How to Make Challah
Combine the following ingredients in a large mixing bowl and let stand 5 minutes:
- 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm (105 to 115 degrees) water
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
Mix by hand, and slowly stir in 2 1/2 cups bread flour.
Knead for 8 minutes, until your dough no longer sticks to your hands or the bowl. Now put it in an oiled bowl. Flip it once, so it’s coated with oil. Cover it with saran wrap and let it rise, someplace warm (best is between 75 and 80 degrees). Wait until the dough has doubled its size—should be about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Punch that dough down. Knead it a little. Cover it up and put it in the refrigerator until it’s almost doubled again (you don’t have to be as strict on this second time around). That could take between 4 to 12 hours—who can say? When it’s ready, it’s time to shape it.
You’re going to braid the dough in 3 strands, so weigh it and divide it into 3 equal parts. Roll into balls (use an unfloured surface), cover it loosely with saran wrap, and let it rest for about 10 minutes.
While you wait, grease a baking sheet and sprinkle it with cornmeal.
Then, back to the balls: Roll each into a 13-inch-long rope about a 1/2 inch thick. Taper a bit at the ends. Dust the ropes with rye flour. Line them up next to each other, and squeeze the top ends together. Now lift the left rope and put it between the right and middle ropes. Then take the right rope and place it between the left and middle ropes, then the left one again between the right and middle. Continue until you reach the ends. Tuck both ends of the braid under the loaf, and set it on the baking sheet.
Whisk together and brush onto the top of the loaf 1 egg and a pinch of salt.
Cover the braid loosely with lightly oiled saran wrap. Let it rise in a warm place until almost doubled. That should take about 45 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Brush the loaf again with egg wash.
Bake until the crust is golden brown. If you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should sound hollow. Probably take about 30-35 minutes.
Your bread is ready.
One day a neighbor broke the leg of a stray dog with a heavy stone, and when Vasil saw the sharp edge of the bone piercing the skin he cried. The tears streamed from his eyes, his mouth, and his nose; the towhead on his short neck shrank deeper between his shoulders; his entire face twisted and shriveled, and he didn’t make a sound. He was then about seven-years-old.
Soon he learned not to cry. His family drank, fought with neighbors and with one another, beat the women, the horse, the cow, and sometimes, in special rages, their own heads against the wall. They were a big family on a tiny piece of land. They worked hard but not well. And all of them lived in one hut-men, women, and children slept together on the floor. The village was small and poor, far from the town; when they went there for the fair, it seemed big and rich to Vasil.
In the town there were Jews-people who wore strange clothes, sat in stores, ate white challah, and had sold Christ. The last point was not quite clear: Who was Christ, why did Jews sell him, who bought him, and for what purpose?-it was all in a fog. White challah, that was something else again. Vasil saw it a few times with his own eyes, and more than that-he stole a piece and ate it, whereupon he stood for a time in a daze, an expression of wonder on his face. He did not understand it all, but respect for white challah stayed with him.
Although he was half an inch too short, he was drafted into the army because of his broad, hunched shoulders and thick, short neck. In the army, beatings were again ordinary. The corporal, the sergeant, and the officers beat the privates, and the privates beat one another. Vasil couldn’t learn the service regulations. He didn’t understand and didn’t think. Nor was he a good talker; when hard-pressed he usually couldn’t make a sound, and his face grew tense and his low forehead wrinkled.
Kasha and borscht, at least, were plentiful. And there were a few Jews in his regiment-Jews who had sold Christ-but in their army uniforms and without white challah the looked almost like anyone else.
They traveled in trains, they marched, they rode again, and then again they marched; they camped or were quartered in houses. This went on so long that Vasil became completely confused. He no longer remembered when it had begun. It was as though all his life had been spent moving from town to town, with tens or hundreds of thousands of other soldiers, through foreign places inhabited by strange people who spoke meaningless languages and looked scared or mad. Nothing particularly new had happened, but fighting had become the very essence of life. Everyone was fighting now, and this time it was no longer just beatings, but serious battle: They fired at people, cut them to pieces, stuck them with bayonets, sometimes even bit them with their teeth. He too fought, savagely, and as time went on with ever greater relish. Now food no longer came regularly, they slept little, they marched, and they fought a great deal. All this made him restless. He missed something, he longed for something, and at times he howled like a dog because he couldn’t say what it was that he wanted.
