Haggadah to Challah: Braiding Ideas Together

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By Susan Weiss

How did the love of baking challah lead to publishing a children’s book?

I love to make challah. I am a good baker but knew nothing about publishing a children’s book.

Challah baking touches all the senses. The feel of the dough, the artwork that goes into creating interesting braids, the smell of fresh-baked bread, a sense of spiritual connection and, of course, the taste.

I also get great joy in teaching others how to make challah. A bread-making day in the kitchen with friends is a fun way to spend time together. Together, we say the blessing for separating the challah and one tradition I add to my challah and like to pass on to friends and family learning to bake is to offer a tekhine.

Tekhines are women’s prayers, created by women. It is an old tradition, dating back centuries. It filled those gaps in women’s ability to participate in Jewish prayer service. They were often said in Yiddish and were blessings said for all types of daily activities. I don’t speak Yiddish so my tekhine is a meditative moment after I separate the challah to think about the week and blessings in my life.

Two blessings in my life are my twin granddaughters. They like to cook and bake. What better way to spend time with two active children and teach a basic Jewish tradition? If you plan on cooking with children, you have to plan on some mess; fortunately, kitchens and children are washable.

I baked and cooked with my own children, and I learned some simple tricks. Use large, deep bowls to help keep the mix contained. Have a small stepstool so the kids are counter height to their work. Place pre-measured preparations in small bowls. And yes, let them crack the eggs. Open them into a separate bowl so you can remove bits of shell. Of course, the most important ingredients are time spent with one another, laughter and lots of love.

While making challah with my two granddaughters, I had an idea. We were elbow deep in flour. The counter and floor were covered in sticky dough. We had just rolled out our dough ropes. I was about to teach them how to braid and simply said, “We will do this like your hair.”

A light bulb lit up. Braids, hair, challah, little girls, challah on your head, I can write a children’s book. I never wrote a children’s book before, but then again, I never did lots of things before I did it once. I am a risk-taker and, as the Chinese proverb teaches, “Pearls don’t lie on the seashore. If you want one, you must dive for it.”

I started to write. I wrote and rewrote until I had a story, Becky’s Braids. It’s a story about a little girl with the messiest hair in the world until her grandmother comes to visit and teaches her to make challah and tells her she can have challahs on her head. Written and given a positive review by my granddaughters, and encouraged by friends to move forward, the next step was to find an illustrator.

I had never looked for one before, but that’s where diving in might bring treasures into your life.

It was close to Passover, and I needed haggadot. Over the years, I searched for a haggadah that met our family’s needs. Seated at our table like many families today is a mixture: people of different ages, various levels of Hebrew skills, non-Jews and different attention spans. Over the years, I would put a haggadah together to meet these needs but was never satisfied.

Then I found Deborah Gross-Zuchman’s Haggadah, Seder for the 21st Century, a Passover Haggadah.

It is a beautifully illustrated haggadah that matched my requirements. With a few additional readings to tie the story to current political events, I had a seder for my family. Gross-Zuchman is a well-established local artist, and I called her to order more books. She suggested I come to her home to pick them up.

I drove to her art-filled home she shares with her artist husband to pick up the additional haggadot. While there, I asked her if she knew a book illustrator. I told her I had a children’s book but needed an illustrator. She asked me about the story and if she could see the text. I sent her the copy — and a partnership was baked.

Gross-Zuchman, to my surprise, wanted to do the illustrations. “I was that little girl!” she laughed. She went to work. Her beautiful illustrations brought my words to life. Together, we struggled through the process of getting the text and illustrations just right, finding a publisher and marketing a book. The book has been well received, and we are scheduled to do a number of readings for children and parents at local synagogues.

If not for a Haggadah — a book that includes bread that doesn’t rise — I would not have met Gross-Zuchman, a pearl, I would not have found if I hadn’t dived in. We braided our ideas together to raise Becky’s Braids from idea to bookshelf. We are now working on our second book, a Chanukah story that we hope will light up your heart.

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