By Barbara Sofer
August 27, 2019
I recently received an appealing invitation to a halla bake from Chabad of the Hamptons. Yes, the same upscale and glamorous East End of Long Island, New York, seaside resort of Gatsby and Spielberg and Streisand, summer home to the prosperous and prominent. There's long been a Chabad outpost, located in a lovely East Hampton compound. Group halla bakes have been going on for 15 years.
I sent back a note to the codirector of Chabad of the Hamptons that I couldn't attend, blaming the distance from Jerusalem: 9,022 kilometers, to be exact. Then, lo and behold, I received an invitation to a "Unity Halla Bake" within walking distance of my Jerusalem home. I decided to go and see what was happening.
Rabbanit Goldie Baumgarten of East Hampton says that when she started group halla baking, it was already well established in many of the hassidic group's other centers. But in recent years, halla fests have become ubiquitous and popular, you might even say trendy. A thousand women gathered to bake halla in Montreal. When 1,128 children gathered in New York City and baked halla at the Midtown Manhattan Hilton in 2016, they reputedly broke a record set by young halla-makers in Hong Kong, of all places.
In Palm Beach, Florida, a girls' choir sings while the others knead. In some communities, the baking is linked to the Shabbat Project, an international effort started by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein to get Jews around the world to keep one Shabbat, not that you need to make such a commitment to come to a halla baking.
Sometimes the bakes back a cause. In Shnei-Ohr Chabad in North Caulfield, Australia, women baked bread to support Israel. There are pink halla bakes to raise consciousness about breast cancer.
Chabad is usually involved, but community bakes are becoming more common. In San Antonio, Texas, 400 bakers turned up representing Congregation Agudas Achim (Conservative), Chabad Center for Jewish Life & Learning, Congregation Rodfei Sholom (Orthodox), Hadassah San Antonio, Hebrew Free Loan San Antonio, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Federation of San Antonio, San Antonio Jewish Senior Services, Temple Beth El (Reform), Torah Academy of San Antonio.
THE UNITY Halla Bake near my home is in Jerusalem's Talpiot industrial area, on a street that boasts a shooting range and a car repair garage. The street was aptly named for tonight's endeavor: Ma'aseh Hoshev, which means the handiwork created for the biblical Tabernacle.
I climb the stairs, expecting to find a handful of novice halla-makers there for a tutorial. Instead, the large room, which serves on Shabbat as the sanctuary for Chabad of Baka, is full. Some 150 girls and women are gathered around tables, and others are lining up at the door. The tables are loaded with ingredients and bowls. Everyone is dressed in plastic aprons.
Halla, today a synonym for a loaf of braided bread eaten on Shabbat, is, at its Jewish source, the snippet of dough separated from the batter and donated to the ancient Temple priests. There haven't been Temple priests for the last 2,000 years, but observant bakers of a kilo or more of flour still separate the dough. Every Shabbat table is symbolic of the Temple table of yore. All of this is explained as the bakers get to work.
Presiding over the events is the sprightly Rabbanit Nechama Dina Hendel, a consummate halla baker. She loves to drop off surprise hallot at the homes of congregants and others. These days she's experimenting with spelt.
But it's pre-sifted white flour dominating the tables tonight, in brown paper bags. Alongside are pre-measured yeast, salt, and sugar, even chocolate chips. Large transparent plastic bowls are for mixing bowls. No eggs. Vegan halla.
Two or three bakers share a mixing bowl. Each team fetches the warm water, and members take turns mixing, stirring and kneading after the yeast dissolves and bubbles up. At my table are mostly young women, at varied levels of religious observance judging by their sleeves or lack thereof.
Conversations bubble up like the yeast among the strangers sharing mixing bowls. One woman mentions that she already had three tattoos before she and her husband decided to become more religious. A teen and her mom say they make halla at home every week, but enjoy the experience of baking in a room full of halla-makers.
There are a couple of first-time bakers. Advice is freely dispensed maybe add a little more water, mix the dough more. A scattering of proficient halla-makers, grandmotherly types, give gentle tips. Hendel sings and prays for her large family when she is making her many loaves each week, but here ebullient talk in English fills the room.
THIS PARTICULAR halla bake is taking place in the somber days right before the Ninth of Av, when the Temple was destroyed. Explains Hendel, "The days before Tisha Be'av are auspicious for strengthening in unity, Torah and mitzvot, as a way to hasten the rebuilding of the Temple."
So it's not just a recognition of Temples past, but a means of anticipating a messianic future.
As the dough proofs, the celebrated guest speaker, Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, arrives. She is a distinguished Torah educator and an adviser on matters of Halacha, Jewish law. But she's attending this Unity Torah Bake in her role as one of the originators of the Jerusalem Unity Prize, in honor of her son Naftali and his two friends who were kidnapped and murdered in 2014.
Fraenkel comments on the lingua franca in the room. "I admire you so much for coming to Israel," she says. "My parents made aliyah from the United States, and I've always wondered if I would have had their strength and your strength to do that."
Relating to the timing, the days before Tisha Be'av, when Jews mourn the loss of Jerusalem, Fraenkel's theme is actually heartening. Loss, she has learned since her son's murder, must heighten our appreciation of everything we have.
During the talk, despite the uneven level of expertise, happily the dough seems to have risen on all tables. Girls and women begin shaping and braiding their loaves. The chocolate chips are optional.
While she's braiding her halla, one 20-something woman at our table shares her reason for coming from out of town to bake halla today with a table of women who were strangers to each other two hours earlier. She's celebrating her hard-won divorce. Finally free of an abusive relationship, the halla bake is her way of inaugurating a new life for herself. She gets a congratulatory mazal tov.
Halla-making, some say, transcends the physical-spiritual barrier.
And then the Unity Halla Bake is over. It's time to go home, halla in hand, to bake at home. No two hallot are exactly alike. Unity, after all, isn't uniformity.