Making Challah in a Pandemic

In the third week of my state’s stay-at-home order, a friend asked me to teach her to make challah via Zoom.

Challah, the traditional braided bread that Jews eat on the Sabbath and on most holidays, isn’t a complicated recipe. It’s not hard to make, as breads go, with most recipes using just flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt and oil. My mother made challah regularly, long braids during most of the year and round loafs for the High Holidays in the fall to symbolize the unbroken circle of life. When I was a little girl — ok, even for most of my adulthood — I knew challah to have only two varieties: plain or full of raisins.

I made my mother’s recipe for years, but when my daughters were just 5 and 2, I offered to host the Friday night Sabbath meal before my brother’s wedding, and I decided to make my friend Hilary’s challah. You can watch me tell the story of this very important challah here, but suffice it to say that the way I received this recipe — over email, just before she went to bed on the other side of the world — was dramatic and exciting and forced me, for one of the first times in my life, to improvise, guessing at the number of eggs I should use. My mother and I — who had never made a challah with no eggs — peered over the edge of the bowl after adding one egg, then another, and finally a third one, declaring this to be our best guess. The challahs rose in a warm oven, were rubbed with whisked egg and sprinkled with sesame seeds, and baked into the kind of loaves you see on the cover of Jewish cookbooks. They were gorgeous — chewy and sweet, delicious ripped in chunks from the loaf or sliced perfectly and slathered.

I made that recipe for years and years. I brought it to the Yom Kippur break-the-fast gathering to which we were invited for years, all to cheers from the other guests who remembered it from the years before. “Debi’s challah is amazing,” the hosts told everyone, and I glowed and beamed even while demurring. “It’s my friend Hilary’s, really,” I’d say. “Well, Hilary’s plus three eggs.” Continue Reading…

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If Then That

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She was born fourteen years, six months, and thirty days ago, right on her due date, after a quick and powerful birth with most of the labor at home. She was 7 lbs 8 oz, two pounds heavier than her older sister, but we marveled at the similarities — her thick, curly black hair, her deep blue eyes, the slight jaundice that kept her under bilirubin lights for a day or two.

She came home and we all fell in love with her immediately. Her extra two pounds made sleep and nursing and everything so much easier, and it was like a dream compared to her sister’s nightmarish infancy. Like her sister, she was healthy and hearty, and in photos of the two of them at one month, two months, three months, they were impossible to tell apart. Until she got old enough for her eyes to turn the same dark brown as my mother, with long gorgeous eyelashes, they could have been the same baby.

At 12 weeks, I went back to work, photos of my two dark curly girls on my desk, side by side, baby and preschooler, carbon copies. Every few hours, I locked the door and pumped. Every night, I picked them up from daycare and buried my face into their necks that smelled like the daycare’s baby wipes, and we went home and ate takeout or macaroni and cheese and peas, with the baby gleefully nursing and then, eventually, eating jarred sweet potatoes and carrots and bananas and spinach. I felt a twinge of guilt — should I be making baby food? it doesn’t take that long… — but instead, we sat on the living room floor and cheered as the baby crawled between us, filling our time with each other.

I could have applied to graduate school, like I’d planned, but work was going well, so well that I thought I’d give it another year, not shake things up until the baby was two, or maybe three. I got a raise. “I can’t believe how well you’re doing,” my boss told me. “I was a wreck when I had my second baby!”

“Well, she’s a great sleeper,” I told her. Continue Reading…

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Easy Valentine

easy-valentine

 

 

I spent Valentine’s Day at O’Hare Airport, mostly.

That’s the punch line, but the lead-up is that my husband David — my organized, thoughtful, careful, good-planning husband — usually does everything logistical for our travel. He always has. There are these clear, colored plastic file folders into which he has, for at least the last couple of decades, placed copies of our boarding passes and hotel reservations, photocopies of our passports, printouts of hotel reservations, lists of things to do. They have neat notes in the margins, sometimes (“spoke with Marla at the front desk, they will have a Pack-n-Play ready, 7/16). I used to get frustrated that it seemed like this was the only thing he ever did when it came to our travel — I packed up the kids, canceled the mail, used up the milk in the fridge, made sure we had sunscreen, and on and on, a mountainous pile of tasks, while he sat in his office printing things — but the truth is that his jobs meant we would always get there and always had a place to stay and (usually) appropriate beds for everyone. Continue Reading…

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Songs in Turns

songs-in-turns

“OK, it’s Papo’s turn,” I say, turning in my seat to look at him, his hands on the wheel, eyes straight ahead. “What song would you like?”

