Thursday, May 30, 2013

Breaking Bread

My road to challah baking was in no way a smooth one. It was paved instead with bumps of denial and sloth and riddled with potholes of obtuseness and indecision. Eventually, however, the blind spots cleared and I began to focus on the destination.

Though I arrived begrudgingly, I felt like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat once I began baking challah regularly. How remarkable it was to have taken yeast and eggs and flour and transformed them into that! The experience was a week at the Canyon Ranch spa: the kneading recharged my body and the rising energized my soul.

I felt so darned smart for having decided to take the whole wonderful process upon myself. And to top it all off, I got a mitzvah every time I did it. I needed to rack up as many of those as I could.

I even loved shopping for the ingredients. On Thursdays, I was part of that club of women buying high-gluten flour, not ready-made challah, at our kosher market. The packaged may be delicious, but my children do not get to smell it coming out of the oven.

Each Friday evening, my husband grinned and swooned when I plunked the loaves down on the table. The boys loved them, too.

Until one day, they decided they didn’t.

We’d gone to friends for a Shabbos meal. While walking home, one of the boys commented that the challah had been delicious. There is no question. My friend makes great challah. This particular son was quick to add a “yours is too,” but the blow had already struck its target.

I worked up the gumption to ask if he preferred hers to mine. And then that little Brutus, the one who essentially orchestrated my challah-baking in the first place, betrayed me. With a hesitation I’ve not seen from someone as forthright as he is, he confessed that yes, he did.
When I asked why, he clarified: “It isn’t that your challah isn’t great. It’s that hers isn’t whole wheat. Real challah should be white.”

The brotherly chorus weighed in, too, in a rare moment of agreement. They told me that they were sure if I were to make white challah, it would be the most delicious thing they’d ever tasted. But I didn’t and they no longer wanted to suffer through something that smacked of healthy. It was detracting from the pleasure of the Shabbos experience.

Full disclosure: I use half white whole wheat and half high-gluten. I don’t make a health food store special that supercharges the GI system like Draino. It has eggs and sugar and honey. True, it isn’t white, but that’s been my recipe for as long as I’ve been baking challah and I couldn’t imagine trying anything else.

Now if you have ever baked for someone you love, you know that the worst thing he or she can tell you is that he or she prefers someone else’s baking to your own. You can prefer it to your own and say so. They need to keep such thoughts to themselves.

I know that my family enjoys my cooking. They tell me often enough. This complaint was directed exclusively at my challah. But my relationship with challah-baking was so fraught in its early days that, mitzvah or not, I couldn’t imagine carrying on with the enterprise unless I had a cheering squad accompanying the loaves’ exit from the oven.

Weeks went by, and the boys staged a quiet rebellion. They’d douse slices in honey to camouflage the whole wheat taste or they’d eat it while reminding me how much better my white challah would taste if I were ever to give baking it a try. Though their attempts at pandering failed, I did slightly up the high-gluten to whole wheat ratio. Still, I stuck to my old standard even in the face of dissention.

When one of the crew asked for store-bought, I knew that the whole wheat version was on its last legs. I began to slink away from the table downtrodden, disappointed in the whole challah-baking “thing.” What kind of woman would I be if I were to cave so easily? On the other hand, what kind of mother would I be to continue baking challah for my family while ignoring this one little request?

The following week I gave in, though not without pangs of regret. Trying to look at the bigger picture, I reasoned that the mitzvah would be mine, whatever flour I used. Can you imagine the boys reminiscing about their youth, saying, “My mom could’ve made the best challah, but she made whole wheat instead?”

Thursday arrived, and I tossed the high-gluten in my cart along with a bag of regular, standard, run of the mill, far removed from the earth wheat flour. I turned away from the bag of whole wheat in shame. They wanted white and I wanted to bake for them, so I decided to love what is.

I hadn’t told the boys beforehand. Their eyes lit up on Friday evening when they spotted the freshly-baked loaves of white challah. Not a dash of whole wheat in the pair. They were so happy! While watching them munch away with abandon, only I seemed to notice that the key ingredient was missing, and it wasn’t the whole wheat. It was that piece of me that saw the process as an extension of myself.

For weeks now, my heart just hasn’t been in it.

This past Thursday, I stood in the market and made a fork-in-the-road decision. I bought the white whole wheat and I baked it. Miraculously, all the joy came flooding back. There was that lilt in my kneading and the thrill of expectation as the loaves began to rise. I haven’t served the challah yet, so I cannot say what the critics will write. I imagine it won’t be a pretty scene.

