The food chain 

Here’s how my Jew­ish great-grand­par­ents’ Philly bak­ery lives in me today

4 minute read
The author, her partner, and their housemate bless challah—made from a family recipe—on a recent Friday. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The author, her partner, and their housemate bless challah—made from a family recipe—on a recent Friday. (Image courtesy of the author.)

Here are the crumbs of what I know: My great-grandparents, Ethel and Samuel Ochman, came from Russia on a boat. But when? My mother and her cousins shrug. And why? For the reasons anyone leaves their homeland by volition. Poverty. No jobs. Hate crimes—pogroms, in their case. The 19th century was a lousy time to be a Jew in Eastern Europe.

So they came here. To North Philadelphia. Orianna and Poplar. They opened a bakery. They lived above the store.

Like a Purim challah

More crumbs, a crouton or two. Samuel made the bread and cakes; I picture a slight man, his mustache perpetually flour-grayed, his palms tacky with dough. Rugelach. Hamentaschen. Babka. And each Friday, plump braids of challah, brushed with a golden sheen of egg and dotted with sesame seeds, piled in the store’s window.

Ethel—in photos she looks solid, upright, stern—dealt with customers in her native Yiddish and a fractured, serviceable second tongue: “good morning,” “thank you” and enough numbers to count change. My mother and her cousins laud her as “a feminist before her time,” a woman who hated to cook, traveled by train to Chicago alone, and taught her granddaughters that if a boy got fresh, they should “varfn im inem yam un pishn arayn zayn oyer.” (Throw him in the ocean and pee in his ear.)

Samuel had his own trove of Yiddish idioms. When a grandchild sneezed, he’d say, “You should grow like a Purim challah with a raisin in the middle,” a baker’s version of “bless you; don’t die.”

Family hands

His children grew—except for the youngest, Bernie, dead at 37 from a vicious melanoma—and the baking gene jumped two generations. My Bubie, Sarah (Samuel’s oldest daughter), cooked, but not with joy or flair; her matzah balls sank like anchors in the soup. My own mother expressed her creativity on the page, not the dinner plate. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, living far from home and falling for a woman who could pull together pie crust with no recipe, that I tasted home-baked challah.

Now we make it nearly every week, a tandem operation. Elissa starts the dough on Thursday night: six-ish cups of flour, a palm-sized hill of salt. Scoop a well in the dry ingredients; spill in three eggs, a half-cup of canola oil, 12 ounces of warm water in which the yeast has bubbled to a creamy foam.

She kneads; it’s wet and raggy, then it comes together. Dimpled with a fingertip, the dough springs back. Elissa tucks the mound under a square of unbleached parchment, blankets it with a kitchen towel and puts it in the fridge for a slow rise.

On Friday, I finish the job: I divide the yellow mass into moist wedges, roll it into strands and weave a four-part braid, a choreography my hands now know by heart. Paint the egg wash; sprinkle sesame and poppy seeds. Bake until the house smells like the corner of Orianna and Poplar, circa 1940, on a Sabbath eve.

Links in the chain

You should grow like a Purim challah. Translate that into any tongue. It’s the dream that draws people across oceans, over borders: that the grandchildren should rise and thrive. That the ancestors’ own sweat should make it so. Amen.

Orianna and Poplar is a dog park now, the row homes rehabbed, a neighborhood with its own glib moniker: NoLibs. But on the other side of town—a place that would have seemed like country to those Ochmans, with its creek and curving artery of Lincoln Drive—there is a through-line, a moist, yeasty link in the chain.

So many questions; a mere dust of crumbs. Did Ethel and Samuel close the bakery during the 1918 flu? Were they afraid? What did they carry with them from the villages they left behind—a scent, perhaps, the fulsome whiff of rising dough? Or a motion, the body’s sway when kneading, an almost-genuflection that resembles prayer?

What sustains us when so much is stripped away?

Each week, we carry on. But not alone: someone bagged the flour, placed egg cartons on the shelf, stuck the price tag on the little glassine envelope of yeast. It’s the paradox of this fraught time: while we isolate to save each other’s lives, we keep re-learning how deeply we’re enmeshed. My sneeze, unmasked, could make you sick. Your breath could carry lethal drops. We can hurt each other deeply—and we have, and do. But we can also heal.

Imagining Ethel

It’s Friday morning, time to pull the chilled dough from the fridge and let it rest. An hour later, I slide three shining braids into the oven’s heat. This bread is sustenance. It’s ritual. It’s food we cover with a cloth made by my mother-in-law, then unveil and touch: Blessed are you, spirit of the world, who brings forth bread from the earth. We pull. We eat.

Sometimes I imagine talking—food, history, politics—with the great-grandparents I never met. I have a hunch what Ethel, that “feminist before her time,” would say about our country’s current leader: Throw him in the ocean and pee in his ear. Samuel, her mild-mannered baker husband, would flush, grin quietly and duck his head. Then he’d trudge back to the basement, where raw ingredients rested in barrels, where workers labored with their weary hands, where wheat and salt and water became bread.

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