Hundreds of Jewish women come together to celebrate challah, a traditional braided bread

The fourth annual Mega Challah Bake brought 200 Jewish women together to celebrate this traditional holiday and Shabbat bread.
Published November 28
Updated November 28

TREASURE ISLAND — Huguette Levy, 93, is from Algiers. Her daughter, Yvonne Brun, 60, is from France but lives in Seminole, as does her daughter, Vanessa Mueller, 39. Mueller’s sister, Emilie Brun, 34, lives in Pinellas Park. They have loaded their loaves into disposable foil trays, given them a quick egg wash, sprinkled on some sesame seeds. Levy’s and Emilie Brun’s are, let’s say, rustic.

“I tried,” Emilie Brun says with a laugh. Across the table, her niece, Stella Mueller, 4, is working on her own. But if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, she’s got an excuse: She doesn’t know how to braid yet.

These women represent four generations of the same family, all of them coming together for an evening with 200 other women from synagogues around Tampa Bay for this year’s Mega Challah Bake on Oct. 25. Held at the Club at Treasure Island, this is the fourth year for the event, and the largest yet. The noise level is ratcheting up, and the yeasty smell of bread dough is perfuming the air.

A braided egg bread, challah has been the centerpiece of Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath celebrated just before sunset on Fridays) and the Jewish holiday table for millennia. It’s made in all shapes and sizes, each of which has a special meaning depending on the holiday.

Round loaves are baked for Rosh Hashana to symbolize continuity for the new year. Ladder- and hand-shaped breads are served at the meal before the fast of Yom Kippur (the ladder signifying that we should ascend to great heights). Three braids symbolize truth, peace and justice. For Purim, there are small triangular loaves that symbolize Haman’s ears. (He was a bad guy and his ears got lopped.) There are challah with three, five, six or 12 strands, all of which show unity, like arms intertwined. For Hanukkah, which starts at sundown on Sunday, people sometimes make a challah in the shape of a menorah or a star of David.

Chaya Korf, the wife of Rabbi Alter Korf of Chabad Jewish Center in St. Petersburg, stands at the front of the room, explaining that women, the pillar of the Jewish home, have been gifted with three special mitzvot that are the foundation of Jewish living: kindling the Shabbat and festive candles; taking challah, and by extension, the laws of keeping kosher; and the laws of family life. These correspond to the miracles that happened in the tent of the first Jewish mother, Sara, whose challah remained fresh all week, and whose Shabbat candles stayed lit from Friday to Friday.

Korf shows slides, tells the story of a family in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in what is today Lower Saxony in northern Germany, how the dad would save his rusks of bread and present them on Shabbat to his kids to elicit the memories or perhaps create the illusion of the Shabbat challah. There were no candles, but he would tell his kids, “The licht (light) is in your beautiful eyes.”

Korf gets emotional, pauses and regroups, continues her talk. But the audience is far from somber. They are boisterous, the hilarity rising as hundreds of women do the best they can with dough that is sometimes sticky or otherwise recalcitrant.

“This is only my second dough-eo,” Ruth Dobkin of Clearwater puns. She came last year, and this year brought her friend Ellen Petracco, also from Clearwater. Rhonda Bedikian, who just moved to Florida from Los Angeles, sits at their table rolling out pale snakes of dough. Their efforts look competent, although the “captain” who is supposed to be at every table is missing from theirs.

As the bread efforts wind down, Chaya Korf gets back on the microphone.

“It is traditional that when making challah, we pray. When we pray in our own homes it is a powerful moment,” she says. “When we pray with so many women together, in such unity, the power and energy is overflowing.

“If this is your first time making challah, please stand and we’ll give you a round of applause. If you remember making challah with your mother or grandmother, please stand.”

She goes on like this, and pretty soon 200 women are standing, all of them wearing lime green “Challah Bake” aprons. Music starts, Siman Tov u'Mazal Tov, and all of the women hold hands or link arms, weaving in between the banquet tables. They move faster and faster, one little girl wearing those light-up sneakers that illuminate with every stomp, her baking apron tied tight around her tiny body.

Like the bread itself, they are there for one night, intertwined, showing unity.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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