Over the summer, I may try to find a regular flour recipe I can learn to love, a combination of ingredients into which I can knead a bit of myself. The younger two boys will be away at camp, so there will be some freedom to experiment. I can make smaller batches that will enable me to swallow my pride in manageable bites in order to make room for the better parts of me.

For now, though, the baking is mine, and I’m going to hang on to it a bit longer.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Learning What Counts

We are, to be sure, a people who count. We count our blessings and from the
second night of Pesach, we count the omer until we reach Shavuot. Left to my own devices, I inevitably forget the whole endeavor by day three of the forty-nine-day cycle. My youngest son, however, rarely fails to turn the scroll on his omer-tracker.

Having drawn close to the foot of Mount Sinai on Shavuot, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between our desert wanderings and the antics of my children.

Eager to be where we were going, we behaved incorrigibly towards Moshe. With the insistence of a toddler, we wanted water and we wanted it now. We challenged authority like typical adolescents – remember the golden calf? -- and we broke the most sacred of rules. It felt as if we will roam the desert forever, until our circuitous route enabled us to figure out exactly who we are.

It was, in fact, those detours along the way that were so invaluable to our development. That’s why G-d kept us out there for forty years. And we did get there, rising to the occasion and agreeing to the Torah’s terms before we even knew the details.

I believe, too, that my boys will get where they are destined to go whether or not I insist that they put away their laundry. And yet, it is precisely the little annoyances, the ones that exasperate them – the requests to load the dishwasher and schlepp in the groceries, for example – that will polish them to a buff shine in time for me to hand them off, G-d willing, to their brides.

Besides, the best route isn’t always the direct line between two points. Forks in the road give us the chance to stop and think, rather than run on autopilot.

We bring children into the world, but we cannot forecast their futures, nor can we predict every leg of their individual journeys. Like most parents in our community, my husband and I always assumed that our boys would attend yeshiva, yet our youngest goes to the local public elementary school. The choice, though still fraught with anguish, was evidently clear.

I will not lie and say that there was no disappointment on our part. I will also not pretend that we were never frustrated with the yeshiva’s limitations or furious with teachers and principals who were simply not interested in trying to fit our square peg into their round schools. But at the end of the long, soul-searching day, we suspected correctly that it was in public school that he would find a smoother path to academic fulfillment.

Though we have tried to create a parallel Jewish school experience for him, he has regrettably missed opportunities along the way. For now, he learns regularly with a morah and a rebbe, and all evidence thank G-d points to him reaching the same Jewish milestones as his brothers. From his very beginnings, he has charted his own course, and we have taken the enormous leap of faith required to accept that.

When others wonder at our decision, I point them to the lessons found in the actual giving of the Torah. G-d did not have the tablets waiting in His outstretched arms when we reached the other side of the Red Sea. He first demanded proof of both our faith and our fortitude by winding us through a rigorous physical and spiritual obstacle course, one we could not initially comprehend.

Though it is primarily Jewish wisdom that guides me as we approach Shavuot, I also find myself consulting the sports philosophy imparted by my sons: Every play is the most important of the game.

Our desert meanderings were never for naught. After all, G-d gave us His Torah in an unforgettable, grand slam in the last game of the series sort of way. All of us – generations past, present and future – were there to witness it. Regardless of our background or our place in time, there could have been no doubt that we all counted in His eyes.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Maternal Barometer

With the exception of fast days and the occasional Shabbes when, Lord help me, I forget to put up the urn, I always begin my mornings with a cup of coffee. It is a total sensory ritual. The aroma. The taste. The large ceramic cup that warms the span of both of my hands. And let’s not disregard what the punch of caffeine does to my poorly-rested brain.

A simple pleasure, yes, but very little in this world makes me happier.

Though I’m perhaps less alert before I’ve enjoyed the full cup, I’m not grumpy in the morning and need no powering up time. I go from zero to sixty, heading downstairs while everyone else is still asleep, I prepare a take-out menu that includes three breakfasts, four lunches, and one dinner, plus snacks, while my hot latte looks on. If there’s time, I’ll run down to the basement and fold some laundry, then back up to empty the dishwasher.

