In making challah, spirituality and camaraderie rise
On a recent Thursday night, right after sundown, Chami Cunin pulled a piece of dough from a metal bowl and said a prayer. More than 30 other women — and several children — followed her example.
Then the room filled with chatter and laughter, as women began braiding their challah dough. Each woman wore a black apron imprinted with “Challah Bake” in pink letters.
Cunin, 37, has held the event at her Beverly Hills home every year since 1998 (similar challah-baking events are hosted by Jewish organizations around the country). The wife of Rabbi Yossi Cunin — leader of the Beverly Hills Jewish Community congregation — Cunin said she is inspired to help women connect with one another while learning how to bake challah, a centerpiece of festive meals on Shabbat and during the High Holy Days.
As the participants mixed, divided into strips and began braiding the dough, some of the women shared their personal stories about Judaism and cooking.
Judith Khakshouy, an attorney from Beverly Hills, said she started baking challah while preparing for the bar exam. A friend had advised her to learn how to bake as a way to release stress. She found the process so relaxing that it turned into a hobby.
Khakshouy recently passed the bar exam and opened an Instagram account, @Challahmaven, where she shares challah recipes.
For Cunin, baking challah has a lot to do with bonding with her family.
Until recently, it was her mother who always baked challah, bringing loaves to the family’s Shabbat. Cunin’s mother used to say that she would never buy it in a store because the mitzvah is in the making of the challah, not just in the eating of it.
But after her mother died in a car accident a few years ago, Cunin made it a tradition to bake challah before Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah.
On a recent night, Cunin walked around the room and helped other women with their braiding.
“When you make challah, pray for another person because when you pray for another person, God often answers your prayer,” she said.
She set several glass bowls on a table, filled with rosemary, olive oil, raisins and chocolate chips — proving that challah doesn’t have to be plain.
Roya Radnia, a mother of three — whose name means “dream” in Farsi — said she decided to sweeten her challah with chocolate chips.
“Every home has a different recipe, and it’s interesting to learn every one of them,” she said.
Etty Nasi, who moved here from Tehran, said Jews in Iran don’t make challah. She learned how to make it for the first time 28 years ago when she came to California from Iran.
“We don’t have challah in Iran,” she said. “We make [Rosh Hashanah] dinner with tongue, honey, apples and beets.”
Lena Zormagen said she came to the event to lift her spirits.
“I haven’t done a mitzvah in a while,” she said. “I feel much better now. Making challah is spiritual and makes me feel better.”
As the evening wore on, women headed home carrying pink tote bags containing homemade, freshly baked challahs. The group made a total of 90 loaves of challah, according to Cunin.
“It’s a fun process,” Nasi said, adding that she made her challah with raisins. “And it’s a good way to connect with others.”