Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Heavenly Challah

Every week Ray bakes bread in the kitchen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas. He bakes lots of bread. Forty-eight loves this week – 64 last week. And it’s not just any bread. It’s “heavenly challah” sent to him as a gift by his lovely departed wife Frieda – in a literal and spiritual sort of way.

“For fifty years I was married to the most wonderful woman in the world,” says the 85-year-old Ray with a glint in his eye. “Every Friday she would make fresh challah for our evening meal, and every week the kids would tell her, ‘Mom, this is the best challah you’ve ever made.’ This went on for 30 or 40 years.”

Twelve years ago Frieda passed away and left Ray broken-hearted. He shuffled around for the next several months grieving and feeling sorry for himself, until the day he decided to do something about it. He looked around and spotted her recipe box in the kitchen.

“I wondered if there was something in there that I could make that would help me feel close to her,” says Ray. “I came across her challah recipe and thought, ‘This is it.’”

He knew how to cook, but had never baked anything, not even a box cake. He went to the store, gathered all the ingredients, and gave it a go. The bread turned out perfectly.

“So, I started to bake. And I felt like she was right there helping me.”

Ray was active in his synagogue in St. Louis where the challah was delivered each week at increasingly exorbitant prices. He volunteered to start baking it for the congregation. The bread was a hit and people started asking him to bake bread for their families. A woman in the congregation offered to buy a commercial mixer, and Ray increased his output.

Fortunately for the folks at Beth Shalom, Ray moved to Overland Park earlier this year. And now he dons his oven mitts every week and embarks on his volunteer labor of love. The challah is used in services every week and is sold as a fund raiser for the congregation preschool.

“If it weren’t for this bread, I’d be a tottering old man,” he laughs as he leans over and pulls another four loves out of the oven.

After it cools, the bread is sealed in bags and labeled with a sticker that proudly reads, “Frieda’s Heavenly Challah”.

And it tastes like heaven. I got a warm sample right out of the oven, and I brought a loaf home for lunch. Between Jeni and me, we ate more than half of it. If you’re in the neighborhood, drop by and buy some for yourself. Ray will thank you and Frieda will bless you.

Footnote: Many thanks to Judy Jacks Berman (the groovin’ director) and the awesome staff and rockin’ kids at Beth Shalom's Rose Family Early Childhood Education Center. It’s always an honor and a treat performing there.

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