The soldiers advanced over steadily higher ground; chains of giant mountains seamed the country in all directions, and winter ruled over them without respite. They inched their way through valleys, knee-deep in powdery snow, and icy winds raked their faces and hands. But the officers were cheerful and kindlier than before, and spoke of victory; and food, though not always served on time, was plentiful.
At night they were sometimes permitted to build fires in the snow; then monstrous shadows moved between the mountains, and the soldiers sang. Vasil too tried to sing, but he could only howl. They slept like the dead, without dreams or nightmares, and time and again during the day the mountains boomed with the thunder of cannon, and men again climbed up and down the slopes.
A mounted messenger galloped madly through the camp; an advance cavalry unit returned suddenly and occupied positions on the flank; two batteries were moved from the left to the right. The surrounding mountains split open like erupting volcanoes, and a deluge of fire, lead, and iron poured down upon the world.
The barrage kept up for a long time. Piotr Kudlo was cut to pieces; handsome Kruvenko, the best singer in the company, lay face-down in a puddle of blood; Lieutenant Somov, the one with girlish features, lost a leg, and giant Neumann, the blond Estonian, had his whole face torn off. Pockmarked Gavrilov, dead; a single shell wiped out the two Bulgach brothers; and also killed were Chaim Ostrovsky, Jan Zatyka, Staszek Pieprz, and the little Latvian whose name Vasil couldn’t pronounce. Whole ranks were mowed down. It was impossible to hold on. Then Nahum Rachek, a tall, slender young man who’d always been silent, jumped up and with any order to do so ran forward. This gave new spirit to dazed men, who charged the jagged hill to the left and practically with their bare hands conquered the batteries that led the enemy artillery, strangling the defenders like cats, down to the last man. But of Vasil’s entire company only Vasil and Nahum Rachek remained. After the battle, Rachek lay on the ground vomiting green gall, and next to him lay his rifle, its butt smeared with blood and brains. He wasn’t wounded, and when Vasil asked what was the matter, he didn’t answer.
After sunset the army abandoned the conquered position and fell back. How and why this happened, Vasil didn’t know. But from that moment on the army began to roll down the mountains like an avalanche. The further they went the quicker and more chaotic was the retreat, and in the end they ran-ran without stopping, day and night. Vasil didn’t recognize the country. Each place was new to him, and he knew only from hearsay that they were moving back. Mountains and winter had long been left behind. Around them stretched a broad, endless plain. Spring was in full bloom; the army ran and ran. The officers grew savage, they beat the soldiers without reason and without pity. A few times they stopped for awhile; the cannon roared, a rain of fire whipped the earth, and men fell like flies; then they ran again.
Someone said that all this was the fault of the Jews. Again the Jews! They sold Christ, they eat white challah, and on top of it all they’re to blame for everything. What was “everything”? Vasil wrinkled his forehead and was angry at the Jews and at someone else. Leaflets appeared, printed leaflets that a man distributed among the troops. In the camps groups gathered around those who could read. They stood listening in silence- they were silent in a strange way, unlike people who just don’t talk. Someone handed a leaflet to Vasil, too; he examined it, fingered it, put it in his pocket, and joined a group to hear what was being read. He didn’t understand a word, except that it was about Jews. So the Jews must know, he thought, and he turned to Nahum Rachek.
“Here, read it,” he said.
Rachek glanced at the leaflet, then at Vasil. But he said nothing, and seemed about to throw the leaflet away.
“Don’t! It’s not yours!” Vasil said. He took back the leaflet, stuck it in his pocket, and paced back and forth in agitation. Then he turned to Rachek. “What does it say? It’s about you, isn’t it?”
Nahum looked angry. “Yes, about me. It says I’m a traitor, see? That I’ve betrayed us-that I’m a spy. Like that German who was caught and shot. Get it?”
