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Heritage and Challah

This past weekend was Rosh Hashana, which is the Jewish new year. Which is all well and good, but why would a devout atheist stay up late making challah, and why would she write about it for this blog?

My dad is not just atheist; he’s intolerant of the foibles of religion. I learned my skepticism from him, to the point that my fourth grade teacher once called my parents to ask where exactly I picked up the idea that religion was an expression of fear and hatred. (My mom laughed, and looked at my dad. My dad shrugged.) All of which is my defensive way of shoring up my atheist credibility, and that of my father. Because at base, we’re exactly the kind of people that “atheist churches” market to. We’re sentimental, we have a large need for community, and we have a certain love for ritual and tradition. We just… don’t believe in God.

Similar stories ring true for several of my (atheist? jewish? both) friends. It’s part of why it can get confusing whether Judaism is a culture or a religion (I think it’s both). But for me, staying up until 2am making challah felt the right version of Jewish. At least this year. I’ve optimized this recipe for getting you in touch with your heritage, which I think is the best part of making challah.

Technically I shared this loaf with Evan (the other one went to my labmates), but in reality I think I ate 3/4ths of it.
Technically I shared this loaf with Evan (the other one went to my labmates), but in reality I think I ate 3/4ths of it.

The recipe I used was this one.

It’s a very simple bread. Flour, water, yeast, oil, sugar, two eggs, and a bit of salt. Giving the yeast/water/flour slurry time to puff a bit before adding the rest of the ingredients helps make the bread light and fluffy. But in all, time from starting to first rise is probably 30 minutes, most of which is sitting around (or calling relatives) while the yeast incubates.

The time it takes to rise the first time is just about perfect to watch NOVA’s documentary on Australopithecus Sadebi and Homo Naledi. In case you’ve been putting that off for some reason. And if you have, or if you haven’t, I would recommend re-watching it as a drinking game: drink every time the narrator says “Dawn of Humanity”. You might need to take small sips.

Rolling out the dough into ropes was the part I liked best as a kid. I would try to make the rope as tall as I was (admittedly, still not that tall). But since I am a boring grownup now, I aim for about as long as the cutting board. The recipe makes two small loaves. Or, I guess, one GIANT one.

I braided the bread into rounds using the “four-braid” technique in the video below, which I think is basically basket-weaving but with bread:

The time it takes to form is just about perfect to go read the paper on Homo Naledi, which is free access on account of being published in eLife (yay eLife), and think ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I were an anthropologist who likes caves? Then I could have been one of those awesome ladies who got to do that excavation.’

Just before you bake them, add a bit of egg wash — to get that golden brown crust.

They bake at 350 for about 35 minutes. And then they come out looking beautiful and tasting delicious.

Best eaten torn apart and covered in honey, which I like to think is exactly what some especially ancient ancestor would do, when confronted with a lumpy piece of bread.

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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