Challah: Background information when reading The Souvenir Museum

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The Souvenir Museum

by Elizabeth McCracken

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken X
The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2021, 256 pages

    Jan 2022, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Daniela Schofield
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This article relates to The Souvenir Museum

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Challah loafIn "Birdsong from the Radio," a story in Elizabeth McCracken's collection The Souvenir Museum, the main character fills the void of her missing children by consuming a loaf of challah daily. Challah is a traditional Jewish bread that is usually braided. It can come in many different forms, but it is often made as a soft, fluffy yeast bread, similar in consistency to brioche or Greek tsoureki, that is coated with an egg wash. Some varieties of challah are made with a topping, such as poppy or sesame seeds. 

Bread has been important in Jewish traditions for centuries. The word "challah" refers to the Hebrew word for "portion," and the name comes from a commandment in the Torah to give the first of a bread's dough to God as a gift. Observant bakers will burn a small piece of dough while baking challah to fulfill this offering. While the original bread used in this tradition was a flatbread, likely more similar to what would be recognized as pita bread today, the tradition is carried on in the baking of challah. Additional Romanized variations for "challah" include "hallah," "challot," "khale" and "chałka," among others. 

Challah plays a central role in Jewish observances and rituals. For example, for the meal on the eve of the Sabbath (Friday), two loaves of challah are put on the table. These are a symbolic remembrance of the double portion of manna (food said to have fallen from heaven to the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt) given to the Jewish people by God before the Sabbath to sustain them throughout this day of rest. A blessing over the Challah (the Hamotzi blessing) is recited at the beginning of the meal. The loaves are placed between a tablecloth or cutting board and a special Challah cover to symbolize the dew above and below the manna that preserved it. 

Challah is made in various sizes and shapes. Braided Challahs, which may have three, four, or six strands, are the most common. A common structure is three braids that symbolize truth, peace, and justice; while the twelve humps created by braiding either one large or two small loaves recall the miracle of the 12 loaves, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Round Challah loaves, where there is no beginning and no end, are baked for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to symbolize continuity. Sweet round challahs with honey or raisins symbolize sweetness for the New Year.

Traditional challah loaf, by svetlanabar via Pixabay

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Souvenir Museum. It originally ran in April 2021 and has been updated for the January 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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