Breader Burque Ch. XXI: The Baking Jew in Me

By Emily Esterson

Shonah Tovah!

I’ve been making bagels for a long time, first with commercial yeast, and often now with sourdough. Over many years, I’ve gotten a good feel of how they progress along the timeline of production.

There’s something comforting about a tried and true recipe, one you know is filled with the certainty of practice and experience.

Yes, this dough is ready.

Yes, they rose enough during bulk fermentation.

Yes, the water is the right temperature for boiling.

The urge to bake bagels has been expressed before in this blog—steeped in the desire to recreate the youthful memory combo of deliciousness, smell, shabbiness, and humanity crammed in the tiny storefront waiting for Teaneck (New Jersey) Road Hot Bagels—now 3,000 miles and a socio-religious world away.

Anybody who doesn’t boil bagels first isn’t really making bagels

Teaneck, New Jersey is Jewishness for me. I no longer have a connection to Teaneck, except for my 2nd cousin Howard, so I no longer have much reason to go there. But I remember…

At Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, my religious home from age 6 to age 13, I had a bat mitzvah and recited my learned Torah chapter. Nevertheless, as my father died shortly before that event, my religiosity had already come to, if not a screeching halt, definitely a significant slowdown.

Even today I can still recite the Kaddish prayer, because that was when I knew years ago that we were close to the end of any seemingly interminable sabbath or high holy days service. We “did” Passover with our across-the-street-neighbor and my mom’s best friend (the neighbors kept kosher; we did not), and, in later years, living in Denver with my Bronx-born uncle, we celebrated the high holy days by going to synagogue, fasting and breaking that fast with my Aunt Arlette’s delicious lemon soup.

Hence our family was more culturally Jewish than religiously Jewish. More recently, Scot and I were married by a rabbi, albeit a woman with some radical political views. I believe this Jewish touch was metaphorically and perhaps literally due to my father rising from his long-still grave with a solemn directive: You WILL have a Jewish wedding.

We had a Klezmer band for music and danced “Hava Nagila,” while our favorite Indian restaurant catered the food. In other words, a primarily Jewish wedding.

I do not like gefilte fish. I’m only marginally interested in kugel. I like a good brisket, another Jewish delicacy, but it’s hard to recreate the one made by my Aunt Gert, who lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn, at that time the very center of Hasidism in New York (they were not Hasidic, but much more religious than our family). On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Matzo Ball soup, and it’s always what I crave when sick.

Yet somehow, despite my general lack of interest in Jewish food, I am pulled by a thread during certain times of the year connecting me to Aunt Gert, my Uncle Jim, my father, and Teaneck.

Was it an accident that I chose to make a sourdough challah (my Aunt Gert would have said, “ach! Why the fuss? Just use that yeast powder!”) the day before Rosh Hashanah? On one level, we had a lot of eggs and I needed an egg-y recipe. I chose challah, but I could have chosen brioche, because practice makes perfect). There was more to it than the eggs.

This week’s challah is another case of the undeniable subconscious pull of personal background in my baking efforts. Challah and rugelach are certainly not seasonal, yet when it feels like I should be a better Jew (oh the guilt), I know, deep down, even if I don’t acknowledge it, that I should be baking something from that long-ago background.

That this week’s braided challah ended up looking anything but braided might be the subject of a coming Breadder Burque post

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