We are in the middle of the High Holy Days, a time when the Jewish community comes together for celebration and reflection. At Rosh Hashanah services last Wednesday evening I looked around the full sanctuary and thought, how remarkable it is to be in this room with others with whom I share so much! Mostly this:
Hundreds of people who have the same hair as me! Imagine the fellowship.
Of course, we share other things, too. For Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a major marker as we move through the year. It is a time to gather with family and friends: almost everyone at the Wednesday night service had come from a dinner that honored their families' traditions. They may have roasted a chicken, braised some tofu, or feasted on a dairy-free tian of non-allium vegetables. In my family, the essence of Rosh Hashanah is my mom's plum cake--and this year, we were lucky enough to have my mom on hand to make it for us.
Most of us will have eaten challah, shaped round for Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the cyclicity of time.
That is actually the challah I baked last year. I am not showing you pictures of this year's challah because it didn't turn out that well. And I was chagrined.
I have been baking bread for nearly thirty years, and at this point I'm pretty confident in my game. Challah is usually a slam dunk: it's made with commercial yeast, far more predictable and controllable than the sourdough starter I usually use; a much higher percentage of white flour than is my general custom; and the added honey or sugar and eggs give the dough an extra lift. It's pretty hard to make a bad challah.
This year I tried a new recipe: Joan Nathan's favorite challah. Joan Nathan is the doyenne, or more appropriately the maven, of Jewish cuisine. Her recipes are flawless. Of course, I couldn't resist messing with this one: substituting some whole wheat flour for the white, tweaking the yeast content.
It seemed off from the start. The dough was sluggish; it rose too slowly, and not nearly enough. The loaves recovered a bit in the oven, but they remained much squatter and more dense than usual. What went wrong? Well, perhaps the water I added initially was too hot, and killed off some of the yeast. Maybe the yeast was a bit too old. Or maybe -- and this is my instinct -- I needed to give the yeast more of a head start, a pre-ferment, in order for it to gather enough strength to lift a dough weighed down by oil, sugar and eggs.
You want to see my disappointing challah? Fine. Here it is.
That's the piece I froze for the Yom Kippur break fast. You got a problem with that?
Our Rosh Hashanah evening meal was lovely -- a nice chicken, some great purple potatoes and veggies from the garden and the CSA, and of course my mom's sublime plum cake. But that mediocre challah! It rankled, all evening, and even into the next day.
What in the world was wrong with me? There I was, at a beautiful service, celebrating a meaningful holiday alongside one of my lovely daughters and my wonderful mother, who had come all the way from Florida to share the occasion. How could a sub-par challah take up any part of my brain at all? This is just not right! Clearly, I need an attitude adjustment.
Fortunately, I have my opportunity. Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement--is right around the corner. So I will atone!
The liturgy provides us with a perfect template: the Al Chet prayer, an exhaustive compendium of sins for which we atone as a community and as individuals. You just have to find yours on the list and atone away. So simple!
For the sin which we have committed before You by a gathering of lewdness,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by embezzlement.
OK. Let's keep going.
For the sin which we have committed before You through wanton looks
And for the sin which we have committed before You through haughty eyes.
What do these even MEAN? I have been repenting for these two sins for decades and I still have no idea.
For the sin which we have committed before You by eating and drinking.
And for the sins for which we are obligated to bring a burnt offering.
Not sure. I don't think it's an actual sin to serve a sub-par challah. None of it went to waste; it all got eaten in the end. And I didn't actually burn the thing.
For the sin of vanity
Actually, that one's not in the Al Chet -- it's on the Catholic list. To atone for that one, I'll have to go to Mass with my husband. But as long as we're coloring outside the lines here:
For the sin of messing with a Joan Nathan recipe (because really, who do I think I am?)
For the sin of failing to provide an adequately prefermented starter for a bread dough weighed down with oil, eggs and sugar
For the sin of allowing myself to believe that I control more than I actually do
For the sin of letting minor annoyances distract me from the breathtaking blessings right in front of me
That's it, of course. That's a pretty good atonement program, right there. Especially if I can also nail that thing about the wanton looks and haughty eyes.
The Yom Kippur liturgy begins with the Kol Nidre prayer, which essentially acknowledges that despite our best intentions, in all likelihood we will screw up again in the coming year. Will I sweat the small stuff in 5778? Of course I will. But I'll do my best to remember that every time I choose gratitude over peevishness I'll be a better, and a happier, person for it.
And I can pledge to you this: the next time I make a bread weighed down with oil, eggs and sugar, I will give my prefermented starter adequate time to ripen.