With Passover now behind us, my Facebook and Instagram feeds are beginning to fill up with images of beautiful, braided challahs just out of the oven. There will be even more of them as we get closer to sundown this Friday afternoon. By then, my own efforts will be cooling in real life on our kitchen counter, their heavenly aroma permeating the entire house.
Freshly baked challah is irresistible at any time, but little beats the taste of the golden, doughy loaves we eat on the first Shabbat after Passover. The moment is akin to a lover’s reunion, one filled with anticipation, desire, and longing. And though we will look forward to challah every Shabbat until we break out the matzah again, it won’t be with the same intensity we feel now.
Then there’s the matter of the keys.
It’s the Shabbat of key challah, or schlissel challah in Yiddish. As the custom goes, bakers place the keys to their homes or businesses in their challahs as a good omen for livelihood.
I was a late-blooming challah baker who dove into the key challah experience with enthusiasm. I loved the idea of secreting our keys in the loaves and also the symbolism of helping to bake open the doors of blessing to which God Himself holds the key. Many bakers I know do it. For some of them, it has been a long family tradition, brought by their forebears to American shores generations ago. But when I asked around, I learned that most folks, like me, had adopted rather than inherited the custom.
I continued to bake key challah until I misplaced our house keys several years in a row in the process. I was sure I’d positioned them at the top of the braid, where two keys wrapped in aluminum foil shouldn’t have been hard to find. And yet, when we sliced open the challahs during Shabbat dinner, they weren’t there. We shrugged, assuming they would turn up one day, though they still haven’t, or that we’d given away the loaf with our keys, though a few post-Shabbat phone calls to friends for whom I’d baked challahs proved otherwise.
Eager to keep up the custom but unwilling to lose any more keys, I tried the other approach — shaping the challahs like keys instead. How did that go, you wonder? Let’s just say my attempts hardly resembled the Pinterest images I used as models. My boys, while delighting in the taste, joked that the loaves looked like a lot of things, yet alas, none of them keys.
The final straw came when one of my husband’s patients baked a key challah for us. She dropped it off, leaving it on his desk in the office. But as he prepared to head home, he discovered an empty pan. He still doesn’t know what happened.
Schlissel challah is about omens, and there I was, ignoring the obvious ones telling me the custom was not meant for my family. Still, it has been hard to let go, even as I remind myself that our livelihood is pre-determined on Yom Kippur and that an elaborately shaped challah may not guarantee me a raise, though a girl can bake and dream.
For the second year in a row, I will refrain from schlissel challah-ing when I make challah for this first Shabbat after Passover. I would be lying if I said I won’t miss the process of hiding our house keys inside the folds of dough. Yet I will keep my keys stowed in my purse and get my fix of the custom from the images friends post and the stories they tell of how their great-great-grandmothers baked key challah in the Old Country. And also, from my husband’s very kind patient, who continues to bake schlissel challah for us using the office key instead. When she drops it off, my husband puts it right into his car for safekeeping.
For my part, I’ll look for signs and wonders in the kneading and in the special prayer recited by challah bakers and in the long strips of dough I will braid into keyless loaves. But mostly, I’ll wait for the blessings to burst forth when we break the challahs open and savor every post-Passover bite.
Rather than put too much stock in a key in a loaf, I’ll remember that good omens, like keys, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There is meaning in all of them, but only one tastes like challah.