“I’d like a nice surprise,” he says, emphasizing nice so that I don’t tease him by playing Sufjan Stevens, whose voice sets my husband on edge. He’s patient with me and my scrolling, trying to decide. So many songs make me think of him, but on this — and maybe only on this — I’m the over-thinker. In the end, I choose a Billy Joel song from the 1990s for him, an upbeat tune I know he likes, a song with a rhythm that seems to hide the wistfulness of the lyrics about searching forever in the water, in the valley, for something sacred, undefined, and lost. My husband, at my side for twenty-five years now, sings along, the crinkles at the edges of his eyes pressing each other. I tangle my fingers in the curls at the nape of his neck, content to be here next to him as he drums the steering wheel with the side of his hand.


The song ends, though, and it’s my older daughter’s turn. She has put her mountain of hair into an enormous bun; is knitting another smart-phone cozy in her lap. Her eyes look up as she considers, and I remember reading Junie B. Jones with her, when Junie B. (“the B stands for Beatrice, but I just like B, and that’s all!”) says “Mother rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. I looked up there, too. But I didn’t see anything.” And there she is, my no-longer-first-grader, no-longer-middle-schooler, almost-college-girl looking at the ceiling, too, trying to decide. I wish I could see inside to guess what she wanted, like when the choices were all songs from The Muppets. Eventually, she says, “Satisfied. And I get Angelica’s part!” She tips her head back and so much sound comes out, so much bravado and beauty, loud held notes, anger, love, desire, somehow accessible in the soul of a girl who used to twirl her finger around one curl as she sucked her thumb. I remember that dreamlike candlelight, like a dream that you can’t quite place… And the world goes by outside her window, so fast I can’t even make out the shapes of the trees.

“Your turn, Sammi,” she says as the song fades into its last notes.

She’s been waiting, my littlest one. She’s clear as a brand new glass of water, ready with her answer. “Scars to Your Beautiful,” she tells me, and I think of course. She’s literal and poetic at once, the message below the surface of her middle school drama and also, of course, right there on her shoulder blade, slit through twice as doctors pushed her rips apart to get to her aorta. The world, I want to tell her, might never change its heart, might always look right over her head at the space above her stature, might look past her unless she leaps into their view. The heart that needed to change was hers, will always be hers. Let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer… But she sings along, trying hard to bring her bell-like voice above the belt of her sister’s. The growing band of bracelets on her wrists slide up and down, her finger curled into one rubber one from camp, a lifeline to people who understand her. I reach my hand back along the door and grab her ankle. She puts her hand on top of mine.

When the song ends, I’m ready with my choice, having considered it carefully. I’m always thinking through a series of eventualities: what will happen then? what will happen if I choose this? that? who will like it? who will sing along? who will listen and fall in love and ask for it again? who will be offended, inspired, bored, annoyed? I’d ruled so much out, scrolling through my lists, but here was just the thing for a rainy day on a road trip, a cover of something nostalgic, a version by William Fitzsimmons of Sarah McLachlan’s “Ice Cream,” dedicated to the precious cargo in the seats around me.

Your love is better than ice cream
Better than anything else that I’ve tried
And your love is better than ice cream
Everyone here knows how to cry

And it’s a long way down
It’s a long way down
It’s a long way down to the place where we started from

I wish I could touch all of them at once, but in the car, I can only reach one at a time with my hands. Instead, as I sing, I send tendrils out from my heart, bright ropes of light that encircle each one, snared forever, energetically connected to me as I tell them that nothing, nothing is better than them, nothing, not ever.


This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, with the prompt “Road Tripping.”

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What I’m Learning: Part Five

what-im-learning-5

Slowly but surely, I’ve added to my knowledge and understanding of how the practice of medicine — and the cultural norms around it — are affecting the humans involved. This isn’t just about the patients but about their families, the doctors and nurses and therapists and receptionists, all the people who form the ladder from illness to healing. I’m grateful that there are so many good stories available and also so much strong, fascinating writing of a more clinical nature. I’ve written about the book-length writing I’ve read in a series of posts I’ve called “What I’m Learning.” I wrote first about Gavin Francis and Jill Bolte Taylor, then about Seth Mnookin and Henry Jay Przybylo, then about Susannah Cahalan, and, last week, about Atul Gawande and Heather Armstrong. The authors range from doctors to patients to researchers. What I was missing in all these stories was a character I could look at, hold up my own hand, and watch her raise hers in the mirror.

I was looking, fruitlessly, for a medical story told by a parent. And this fall, I finally found one.

Continue Reading…

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