Semester Abroad Bad Bread, Good Memories

April 15, 2019
By Elana Burack, CAS '19

Semester Abroad - CASA Sevilla

One of my favorite experiences in Seville was connecting with the Jewish community there. At the end of my semester, as a way to give back to the community that had welcomed me with open arms for every holiday and Shabbat service, I wanted to plan an event for them. Through an organization called KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad, I was able to get a small grant to put together a Challah Baking Shabbat.

I had a very specific vision of the night. A soulful service of clapping and swaying around the table. Beautiful singing of Hebrew prayers. Deliciously sweet challah passed around the table.

The evening, of course, was nothing like I had imagined.

As people shuffled in for our Shabbat celebration/challah bake, I felt quite overwhelmed. I wanted to welcome everyone and create a warm, comfortable environment, but instead, I was a bit awkward in my nervous anticipation of the evening. We wound up seated quietly around a long table, no one quite sure of what to say or do.

“Vamos a hacer un pequeño servicio,” (We’re going to do a short service) I said, passing around the four copies of the prayer packet I had put together.

I had picked Lecha dodi (a prayer that is sung to usher in the metaphorical Shabbat bride) to start. I figured that most people would know it and would sing along, creating a nice Shabbat atmosphere.

...This was not the case. All were quiet, stumbling through the words and apparently unfamiliar tune. I moved forward, skipping a few verses and then kind of trailing off as I realized that they weren’t accustomed to this prayer.

We moved on to the next prayer, and I realized yet again that the words and tune were not familiar. This was not quite going as planned.

Feeling a bit discouraged, I tried to adjust, shortening the service and cutting right to the candle lighting followed by the kiddush (the blessing over the wine). The sooner we could get to the challah the better.

Seeing as I had never actually made challah, I had enlisted my French friend to teach challah-making lesson, and I was relieved to step out of the spotlight for a moment and let someone else set the vibe. To my surprise, everyone began suiting up. A few chef’s hats were pulled out, a couple aprons. They really went all the way. Fully dressed, we gathered around a large square table as my friend, with her easy-going personality and flawless Spanish, gracefully led the group in a fantastic demonstration of how to make her grandmother’s challah dough.

I pulled out the risen dough that my roommate and I had prepared earlier and began tossing it out in little balls. I felt just like Oprah throwing around balls of dough--“And you get some dough, and you get some dough…” Within a few moments, the room was abuzz in a baking frenzy. Dough was soaring, flour was flying, braids were spun. Challot (plural of challah) began appearing all over the table, fat ones and long skinny ones, lopsided and perfectly even--they were all shapes and sizes, each one for a unique Jew.

When the first one popped out of the oven, we all clamoured to rip off a piece. The chamotzi (prayer over the challah) was sung, and I excitedly pulled a big chunk, ready for the long-awaited familiar taste of warm, perfect challah.

But whoa! What was this? It was warm, but that was about all that I could recognize. No sweetness. No perfect soft texture. Instead, my mouth was greeted with a not-so-delicious surprise that was nothing like my sweet challah. Was it even challah at all? Hard, bland, thick. What was this? This, my friend, was a Sephardic challah (Jews with Spanish and Moroccan ancestry typically are considered Sephardic). Eggless and unsweetened, Sephardic challot are distinctive and nothing like their Ashkenazi cousins (Jews with Eastern/Central European ancestry are Ashkenazi).

Although I knew before that Sephardic Judaism had its differences, I never realized that challah, a food so integral, so special, so familiar, could be so drastically different for Sephardi Jews. The balance between preserving unifying Jewish tradition and allowing room for Jewish diversity is delicate, and yet, with challah, perfectly maintained. It may not be my cup of tea exactly, but while chomping down on Sephardic challah in the heart of southern Spain, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

But the real Spanish part of the evening hadn’t even begun. We pulled out a few snacks as more challot baked, casually talking, laughing, meeting, eating. 10 PM, my not-so-hard deadline to leave the space came and went, and there was no sign of movement except to go buy some more wine. At this point, I had expected everyone to be out the door, but who was I kidding? I was in Spain. Even more, I was in Andalucía, where they drink and tapear (eat tapas) the night away. Spanish culture, of course, was infused into the event--yet again, it was something my American brain hadn’t anticipated.

...And it was absolutely lovely. We spent the evening having multilingual conversations in which you started in Spanish, paused, and said, “What language do you prefer?” Conversations across Spanish, English, Italian, French, Hebrew. Conversations across international borders. Across countries. Across the table. But, above all, conversations among Jews.

At the end of the evening, I felt so amazed and happy at what had been accomplished. A beautiful evening that, although not what I had expected, brought together Jewish people from all over the world to celebrate Shabbat and to learn how to bake challah, how to participate in one of our religion’s many traditions.

But rather than a surge of pride as I folded up the tablecloths and stacked the bowls, I felt an overwhelming sense of humility. I looked over at my roommate across the room, without whom the event would not have been possible. I thought of my French friend who gave me the challah recipe and did the demonstration. I thought of all the members of the community that I texted and talked to about finding a space. I thought of my study abroad program directors who spent hours helping me search. And as I went to pay the owner of the space, I thought of KAHAL and the grant that made the event possible.

So although the service failed and the challah was bad, it was a Shabbat--a long Spanish Shabbat--that I will remember not for the failed service and bad challah but rather for being filled with laughter, chatting, and lasting connection.

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.