My maternal barometer at this point remains in a peaceful state. I’m feeling productive and am reasonably certain that the immediate future will be agita-free. I sense, I really do, that I may possibly be in control of the chaos, for the moment anyway, and I’m smiling like those suddenly regular folks in the probiotic yogurt commercials.

What comes to mind, however, is what my Hungarian co-workers used to say when I lived in Budapest: The Americans are smiling because they have no idea what is really going on. Indeed, my biggest challenges are still in bed, which means the jury is still out on what kind of day I am going to have.

Like a stealth warrior, I gingerly climb the steps and proceed to door number one. At this precise moment, I don’t yet know if the prize is a dud or a dream kitchen. So I pause and breathe deeply, using the Lamaze techniques that did me no good during the birth of any of my children. I enter and head towards my eldest, tripping over piles of laundry and shin guards and who knows what else along the way. After all, it is still dark at this hour.

Quietly, I announce that it is time to wake up. And then I wait. A peaceful response from my eldest – even a short, soft grunt -- bodes well. Next I turn to awaken my middle son, who might offer a gentle “I’m up.” I exit the room feeling good, confident in my parenting and grateful for my loving relationship with my children. I giddily hand off lunches and sometimes even get a hug. I now feel like a gazillion dollars. I’m so happy that heck, I don’t even need to finish the coffee.

It only gets better when my youngest, who sleeps like a burrito tightly wrapped in blankets and sheets atop a large stuffed dog I purchased years ago during a fit of working mother guilt, wakes up on his own. When he shuffles downstairs already dressed – I mean in school clothes and shoes, not his boxers – then I know it’s going to be a great day. The stars have aligned and Mashiach is imminent and world peace is on its way. I take a sip of coffee just to be certain I’m not dreaming.

Now the morning can go the other way, too. If, when I head upstairs, the teenagers grunt loudly (Leave me alone) or rattle off a list of frustrating requests (I need an obscurely-colored, rarely available item for school – today -- and what do you mean you don’t have one handy my bus leaves in fifteen minutes?), well, honestly, it spells trouble. These disagreeable encounters cause tension, which foment a quarrel between boys who would rather be sleeping and their mom, who would prefer to be sipping her hot latte.

Suddenly, everyone is in a huff and the sun has not yet come up. I am by now entirely unhinged. All of the lattes in the world -- with the exception perhaps of one I might drink with my husband in Florence – cannot wash this away. I feel icky and sad, flagellating myself for not saying the right thing or for endeavoring to talk to them at all.

If on top of this excitement, the youngest refuses to emerge from the burrito and then cannot find his shoes because he’s tossed them somewhere, the tension intensifies. I suggest gently that one shoe is likely in his laundry basket and the other on the book shelf, and I’m often correct, but he is also determined to be right. We disagree and I’m derailed another rung.

And the guilt! Oy! Surely, if I did not work at all and devoted myself entirely to keeping house, perhaps his room wouldn’t be in a condition conducive to shoes gone missing in the first place and I’d be back to a state of calm.

Soon enough, though, everyone has gone about their day. The house is suddenly, eerily quiet, if not quite ready for its close-up. I sit down to work, first considering whether this morning was the worst of our lives, whether a spat over missing yarmulkas or forgotten permission slips will set our relationships off course. If we argue over such silliness, will they care for me when I’m old and infirm?

On cue, my phone dings. It’s a text, one of the older boys asking for something – money or permission to go a friend’s house – but I see that it begins with “Mommy please.” Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the request is for. That “Mommy” has straightened me back up and put a smile on my face. They’ve forgotten the morning’s blip, if they thought of it at all. I struggle to do the same, to reign in my innate sense of drama.

Time passes quickly and I make it through as much of my agenda as I can before heading out for school pick-ups. Like a film scene rolled in reverse, here we go again. The last out is the first home, and I test the waters as I do in the morning, gauging what kind of afternoon I’m going to have. As the rest file in, everything from the reaction to what I’ve made for dinner to the way they’ve answered my “hello” can set me off again. They are either teenagers or nearly so, and I’m a walking barometer, a too sensitive one I think my boys will say.

Before long, it is already past my bedtime. The evening’s success or failure – read: my mood -- depends entirely on the boys’ suppression or expression of sibling rivalry. As I weigh their impact on my daily life, I catch a glimpse of my morning coffee, still there, forlorn on the kitchen counter. It is cold and undrinkable at this point. Still, it is a reminder that hope will brew anew tomorrow morning. And perhaps, just possibly, I will get to drink it while it’s still hot.