June 30, 2013
“If you have bread and butter, then you have good luck.”
I love bread. I have loved it ever since I was little. From plain old rye, to the bagel, I can’t get enough bread. When I was assigned the task of coming up with a topic for my Bar Mitzvah project, my list of ideas was short. I had already done a paper on movies, and that’s really my passion, so I had to think harder. Then it hit me. I could do a research paper on Jewish breads. As I began planning out my paper; I decided to talk about breads I love and breads that have meaning in Jewish culture. I narrowed my choices down to 4 breads: Challah, Bagels, Bialys and Pletzels. As I began to research about the history behind these bakery creations, I learned about the impact bread has had throughout history.
Jewish communities were based around the synagogue and schools, which were led by rabbis and teachers who brought spiritual and educational guidance. Yet the one group essential for living in these communities were the food merchants, who were the suppliers of kosher meat, fish, vegetables, and, of course, bread.. Bakers were the most popular and well respected of the “food sellers.” The order was as follows:
○ The Oldest Living Generation (Typically the grandfather or father) would have the assignment of fetching the water from the well for kneading.
○ The 2nd Oldest Generation (the father or his eldest son) was assigned the task of the actual baking.
○ The Youngest Generation (the eldest or youngest son, depending on the number of children) would mainly stay in school, but if the Oldest Generation became too weak to fetch the well water, then he would take his place.
The bakers in these villages were very important, due to the need for bread in the lives of each and every community member. Bread was also very important because it was the one thing that almost evryone could afford, no matter what your economic status was. As it is written in the Talmud, (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism) “Bread eaten in the morning protects one from heat, cold, evil spirits and demons; it makes one wise and allows one to prevail in lawsuits; it helps one learn and teach Torah; it causes one’s utterance to be listened to; it gets rid of bad breath; banishes envy and causes love to enter.” All of these things can happen to you too by just eating a small piece of bread! According to French historian Fernand Braudel, “bread and gruel accounted for 70 to 80 percent of the average diet in the Middle Ages.” Repeatedly eating a piece of bread marked the differences between casual eating or snacking and having a full meal, which required the eater to say the hamotzi (Blessing over the bread) and birkas hamazon (The blessing after a meal). Bread had a large influence on the way that many people, not just Jews, lived.
Again and again, throughout biblical stories, bread is treasured as a gift from God that refreshes and relieves both the body and soul. Early in the book of Genesis, when angels visit Abraham, his first impulse is to wash their feet and bring them bread to “refresh themselves.” In the book of Leviticus, God tells the children of Israel to take fine flour and make 12 cakes to rest in the Temple. The expression “the breaking of bread” is used very frequently in the bible. The term itself is a common Jewish expression which relates to the task of breaking bread at the beginning of a meal. This act was performed by the head of a household or a host. One case of this saying being used is when Jesus would eat a meal with his disciples. Whenever this tradition would occur, he would give thanks to God for his food and then break his bread. Breaking bread has also been interpreted as the unique act of sharing stories with friends, family and others that you may know.
Immigrants brought their own unique customs and foods to America. These people came from Romania, Hungary, Galicia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine. Early bakeries in the New World were run in cellars with easily built coal-burning ovens. The working conditions were horrendous! The bakeries were dark, damp and were unsanitary. Bakers worked about 16 hours a day, or 108 hours a week! As reported by Paul Brenner in an 1895 New York State factory inspector report, “there appears to be no other industry, not even the making of clothes in sweatshops, which is carried on amidst so much dirt and filth.” As time passed, people began to be able to afford higher priced items, and with the introduction of big supermarkets, people no longer needed to go to the bakery, in order to buy a loaf of bread or some cookies. Mass produced items, like Oreos became cheaper and more convenient to purchase than fresh rugelach. Little by little, many bakeries failed to survive and had to shut down. Also, with the rising popularity of the refrigerator, people didn’t need to constantly go out and buy food, since they could just preserve foods for later, which was not only easier, but was also more useful and convenient.
What does bread mean to me? Well, to start off, bread is a food that is meant to be had anywhere at any time of day. Bread for me is the multicultural food, because even though all cultures are different, every culture has their own unique bread/bread product. What intrigues me about bread is how it is created in many different ways. It can be made in a variety of ways using the same ingredients, and you can still end up with different products that are all considered bread. There are so many different types of bread and they all have their own histories.
