingredients, and I derive so much pleasure in getting my hands in a bowl of dough. It’s easy to keep doing it, week after week.
JFE®: How long after you started making challah did you know it was becoming your ritual?
BR: I started over 10 years ago, at the suggestion of a friend. Never did I imagine that it would in fact become my meaningful ritual. However, as I realized that I was rearranging my Fridays to make sure that I could make challah before dinner—sometimes very early in the morning, and sometimes not until just before dinnertime—I began to appreciate that I was onto something significant for myself.
JFE®: You encourage other women to find meaningful rituals/routines—are there any that you can suggest other than challah baking?
BR: Absolutely! I do not care what rituals you have in your life, but I care deeply that you have a ritual. Why? We know that stress can make us sick and can exacerbate illnesses already present. The idea that we can mitigate stress through lifestyle modification is a very powerful concept, and having a meaningful ritual in one’s life is a huge step in this direction. Maybe your ritual is gardening, or maybe it’s salsa dancing. I just met someone at an event who has brunch with her grandchildren every Sunday as her ritual; another woman comes to weekly prayer services for her ritual.
JFE®: What do you do with your leftover challah—if there’s any left over?
BR: Challah french toast is the best! I’ve also used leftover challah to make stuffing, in panzanella salads and breakfast casseroles. Alas, for better or for worse, usually there isn’t much challah left over!
JFE®: Would you consider trying a different challah recipe or technique?
BR: I had been a strictly plain challah woman, except at the New Year when I make an apple honey challah, but I have to say that as I have done more and more book events and had the opportunity to meet so many other challah bakers, I have been awakened to the possibility of so many other wonderful sweet and savory options. I am tempted to try a za’atar and olive challah!
Beth generously provides her go-to challah recipe in the opening pages of Braided. Just six simple ingredients, plus water, is all that is needed to make the dough for her delicious and meaningful bread. The recipe is credited to the JCC in Manhattan; coincidentally, I was a teacher in the JCC’s culinary department when I lived in New York, and this is the same foolproof recipe that I use to bake challah for my family each week!
Self-care comes in many forms. Think outside the box, just as Beth Ricanati did, and find a ritual that fits into your life at this point in time. Perhaps it’s baking challah, or maybe it’s simmering a pot of chicken soup to enjoy each Shabbat. There’s so much to learn from the pages of Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs.