Beth Ricanati is impressive. An Ivy League graduate, a practicing medical doctor, a mother, a wife, a writer, a clinician at prestigious hospitals, she presents as super-woman. Even as she describes sneaking glances at her Blackberry at a mother-and-child Hebrew class, we know she has it all, right?
Of course not. Or to be more accurate—not all the time.
Since the world discovered that women are needed to labor both in and out of the home, various groups have tried to force women into various molds. We must be assertive professionals. We must be dedicated parents. We must be submissive sex toys. We must be religious. We must escape from the old-fashioned bonds of religion. Possibly, there are women who manage this elusive “all”—or at least, some bespoke version of “all”. God (or Goddess) bless ’em.
The truth is that neither all women, nor all men, can be pigeon-holed. Ricanati strives to meet her own expectations, as well as those of her culture—modern American—and religion—Jewish. In her own mind, she fails as much as she succeeds. She’s too hard on herself. She did a hell of a job.
In her striving, she has an epiphany. A friend suggests that she make challah, the decoratively braided, slightly sweet bread. When she decides to try it, she discovers something about herself. Piling on obligations and expectations is a recipe for disaster. The more one tries to “do” things, the more one feels inadequate. We will never do everything we think we should, and our efforts will fall short of magazine-layout perfection.
Does that mean we stop “doing” or become slapdash? No. Ricanati discovers that the secret to satisfaction is not the result—perfect or not—of one’s efforts. Satisfaction is derived from being in the moment, experiencing the process, feeling the success or failure as learning something new, and sharing the experience.
So it is with challah. Ricanati spends a great deal of her book describing the type of salt, the amount of sugar, the process of proofing yeast. She shares her experiments, her failures and her dedication to making challah almost every week for more than ten years. Learning to make challah forces her to focus, to pay attention to every step, to question her choices and, perhaps most importantly, to fill her home with the warm scent of baking.
Along the way, Ricanati reconsiders her professional and family choices, her very idea of “succeeding.”
Maybe Ricanati could have taken up knitting or sky-diving to reorient her life, but challah is more manageable. It is inexpensive, hard to completely mess up, requires some attention (but not laser-like focus), and yields a shareable result. It requires very little in the way of equipment, so you can make it in almost any kitchen.
Ricanati takes inspiration from diverse sources: a cowboy teaches her about where to let dough rise. Another mother gives her the word on how to add ingredients. Her father’s death intensifies the religious aspect of challah baking. In return, the process centers her. The complexity of the six-braid loaf draws her into a trance of complete concentration.
It may be too pat to say that Ricanati changes her career path while exploring challah—but maybe not. Baking is more than a hobby. It is an expression of her life and heritage, a way to connect with others while baking, a proud accomplishment, a gift to others. Challah is described in Torah, a link to her faith. In all, challah is a fine medium for transformation.
In her book’s conclusion, Ricanati describes how every aspect of her life and work has changed since she began baking challah. It is an inspiring and deeply hopeful story, centered by a deceptively simple task.