Saratogan’s book conveys challah traditions to kids

Michelle Gabriel learned how to make challah through osmosis.

When she was a young teen in the 1950s, her family lived in Queens with Grandma Rose, “a typical baleboosta” who logged long hours in the kitchen. Whenever Gabriel offered to help, the response was the same: “No, no no. Just watch.”

So she did. And after a while, she caught on. And now, many years later — as she’s passing the recipe on to her own granddaughters — Gabriel recalls her childhood in the kitchen in her new children’s book, “Rucheleh’s Challah.”

“My grandmother, as with most grandmothers and great-grandmothers, never used a recipe. I think a lot of people can identify with that,” said the 60-year-old Gabriel, a member of San Jose’s Temple Emanu-El, where she taught religious school for more than 20 years until the mid-1980s.

“I watched and watched and watched, and kept offering and she kept saying, ‘Just watch, just watch.’ Eventually I did put a measuring cup under her hands as she took a little of this and a little of that.”

In Gabriel’s story, little Rucheleh captures her grandmother’s recipe for posterity in the exact same way — but not before years of observation. And whenever Rucheleh asks how she will know when the dough has risen enough or how much yeast to add or how long to keep the challah in the oven, Bubbe’s answer is always the same: “You will know.”

“When I’m reading it to children, after the first one or two times she asks Bubbe, ‘How will I know?” I look out at the kids and we say, ‘You will know,'” said a laughing Gabriel, who has read her book to students at her own temple as well as Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah, Saratoga’s Congregation Beth David and Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, to name a few. “They do enjoy that very much. That’s why I wrote it this way. Kids do like that kind of continuity.”

While Gabriel has written three other books for children, this is the first time she’s delved into her own experiences. And though the tale entertains the children, it often hits closer to home with many of their teachers. A number of them have approached Gabriel and recalled similar experiences of grandmothers who, through force of habit or because of an inability to read and write English, never wrote down their wonderful recipes.

“They always tell me, ‘Oh, my grandmother made such a strudel and I don’t know how she did it! There never was a recipe!'” said Gabriel.

The author is making certain that no one ever tells such stories about her. Gabriel includes the family recipe in her book. But don’t bother asking her about substitutions — Gabriel has never deviated from her grandmother’s recipe, which is, in her mind, “cast in stone.”

She isn’t an exact replica of her baleboosta grandmother, however. While Grandma Rose made five challahs every Friday morning, Gabriel has no problem with making them ahead of time and freezing them.

Gabriel has five grandchildren, four of whom are girls, and she’s “starting them early.”

“There’s my 7-1/2 year old and 3-1/2 year old and the 3-year-old and 1-1/2 year old are waiting in the wings, so to speak,” she said. “But whenever I make challah, I try to have at least one granddaughter around.

“My mother didn’t make challah, she relied on my grandmother. But I do,” continued Gabriel. “My daughter doesn’t have the time, but my granddaughters do. They’re catching on, you know.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.