March 27, 2011

Yoga and Challah: Baking as Meditation.

On a Friday, a few weeks ago, my cousin took my intro to Ashtanga class.

As soon as it was over, I drove to her house and learned to mix, knead, braid, and bake challah. We spent 6 or 7 hours together that day, more than on any other day before it. That evening, I took home two one-pound braids, an index card with the recipe, and the feeling that, as uncanny as wisdom from the mouths of babes, meditation is found, sometimes, strangely, in a mixing bowl.

My cousin and I were born a day apart.

Before my twin sisters were born, she and I were referred to as the “twin cousins,” kind of like the Patty Duke show, except neither identical nor bubbly. That one-day difference makes her a Gemini and me a Cancer, which I credit with our differences. If she ever believed in astrology, she doesn’t now. A couple of years ago, as we were growing closer, she took it upon herself to determine whether we were born on the same day according to the Jewish calendar (in which days begin and end at sunset rather than at midnight). It turns out we are born a day apart by that system, too.

My father and her mother are siblings. Growing up Jewish in Colombia in the 1950’s, they blessed the challah every Shabbat but had bacon with their eggs on Saturday morning. My aunt married a more observant Jew, had children whom they sent to a Jewish day school, who grew up to marry other Jews and have their own children who go to Jewish day schools. My dad married my mom, the only daughter of secular Holocaust survivors, and put his kids in the kind of school where they learned fluent English and went on to get degrees in things like literature, hotel management and film. For about fifteen years, my cousin and I hardly spoke to one another.

One college summer I returned from studying in Paris to prepare for my sophomore year. My cousin had spent it selecting her wedding dress. While my aunts discussed the beautiful lace of the long sleeves and high neck of her wedding gown, she told me that her marital home would respect the laws of shomer shabbos (refraining from riding in cars, speaking on the phone, cooking, gardening, or doing anything aside from the observance of scripture on the Sabbath). My eyes widened in silence. I told her I couldn’t make the wedding, which would fall right during finals. I’m quite sure that the glances we exchanged at that moment were both filled with pity.

After a blessedly long education and my own marriage, I ended up moving right down the street from her. Geographic proximity began to breach the chasm between our personalities and choices. I had my son; she had her second daughter (sixth child) a month later and we started to go on walks down the beach, pushing our strollers fast enough to take some wind out of our conversations.

We discussed childcare, recipes, family gossip, but tension would arise whenever she asked me about yoga. Curious about it, seeing it’s remarkable effect on my temperament and my interactions with my son, she still remained suspicious. I would urge her to try it before dismissing it. Maybe I will, she’d say, but I can’t: chant anything, place my knees on the floor, place my hands in prayer position, or do anything else that resembles idolatry. What idols? I would ask. We’re there to connect with our selves. I tried to distinguish yoga from religion or to explain how I could be a (somewhat) practicing Jew and also practice yoga without contradiction, but frustrated at her shaking head, my voice would climb to unhappy registers. Was there no bridge between our versions of Judaism?

My maternal grandfather, whom we called Saba, told me many stories. Some were from the Bible and some were from the years he endured the Holocaust. A scholar and a Humanist, he highlighted the big difference between the two: not the violence they describe, their importance in constituting Jewish identity, or the need for retelling them and keeping them alive. The difference was between metaphor and fact. It’s from him that I get my love of literature and that I see the Torah as the first (and possibly greatest) novel, one filled with ontology, insights, metaphors, symbolism, and some very juicy plots.

My religious education from Saba ensured that I never battled a brutal disenchantment with the religion, unlike so many of my friends raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I always marveled at how, having survived the atrocity of the Holocaust in Europe, he became neither an atheist nor a zealot, but continued to practice the parts of Judaism that connected him to his history and to the family he lost. Kosher laws didn’t make sense to him, scientifically, so he dispensed with them, but he always enjoyed the fast of Iom Kippur as a spiritual and physical cleanse. Like him, I make conscious choices to follow the tenets of Judaism that for me coincide with honoring my forebears and with being a good person. Of course, these choices have evolved and changed over the years.

When my husband and I first started dating, we would throw a Shabbat dinner party once a month or so. More than having any religious thrust, these meals were simply an excuse to get together with friends and family and try out new recipes. More than once, I’m sure, I presented a cauldron of steamed mussels or something made with bacon, treyf (non-Kosher) masterpieces. The wine for the Kiddush was usually Malbec not Manischewitz; sometimes we would forget to get a challah and recite a blessing over a baguette. Other times we would dispense with the blessing altogether and smear the baguette with brie. Then we’d put prosciutto on it.

These Friday evenings were not this way for the sake of irreverence. We were doing as much as we could do, according to our means and capabilities. They were precisely the training to become more observant of the ceremonies that made sense to us and that would be carried over into our lives as householders. These days, as I teach my son the customs of my Saba, whom he never met, I actually enjoy setting a Shabbat table, lighting the candles, pouring the wine, blessing the bread, and eating at the “big” table with my family. There’s never pork on the table, or the equally un-sanctioned combination of meat and dairy, because I’m now a vegetarian. In a way, eating more like a Hindu has made me a more traditional Jew.