Challah, which happens to be my favorite Jewish bread, is most commonly eaten in Jewish culture, on the Sabbath and on holidays. Known for its intertwining braids, Challah is the most popular bread in Jewish culture. According to Jewish customs, both the three Sabbath meals and the different holiday meals, (which follow the day after) begin with two loaves of, you guessed it: Challah. During my research, Rabbi Peter told me about how there are two challahs because whenever Moses would tell people about the mana, he said that it would fall every day of the week. Yet because of the holiness of the Shabbat, no manna would fall on that day. Instead, two portions of manna would fall on Friday, which was enough for that day and for the Shabbat. The Challahs represent the double portion of manna that fell. The two loaves are made using a total of 12 braids (6 for each loaf of bread) to represent the twelve tribes of Israel: Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Reuben, Shimon, Gad, Menasheh, Benjamin, and Ephraim. In Eastern Europe, Challah was the centerpiece of the Shabbos table which provided light and hope to those whose lives were filled with poverty and hunger. Challah was so significant that it was said to be unthinkable for anyone to go without Shabbos bread at the Friday night meals.
Most Challah recipes are made with eggs, white flour, water, yeast and sugar. These ingredients are combined to form a dough that is kneaded and then turned into braids that are placed one over the other, in order to give the Challah its traditional appearance. Once the Challah dough is braided and ready to go into the oven, it is usually coated with an egg wash to give it a golden brown color. In order to prepare for this project, I baked my own Challah using a recipe that I found in a book that I was using for research. It took about ½ a day to fully make the Challah and I had a lot of fun making it. In the end, my Challah turned out to be a little too dense because I didn’t add enough water. My experience made me think about finding another recipe to try and make Challah again.
Most Challahs are cylindrical, but on Rosh Hashanah, the Challah is made round, like a circle. This round Challah symbolizes the “cyclical nature of the year” as Rabbi Peter explained to me when I was researching about Challah. At the beginning of a Shabbat or holiday meal, blessings over the wine and Challah must be made in order to purify the Shabbat and begin the meal. In order not to “shame” the bread (which is always blessed after the wine), the bread is concealed with a Challah cover.
On both sides of my family, we always have a Challah, even if it isn’t a Jewish holiday.. Whenever we see my Dad’s side of the family, my Grandma and Papa always get 2 fresh Challahs from Rockland Bakery (my personal favorite). On my Mom’s side of the family, my Grandpa always brings up a fresh Challah whenever we all go up to our vacation house in Pennsylvania. However, instead of eating this Challah, my Grandpa uses it to make a French toast (with a lot of cinnamon!) and we all eat it together for brunch. I always look forward to these get-togethers with my family because not only do I get to spend time with the people I love, but I also get to have my favorite bread (a win-win situation).
I love Egg Challah just because it is the only Kind that ‘I have tasted, but there are many variations of Challah such as:
■ Raisin Challah
■ Cinnamon Challah
■ Chocolate Challah
■ Apple and Honey Challah
In the end, Challah is my favorite Jewish bread; its texture and taste make it my favorite snack, as well as a great bread for sandwiches.
Today, we associate bagels as a Jewish food, but they are actually not Jewish in origin.. Like most breads, bagels are available in many different forms and varieties (Plain, Poppy, Sesame, Pumpernickel, et cetera). The first bagels go back to the year 1610 in Krakow, Poland, where bagels were one of the gifts that were customarily given to; women in childbirth, midwives and others who were present at the birth of a child. The purpose of the bagel was to create a bread to compete with the popular Obwarzanek or Bublik, which was a lean bread made of wheat flour, which was constructed for Lent. They were made in ring shapes so that bakers and others could carry a bulk of bagels on a stick. The bagel’s name derived from the German word Bugel which means ring or bracelet.
