St. Louis Women Find Kinship In Worldwide Challah Bread Bake

The smell that greets you at the Great Big Challah Bake celebration is, of course, the aroma of rising wheat gently filling the seventh-floor hallway of the Clayton Plaza Hotel, just outside of St. Louis. It’s a calming scent, as kitchen-related smells often are, foregrounded by a stunning scene: the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom is playing host to a sea of women and girls fingers-deep in dough and bursting, visibly, with the joy of community.

In St. Louis’ second year participating in the worldwide Great Big Challah Bake celebration on November 10, 2016, nearly 500 women and girls from across the region came together to participate in the worldwide tradition of making challah for Shabbat (Find the Midwest’s best bakery challah here).

“The idea is that for one Shabbat a year, across the entire Jewish world, we do something together,” explains Rene Price, one of the co-chairs of the Great Big Challah Bake. This year, the baking began at sundown in Australia, and continued its way westward, stretching across more than 5,000 communities in 60 countries, eventually making its way to St. Louis. Since the event’s beginnings in South Africa only four years ago, the Great Big Challah Bake has given the Jewish community in St. Louis—and Jewish communities across the world—the opportunity to commemorate a holy day while celebrating their heritage and traditions with one another.

Story continues below the photo.

Great Challah Bake women

Photos by Megan Cox for ALIVE.

And indeed, the atmosphere in the Clayton Plaza Hotel ballroom on Thursday night felt like a family reunion of sorts. Multiple generations of women filled the space, chatting and enjoying fellowship with each other, all while wearing matching white aprons featuring the names of participating cities and the phrase “Kneading It Together” printed in bright pink. The phrase was this year’s theme, and it seemed appropriately chosen for such a tightly-knit group of families and friends.

“It’s a unifying thing. We’re one person, one heart,” says Leila Redlich Biel, a participant with a circle of short, graceful brown curls and warm eyes. Touching my arm gently, she continues, “I mean, we may have very different opinions on things, but we’re one heart. We’re one big family. It feels so good to do something at the same time as other people across the world.”

Even without Biel’s explanation, the genuine sense of communion was evident. As I surveyed the room, watching little girls dash from table to table, excited at the promise of challah, I was reminded of a kitchen bustling with love and a sense of kinship, and a mixture of inexperienced and capable hands sharing space.

After a prayer, the whole room began braiding the dough per Jewish tradition, following along with the instructions of a woman at the front of the room whose weaving motions were being projected onto two large screens. Biel shared a table with participants who had never baked challah before and generously explained the baking and kneading process and the bread’s significance to the newcomers.

When it came time to dance, Biel remained at the table, choosing instead to join hands with two participants who—because of injuries—were unable to join the dance floor. I could hear the warmth in her voice, recalling the story as “a special moment.” There was no doubt in my mind other similar acts of kindness had been scattered across the evening, shared over dough and between laughter. This was a familial gathering, bubbling with a sense of kinship. And of course, after all, what’s family without food?

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