This is a story dear to my heart about my adventures in a new world that brought me back to an old world–a world of my ancestors and heritage. I really believe that it is important to stretch ourselves, to dare to discover who we are in the most positive terms and then to let our very essence reflect our individual beauty. Of course, I mean beauty in much more than just the external use of the word. I’m referring to our capacities for joy, bettering the world, befriending others, giving our children and grandchildren something fine and meaningful about life to hold onto.
One beautiful Wednesday morning, I drove from my home in suburban New Jersey to Borough Park in Brooklyn, a densely populated Jewish neighborhood. Men in long beards, little boys with side curls and women wearing long, dignified skirts and wigs filled the streets. On a street of small grocery stores and plain row houses with well-kept gardens, I found Toby’s house. She stood at the top of a long staircase and seemed delighted to see me–a warm, friendly woman without a hint of make-up.
Her hair was covered with a kerchief and she wore a housedress that looked like a bathrobe, the kind my grandmother used to wear. She also looked five months pregnant. I later discovered that she had 10 children–the oldest, 22, was already married–but only one was currently at home, a little girl, about two and a half, who clung to her mommy’s apron strings.
The Prep Work Begins
Toby ushered me into her clean, but by American standards, barren kitchen. There were no photographs or magnets on the refrigerator, no paintings or wallpaper of fruit and vegetables, no radio or television–in fact, no appliances at all. It was as simple a kitchen as I had ever seen. Yet the old stove was already warm. I immediately felt a sense of peacefulness as if the whole apartment was radiating in positive energy. The windows were open and even the Brooklyn air smelled fresh. Children’s voices and traffic noises wafted up from the street, combining to create a silence that somehow felt sacred.
Toby showed me a giant dishpan in which a batch of challah dough was already rising. She explained that we would need another batch and asked if I wanted to do this by hand or by electric mixer. I made the decision to chose the hand method. I was craving to get my hands into the dough. Toby said that many women prefer using the mixer, which is easier. However, her radiant face indicated her implicit approval of my choice.
She then produced another giant dishpan and told me to combine five cups of sifted flour, a cup of oil, five egg yolks and salt. The leavening yeast was left to rise in another dish. After a while, when she told me to mix the ingredients together, I plunged my hands into the redolent mass feeling as if I were a girl again, playing in a sandbox. I didn’t stop mushing until Toby told me to roll the dough into a giant ball and place it on her countertop. It was time to knead.
Learning By Doing
What a transforming experience! I felt as if God’s feminine side whispered in my ear, “You have a wonderful task to do and it involves working this dough to the point of pure pleasure.” For half an hour I pressed, rolled, pushed, pulled, squeezed, turned and lifted the dough as hard as I could. Toby, an instinctive teacher, praised my kneading technique and the strength of my hands. I found myself talking about my grandmother and the homemade challah she made when I was young. My hands, it seemed, had been inherited from a long line of women empowered by a sacred undertaking.
When my hands and arms grew tired, Toby encouraged me to rest and have a snack–delicious marble cake, creamy cheesecake, and homemade coffee ice cream–all handmade from the egg whites left over from her challah baking.
After our snack, we returned to our baking. Toby produced a bowl in which the challah had already risen. That’s when I realized that the batch I had fashioned would be presented to Toby’s next student–a woman I didn’t know but to whom I was giving something very special, just as a stranger had bequeathed her kneading bowl to me.
Empowered By The Process
I cut my new dough into six pieces, which I then rolled into long, thin strips. Toby showed me how to braid them. I tried to follow her as she spoke, “Bring these two strips close together and then bring this one under them
and then it goes up over the right.” Or did she say left? “Then the other goes down and you start all over.”
I loved braiding the dough. After all the loaves were shaped, we made some miniature loaves with the leftover dough. Everything went into the oven. Toby invited me to visit the neighborhood while the bread baked, so I shopped. The time flew by. When I returned, about an hour later, I found Toby walking down the steps from her house with big gray plastic garbage bags in her hand, filled with the fruit of our labor. She placed the bags in the passenger and back seats of my car. We hugged and kissed each other. She told me to come back at any time for my next lesson.
The aroma filled the car. I had enough challah to last at least a month. Toby climbed the stairs back to her family, and I began driving toward the Verrazano Bridge. It was rush hour, but I was calm. I felt as if I had accomplished something special, a feeling I hadn’t had for years, perhaps not since I was a girl and learned how to skip or ride my bike. The scent of the challah and the memory of its baking replenished me. I had a restorative sense of a job well done.
Core Ingredients For A Life Worth Savoring
One of the core ingredients for a Recipe for Enchantment lies in the doing.
Sometimes this doing happens privately, even within one’s own mind, similar to meditation. Sometimes it happens between people in ways that are refreshing such as playing together or visiting. There is also a concept of ‘doing good deeds’. When we are doing in the service of others, often a host of positive emotions take place. The person doing the action can feel happy, uplifted, wanted, special and certainly the person who is the recipient of the ‘doing’ can feel joyful, contented, special, involved, loved.
Reflect on Your Own Kneading
Think for a moment about when you have been ‘doing’ in a way that either enriches your life or someone else’s. Don’t be shy–the hardest part of this may be giving yourself credit where credit is due. Have you helped someone out? Been there in a special way for a friend? For your kids? For your grandkids? Have you taken good care of yourself? Been your own best friend by an action you took, be it a pampering bath or moving away emotionally from an abusive friend of relationship?
On the other hand, have you felt good when someone gave to you by ‘doing’? Perhaps a teacher gave time and extra tutoring that made all the difference? Perhaps a friend had a meal waiting when you got home from the hospital? Maybe you let yourself delight in romping on the floor with your dog? Or you let joy pour through your body when your grandkid made you a drawing? Joy is all around us; take time to grab some!
*Versions of this article have appeared on the web and a version was included in my book: There Comes a Time in Every Woman’s Life for—Delight.
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About the author: Guest contributor, Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein
Sometimes friends and colleagues call me ‘The Enchanted Self.’ That’s because as a psychologist in private practice for over 35 years, I’ve developed a form of positive psychology called THE ENCHANTED SELF. I’m not enchanted, but I do have many ways and ideas to help all of us feel better through all stages of life. These methods help us recognize our potential, regardless of our age, to grab on to our talents and find again and again the emotional energies needed to be creative, resourceful, resilient and to live joyfully.
As a woman, a grandmother, and a psychologist, I’m excited to share some of my knowledge and wisdom with you. I’ve written many books, including two books for girls, ‘The Truth, Diary of a Gutsy Tween and Secrets, Diary of a Gutsy Teen. Also a book for adult women, ‘THE ENCHANTED SELF, A Positive Therapy.’ I’m a filmmaker as well. My short films about girls, tweens and teens have won many awards. Often based on my two books for girls, they are great stepping off points for moms and grandmothers to share with their kids. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my website www.enchantedself.com.