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Learning the Secrets

(by Jen Rubin)

When I was a kid, my grandmother, Ethel, lived with us during the summer months. She moved to Miami Beach from New Jersey when she was in her 70s but stayed with us from Passover (in the spring) until the Jewish high holidays (autumn), both to avoid the heat and to spend time with her family. My mom, Sandi, was the youngest of her three daughters, and Grandma stayed with us because our house was the most comfortable for her. It wasn’t necessarily the most comfortable for my mom. Of course she loved her mother, wanted her to feel welcome in her home, and to spend time with her grandchildren. But living with her mother was often exasperating.

Case in point: My grandmother practiced family socialism with my mom’s possessions. She thought my parents were in the best financial position in the family, so she might give one of my mom’s skirts to a different family member or take a pair of earrings for herself. Each fall when Grandma returned to Florida, my mom’s sisters and nieces would return her possessions, but anything Grandma claimed for herself was gone.

A little back story on my grandma:

Grandma was one of nine of children, born in Belarus, Russia. They lived on a dirt road in a shtetl. Her father was a tailor and died from tuberculosis when she was 13. Since she was a talented sewer, Grandma was chosen to go to the nearest town to sew for a Christian family. She would walk a few miles on Sunday mornings with the sewing machine on her shoulders and sew for the family during the week. They would pay her on Friday, and she would walk home in time to bake the challah for Shabbat. When she was 16, her family fled the pograms, landed in Ellis Island, and moved to New Jersey where she spent the next several decades sewing in a garment factory, taking in piece work on weekends to pay the bills, and continuing to bake challah every Friday night.

A little back story on my grandma and my mom:

My grandmother’s feet were more firmly planted in the Yiddish soil of her youth than in the New Jersey terrain. There wasn’t much that was assimilated about her, which embarrassed my mom when she was a kid. Most of her school friends either had parents that were born in the United States or had made efforts to become “American.” My mom still vividly remembers how she was mortified by the clothes she wore to school, made by my grandmother because it was cheaper (and better quality) than what she could find at a store, but my mom just wanted to look like the other kids with their store-bought clothes.

A little back story on my grandma, my mom, and me:

As the youngest child of the youngest child, I was often the only one around the house during those summer months when my grandmother lived with us. My mom started working full-time when I was in middle school, and my brother worked summer weekdays in the family business with my dad, leaving the house to my grandmother and me. We never had much to say to each other—our lives were too different from each other’s—but I spent a lot of time watching her. She was well known in the (fairly obscure) Yiddish folk singing community. Every few weeks, her boyfriend Yacov Gorelick would put on his most dapper tweed and take the bus from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to my house to sing with my grandmother. Neither one could work the tape recorder, so it was my job to sit with them and press Record. When she wasn’t singing, she was often in the kitchen. It was her domain when my mom was at work, and I had a front row seat to her weekly baking of the challah. Her challah was a beautiful six-strand braid pattern. I loved watching her weave the strands, her hands moving so quickly, I couldn’t keep track of which strand went where. Once the braid was completed, she expertly shaped the extra dough into the hands of God praying. She always used a bit of the dough to make me a small roll, so I could snack on it while waiting the many hours until Shabbas.

Passing on the challah recipe:

When I was a young adult in my own home, I wanted to learn how to make my grandma’s challah. It might just be nostalgia talking, but I have not yet tasted a store-bought challah that measures up. I asked my grandmother for the recipe, and she said she would share it with me when I was married. (She had already told me that I would inherit her meat grinder once I married, and I should “let people know.” Since that didn’t work, she needed a new tactic.) I asked my mom for the recipe since that seemed easier than finding a husband. But my mom didn’t know the recipe and had never once baked challah. As a kid, I did not appreciate all the Yiddish culture I observed by spending part of my lazy summer days in the house with my grandmother. Without my realizing it, the Jewish cooking and the Yiddish folk singing became a key part of my family connection. And my grandma’s challah was at the core of this feeling. My mom, whose first language was Yiddish, who knew all her mother’s songs by heart, and who attended KinderVelt (a Yiddish summer camps for kids), didn’t need a tactile thing to feel connected to her heritage. But I did. I wanted to make challah for Shabbat for my home. But not just any challah. My grandma’s challah.

Six years later, I got married and was finally allowed to learn her secrets. After the wedding, my cousin and I spent the day at her apartment learning her recipe. She knew it by heart, so was able to add the ingredients without measuring. After each ingredient was added, we would pour it into measuring cups to see how much she used. One reason I think this particular challah recipe is so good is the she put in an extra yolk for fertility (for the new bride). The extra yolk worked its magic, but two kids later, I never did master adding the hands praying at the end of my six-strand braid.


Jen Rubin is a writer, storyteller, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the co-host of the podcast Inside Stories and the author of We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood. She can be found at and on Twitter.

Ethel’s Challah

2 T. (2 packages) yeast

1 c. warm water

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten

1/4 c. vegetable or canola oil

1/4 c. plus 1 overflowing t. sugar

approximately 4 c. flour

2 t. salt

extra flour for kneading (usually requires at least 1/2 c.)

extra oil for the bowl

egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 t. milk)

butter for greasing the pan

optional: cornmeal

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water, stirring until it dissolves.

Add the egg, egg yolk, sugar, oil, salt, and flour.

Start out stirring with a spoon or spatula. Once it starts to firm up, move it to a counter, which has been cleaned and lightly floured.

Knead the dough for at least 8 minutes until it is firm.

Most likely you will need to add additional flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough is smooth; you know the dough is ready when pushed with a finger, it feels firm and bounces back.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat all sides with oil.

Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in size, approximately 1 hour.

If it is cold in the house, put the bowl near a heat vent or on top of the oven.

It has risen enough if it returns to form when you poke it with a finger.

Punch down the dough, cover, and let rise for 15 minutes more.

Using about 3/4 of the dough, divide into 6 piles.

Roll each of the 6 piles into a ball.

Using the palms of both of your hands, roll each ball into a long strand, roughly the same length.

On a clean counter, lay the six strands side-by-side, pinching them at one end. (You can use some warm water to help the pinched ends stay together.)

Begin to braid: Think of the strands as legs numbered 1 to 6. Take strand 1 on the left and bring up to the right; it becomes an arm. Then take strand 6 on the right and bring it to the left to become another arm. Move strand 1 to the middle between strands 2 and 5. Then take strand 2 and move it where strand 1 had been. Move strand 6 to the middle of the strands. Keep repeating so the leg on the right moves up to become the arm on the left, the arm comes down to become a leg, then the leg on the left moves up to become the other arm, until the whole loaf is braided.

Butter a large baking sheet; optionally sprinkle the sheet with cornmeal.

Place the braid on the baking sheet, and tuck the ends under.

Use the additional dough to make small rolls.

Brush the braid and rolls with egg wash, and let rise for 15 minutes.

Add another coat of egg wash, and let rise for 15 minutes more.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Bake the large challah for 30 minutes, checking at 20 minutes to make sure it’s not browning too quickly, and check the smaller rolls then too. Rotate the baking sheet if the challah is browning unevenly.

Makes one large challah and a few rolls.


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