Bagels were brought to the United States by Polish-Jewish immigrants, who worked as bakers. Early bagels were made up of 5 ingredients: High-gluten flour, water, malt syrup, salt and yeast. Since its creation, different countries have made their own different variations of the bagel. One of the most famous examples of a bagel variation is the pretzel, which is almost the same, except a pretzel is covered in an alkaline bath that gives it its dark color and glossy coating.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the bagel business took a huge leap forward with the introduction of frozen bagels that were made by automated production. This invention was a new way to expose the rest of the country, people who might not have lived in a traditional Jewish neighborhood, to bagels. There were mixed reviews on the taste and quality of the product. It was not until the 1980’s that the true potential of the bagel was discovered, when people began to realize that bagels could be sold any time of day by making sandwiches using bagels. This caused the bagel to be made bigger and softer in order to accommodate larger sandwiches. The bagel had adapted to fit the eating style of the American people and became the “roll with a hole.”
To add to my research, I got a plain bagel from three of the best bagel bakeries in Manhattan: Jumbo Bagels, Daniel’s Bagels, Essa Bagels and also one from the supermarket Gristedes, which is baked in the store and one that I thought would be closer to a suburban bagel. My mom put each bagel in a brown bag and we did a blind taste test. I noticed that all of the bakery bagels had a hard shell with a soft and chewy inside and the bagels varied in thickness and taste, with some being sweeter and others being more savory. Another thing that I noticed during the taste test was that the Gristedes bagel (which tasted very good) was very soft and felt more like a roll. In the end, I chose Daniel’s Bagels as my favorite, but I honestly really liked them all. What I have realized from this experience is that there are so many bagel bakeries out there, that I’ll never have to worry about being deprived of “the roll with a hole.”
If Challah was the King of the Shabbos table, then rye was the poor but honest farmer who served during the other six days of the week. Rye grain grew in abundance throughout many parts of Eastern Europe. With very limited wheat cultivation, most of the Jewish population lived on Rye and other grains, so Rye bread became a large part of the Jewish diet. Usually, Rye bread was for the poor and Wheat bread was for the wealthy. If you were a poor person who lived in Eastern Europe, then you would have a piece of Rye bread at every meal.
It is known for its many different varieties (Dark Rye, Rye with Caraway seeds, etc.). Rye bread is made with varied amounts of flour from rye grain. The type of flour used and the coloring agents (if any) that are applied determine its color or type. The result is a bread that is a lot denser than bread that is made with traditional wheat flour. But what makes rye bread a Jewish item? Well, the answer is that rye bread is Kosher, so the Jewish tag was adapted because it was mainly eaten and made by Kosher Jews. Rye bread was not very successful when it first came to the United States, and its popularity did not grow until 1888 when Henry S. Levy opened a bakery in Brooklyn, NY that sold baked items favored by Orthodox Jews. These items included: Rye, Challah, Bagels and many different kinds of rolls.
As World War II ended, many immigrants and their families relocated and as they began to leave their old neighborhoods, Levy’s business went away with them. By 1949, Levy’s bakery was bankrupt. Henry Levy and his friend Whitney Rubin decided that in order to stay in business, they had to reach out to the non-Jewish market. This led to the national campaign: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.” Yet, not everything lasts forever. Soon, Levy’s found itself in another financial hole and their only option was to sell the Levy company name. This turned Levy’s into another mass produced brand like Thomas’ and Entenmann’s (not that I have anything against either of those companies). Nowadays rye bread is well known and associated with the Pastrami on Rye sandwich, which is one of the most popular deli sandwiches as well.
Bialys are another very popular Jewish bread item. Bialys were born in the Jewish area of the northeastern city of Bialystok, Poland. Bialys became so associated with their hometown that all Jews of the city were known as bialystoker kuchen fressers which simplifies to “The Devourers of Bialys.” Sadly, bialys were always covered by the bagel’s giant shadow, due to their chewy yeast roll structure and appearance. Unlike bagels, bialys are not boiled before they are baked and instead of having a large hole in the center, bialys just have a depression. Before a bialy is baked, its depression is usually filled with other ingredients like diced onions, garlic, poppy seeds or breadcrumbs.
The death of the original bialy makers can be pinpointed to June 27, 1941 when Nazi forces captured the remaining Jews in Bialystok. The bialy survived through those Jews who had left Bialystok and came to the United States for a better life. Sadly though, because bialys have a very short shelf life and cannot be preserved, the bialy has not gained national popularity, like the bagel did.
