High Challah Days: How I Became a Jew One Loaf at a Time

This year, I will be celebrating my first Rosh Hashanah as a Jew.

Though my background is technically Protestant, I've felt pretty Jew-ish my entire life. Growing up in New York City, I had Horah'd at Bar Mitzvahs and knew my way around a Passover Seder plate. In college I joined AEPhi, a traditionally Jewish sorority, and was dubbed "McMullanstein," a nickname I still respond to 10 years later.

But it was not until I met and fell in love with a Jewish man who I thought about officially becoming a Jew. After we got engaged, my now-husband and I decided that we wanted to share a religion and to raise any children we might have in a Jewish home.

We signed up for the "Exploring Judaism" class at our local synagogue and started the conversion process. Though "conversion" is not the right word since I didn't have much of a religious identity I was leaving behind; for me, it was less a converting than a becoming.

I expected Exploring Judaism to be a perfunctory exercise of memorizing the names of holidays and maybe learning a few Hebrew words. I was wrong. Our teacher was a warm and dynamic Rabbi, whose enthusiasm for the Jewish way of life was contagious and who inspired honest and lively dialogue among her students. Each week my fiance and I looked forward to our Wednesday class night and became such good friends with a few of our classmates that they came to our wedding.

Prior to converting, everyone in the class was asked to do a project about any aspect of Judaism and become an "expert" in that area. I decided on challah, the Jewish braided bread eaten every week on Shabbat and on holidays, including Rosh Hashanah. I love to cook and I wanted to learn about the many rituals and traditions associated with challah. And I really, really love bread.

I collected recipes from cookbooks, friends, friends' mothers, friends of
friends' mothers, even former college professors. Once word got out what I was doing, I was inundated. Everyone had the best challah recipe that I had to try.

And every weekend for three months I baked. I baked challah with honey. I baked challah with raisins. I baked five-strand braided challah. I baked more challahs than my fiance and I could safely consume. I brought challahs to work, to dinner parties, to my doormen. No one got away from me challah-free.

And I became a little obsessive, begging off brunch because I was on a very specific rising schedule; explaining to my boss that I couldn't work over the weekend because of my "huge bread project."

Though it started as a simple exercise of measuring, mixing and kneading, making challah was the first time I felt authentically Jewish. I was joining with the millions of Jewish women who had baked challah before me and the millions who will bake it after. Each recipe I tried welcomed me a little further into the Jewish faith.

It didn't matter that I confused Shavuot with Sukkot or had epically bad Hebrew pronunciation or even that I didn't know if I could give up Christmas carols, I could bake a first-rate challah. The rest would work itself out.

The culmination of my labors was a challah cookbook with a brief history and a compilation of recipes. And a few weeks after it was finished, I became a Jew.

In celebration of my first official Jewish New Year, here is my own challah recipe, which combines elements from all the different ones I tried. Shana Tova!

Leigh McMullan Abramson's Challah

• 1 and ¾ C. Lukewarm water
• 2 packets active dry yeast
• ½ tsp. sugar
• 2/3 C. olive oil, plus more for greasing bowl and pans
• 3 eggs, plus 1 egg white, reserve the yellow
• 1 tbsp. kosher salt
• ½ C. sugar
• ½ C. honey
• About 6-7 C. bread flour
• Sesame and poppy seeds to sprinkle on top, optional

1. Proofing the yeast: Put warm water into a medium bowl. Add yeast and 1/2 tsp sugar and mix together until yeast is dissolved. In ~5 minutes the yeast will activate and the mixture will start to foam.

2. In a large bowl beat the eggs and the egg white with electric mixer. Add the yeast mixture, salt, ½ C. sugar, ½ C. honey and olive oil. Mix well.

3. Gradually beat in the flour to the liquid mixture, one half cup at a time. When it becomes really impossible to beat with the mixer, it's time to start kneading in the bowl. You will desperately want to add more flour because the dough will be sticky but try to resist or the dough will get dry.

4. Once the dough starts to form a ball, take it out of the bowl and knead on a floured surface. The dough will get less sticky as you knead.

5. Knead the dough, pressing with the palm of your hand, slapping the dough down and folding it over from back to front. Do this for about 10 minutes or until your biceps feel as though they might fall off.

6. When the dough forms a smooth ball, grease a bowl, roll the dough in it so the dough is coated with oil, and cover it loosely with plastic wrap and a towel. Let rise until doubled in bulk - about 1and ½ to 2 hours. To test: Stick your finger in the dough. If an indentation remains, the dough is ready to be punched down and shaped into loaves.

7. Punch down the dough. Allow it to rest on the board, covered for about 10 minutes. Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces. Divide each half into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece into smooth, narrow strands, about 18 inches long. Braid the strands, pinching the ends together and fold under. You should have 2 loaves.

NOTE: Many people make a round challah for Rosh Hashanah to represent the yearly cycle or "wheel of time." The simplest way is to form a circle by attaching the ends of the braid together, though there are more advanced round braiding techniques.

8. Preheat the oven to 375 and let the challah rise again for 30 minutes. Brush the challah with the reserved egg yolk (and sprinkle with seeds, if using) and then bake about 30 minutes, or until they are nicely browned and sound hollow when you thump them.