This synergy of intention, the way that being a Humanist overlaps with the most benevolent parts of any and all religion, is what my strained voice tried (and failed) to articulate on all of those walks with my cousin. My personal peace with religion, my easy adherence to what translates into contemporary life on this planet is so internalized, that I find it difficult to explain to someone with extreme views on the topic, much like I no longer suffer discussing racial relations with xenophobes or marriage equality with bigots.

I was thrilled, then, when my cousin called me to confirm her attendance in my class the following morning. There would be no more talking, just doing. To make the day a true exchange, I asked whether she was available to teach me her challah recipe directly after. I had resolved, earlier this year, to start baking my own after buying one too many that was meh, and I figured that opening the space for her to “teach” me after I “teach” her, might make us both less preachy. Besides, her challah, which she sometimes drops off for me on Fridays right before sunset, is the best in town.

My class began at 9:30 a.m. My cousin arrived at 9:45, halfway through the sun salutations, wearing her shaitel and leggings under a stretchy, tea-length black skirt. Luckily, we had already chanted, so she was spared that discomfort. I motioned to her to drop her bag in the corner and unroll her mat in the available space. She started to say something and I placed my index finger across my lips, still counting the rest of the class through 5 breaths in downward dog. Slim and limber, her body belies her age and certainly 6 pregnancies. She had no problem getting into all of the positions, including half lotus, unencumbered by her long layers or the wig.

“Can I ask you something?” she blurted in the middle of uttihita hasta padangustasana. “At the end of class,” I responded, releasing another student’s heel from my palm. In the midst of ardha baddha padma paschimattanasana, her phone rang and she answered it in the corner, yell-whispering at one of her kids. I reminded the class, speaking over her, that when we’re talking we’re not really breathing, and yoga class is the time to really breathe. “Can I ask you something?” she repeated during savasana. “Not yet.” After class, as some students lingered to ask their questions, I turned to her: “what did you want to ask?”

“Well,” she seemed sheepish, “what does yoga feel like? Is it the stretching? The sweating? The breathing?” This sounded almost like a birds and bees question from a kid. Other students were looking at me. I may have blushed a little. “I would say it feels like going beyond all those things, beyond the body or having to coach the breath or noticing sweat. It’s hard to describe, it’s as if…” Her phone rang again and she jumped up, “gotta go. See you at my house.” The truth was I didn’t think she had really allowed herself to feel it that day. Her body did those poses really well, but the rest of her was all over the place.

When I got to her house, she was nursing her youngest, who promptly fell asleep. “Great class,” she said, and invited me into her kitchen and showed me a huge bowl of bread flour she had already sifted. I started to ask her if I could wash my hands first, understanding we were done talking about yoga, when she nodded toward a silver vessel next to the sink. “I usually wash with soap and then with this, to do the netilat [hand-washing] prayer. I don’t know if you want to…”

“Look,” I told her, “you took my class as I taught it. More or less.” I grinned. “I’m here to do it your way.” She smiled and filled the vessel with water, pouring it over one hand, then the other, and back, reciting a prayer. I followed her, doing the same. She then took the bowl of flour and poured into it yeast, salt that she measured in her palm, sugar she poured out from a cup. She asked me to crack the eggs into a glass, checking for blood spots which makes them not Kosher. They all passed, and she added them to the bowl, mixing expertly with her hand. She paused to heat some water on her stove and to explain that during the kneading, we are welcome to pray for whatever we need, especially for the sake of others. “Like dedicating our practice,” I said. “Sure.” With one hand she slowly poured the water into the bowl, while mixing with the other.

By the time the water was all in, the dough had nearly come together. Then she added oil and began to knead rhythmically and efficiently, the bowl automatically turning on her counter as if she were a human mixer. Her phone rang; she didn’t stop or flinch. Eventually, it stopped ringing. I could see the dough becoming more pliable and springy. One of her children walked in to the kitchen and she said to him, “I’ll call you when it’s time to braid,” not taking her eyes off of the dough. “Here,” she pushed the bowl my way after a few more times around, “you try.” I squeezed my finger through the dense clay a few times, then scraped the dough off my fingers and began to knead as my cousin had, with the heel of her palm, one hand, then the other. I don’t know how long I did this, but eventually she touched my shoulder and said, “I think we can braid.”

A few hours later, we had six full-sized braids plus a few mini loaves which the children decorated with parve chocolate chips. She wrapped two of them for me to take in pretty red paper bags. I thanked my cousin, hugged her, and wished her a Shabbat shalom. A week later, I would undertake the project on my own, following the instructions I’d jotted on a card, following my recollection, following my intuition, hopefully entering into the state I’d witnessed in my cousin, a state that completely eluded her during my asana class and that I can only describe as meditation.

That Sunday, after Shabbat had ended and the shomer shabbos laws lifted, I got a text message from my cousin: “what’d you think of the challah?” “Spectacular,” I replied. “Agreed,” she texted back. “M said it was better than ever. I think it’s because we both had our hands in it.”

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