In order to learn more about bialys, I visited Kossar’s Bialys in Manhattan, where I interviewed the owner Debra Engelmayer and asked her about the history of the bialy in New York. She told me that Kossar’s is the oldest bialy bakery in the United States! Deborah also talked to me about how bialys aren’t as popular as bagels and they are trying to figure out ways to bring more people to Kossar’s. She feels that unlike the bagel, bialys are usually bought as a breakfast item or for special occasions, while the bagel has become a bread that can be eaten at any time of day. She talked to me about how historically significant Kossar’s is and the pressure to make a living and reinvent, while still being able to maintain their roots. I asked Deborah how she would feel about adding more things into the bakery like sweets and deli meats, but she said that she would not want to change, because then Kossar’s would not be staying true to its historical background. In a nutshell, that’s Deborah’s problem. My mom and I helped Kossar’s cause by leaving with a small bag of fresh bialys. I chose to focus on bialys as one of my topics because both my great great grandmother and great great grandfather (on my mother’s side of the family) came to the United States from Bialystok.
Similar to Challah on my Dad’s side, pletzels have a very large significance on my Mom’s side of the family. But before I talk about that, what is a pletzel? Most people describe a pletzel as a Jewish flatbread. And it is. Pletzel dough is made by using flour, water and yeast. It is then rolled out to make it paper thin, and then not allowed to rise. The word pletzel in Yiddish means “wooden plank” and the shape of the pletzel is similar to this. Both home cooks and Jewish bakers make their pletzel dough using dough that is leftover from challah.
In order to learn more about pletzels and their history on my Mom’s side of the family, I made them with my Great Great Aunt Celia. According to her, pletzels were baked every year, on the month before Passover, when all of the Jews in the village had to use up any flour that they had in their homes. The reason they made pletzels was because they could be kept for a long period of time and not get moldy the way that bread does. This gave the people something to eat all the way up until the first night of Passover.
Now, one of the main reasons that I chose to focus on the pletzel as one of my breads, is because of what my Mom’s relatives call: The Pletzel Bake-Off. The bake-off was a big event on my Mom’s side of the family. It happened every year from about 1986-2006 at which time almost all of my relatives who lived on the west coast would come to my Aunt Celia’s house in Palm Springs, CA and bake pletzels all day long (like workers at a giant factory.) The purpose of the event was to keep the family together after Aunt Celia’s sister Gloria died. After the first bake off, everyone had so much fun, that it turned into a yearly tradition for my mom’s family. They even had a tradition that if a new family member joined the extravaganza, they would be doused with flour as way of inducting them into the group. When we made the pletzels together, my Aunt Celia made sure she doused my brothers and me with flour, while we were making them. She also told stories of when my mom and my grandma were out in Palm Springs joining the family for one of the bake-offs.
Another important story about the pletzel on my mom’s side of the family is that when my Great Great Grandmother Ray came to America, she hadn’t been taught how to cook or bake since she came from a privileged family that had servants and cooks. When she married my Great Great Grandfather they eventually settled in Brooklyn where his family lived. His cousin taught her to make pletzels and then she in turn taught my Great Great Aunt Celia and her sisters, one of whom was my Great Grandmother.
As Norman Berg wrote in his book Inside the Jewish Bakery, “There is a universality to baking that transcends time and space. Kneading dough and being a part of its transformation, as if by magic, into a fragrant loaf of bread is an experience as old as human civilization itself. To bake bread is to nourish, in the most fundamental way, self, family and community; to eat a piece of homemade bread is to merge with generations past and, hopefully, with generations as yet unborn.” This quote really summarizes the purpose of my project. All of the stories that I have heard or read, and all of the experiences that I have had with bread and my family, are the things that I will remember. The idea of sharing a moment when baking, whether it’s a cake, cookies or even bread, is the way that I can pass down my memories and my family’s stories, so that they can be told to my children and their children, and so on, and so on, and so on. I think that the time I spent baking with my family symbolizes this bar mitzvah process. It was during these times that stories were shared and memories were made. And in the end, I got to eat a lot of bread.