Vasil was scared. He began to sweat. He left Nahum, fingering his leaflet in bewilderment. This Nahum, he thought, must be a wicked man-so angry, and a spy besides, he said so himelf, but something doesn’t fit here, it’s odd, it doesn’t fit. My head is splitting.
After a long forced march they stopped somewhere. They hadn’t seen the enemy for days and hadn’t heard any firing. They dug trenches and made ready. A week later it all began again. It turned out the enemy was close; he too was in trenches, and these trenches were moving closer and closer each day, and occasionally you could see a head showing above the parapet. The soldiers ate very little, slept even less. They fired in the direction the bullets came from; bullets that kept hitting the earth wall, humming overhead, occasionally boring into human bodies. Next to Vasil, at his left, always lay Nahum Rachek. He never spoke, only kept loading his rifle and firing, mechanically, unhurriedly. Vasil could not bear the sight of him and sometimes was seized with a desire to stab him with his bayonet.
One day, when the shooting was especially bad, Vasil suddenly felt strangely restless. He glanced sideways at Rachek and saw him lying the same way he always did, on his stomach, with his rifle in his arms; but there was a hole in his head. Something broke in Vasil; he kicked the dead body, pushing it aside, and then began to shoot wildly, sticking his head up into the dense spray of lead filling the air all around him.
That night he couldn’t get to sleep; he tossed and turned, muttering curses. Once he jumped up, angry, and began to run, but then he remembered that Rachek was dead and dejectedly returned to his pallet. The Jews . . . traitors . . . sold Christ . . . traded him away for a song!
He ground his teeth and clawed at himself in his sleep.
At daybreak Vasil sat up on his pallet. He was covered with cold sweat, his teeth were chattering, and his eyes, round and wide open, tried to pierce the darkness. Who has been here? Who has been here?
It was pitch-dark and fearfully quiet, but he could still hear the rustle of the giant wings and feel the cold hem of the black cloak that had grazed his face. Someone had passed over the camp like an icy wind, and the camp was silent and frozen-an open grave with thousands of bodies, struck while asleep, stabbed in the heart. Who has been here? Who has been here?
During the day Lieutenant Muratov of the fourth battalion of the Yeniesey regiment turned up dead. Muratov was a violent, brutal man with a face the color of parchment. The bullet that went between his eyes had been fired by someone in his own battalion. When the men were questioned no one betrayed the killer. Threatened with punishment, they still refused to answer, and they remained silent when they were ordered to surrender their arms. The other regimental units were drawn up against the battalion, but when they were ordered to fire, all of them to a man lowered their rifles to the ground. Another regiment was summoned, and in ten minutes not a man of the mutinous battalion remained alive.
The next day, two officers were hacked to pieces. Three days later, following a dispute between two cavalrymen, the entire regiment split into two camps. They fought each other until only a few were left unscathed.
Then men in mufti appeared and, encouraged by the officers, began to distribute leaflets among the troops. This time they did not make long speeches, but kept repeating one thing: The Jews have betrayed us, everything is their fault.
Once again someone handed a leaflet to Vasil, but he did not take it. He pulled from his pocket, with love and respect, as though it were a precious medallion, a crumpled piece of paper frayed at the edges and stained with blood, and showed it-he had it, and remembered it. The man with the leaflets, a slim little fellow with a sand- colored beard, half-closed one of his little eyes and sized up the squat, broad-shouldered private with his short, thick neck and bulging, gray, watery eyes. He gave Vasil a friendly pat on the back and left with a strange smile on his lips.
The Jewish privates had vanished: They had been quietly gathered together and sent away, no one knew where. Everyone felt freer and more comfortable, and although there were several nationalities represented among them, they were all of one mind about it: The alien was no longer in their midst. And then someone launched a new slogan- “The Jewish government.”
This was their last stand, and when they were again defeated they no longer stopped anywhere but ran like stampeding animals fleeing a steppe fire, together or one by one, without commanders and without order, in deathly fear, rushing through every passage left open by the enemy. Not all of them had weapons, nobody had a full outfit of clothing. The summer sun beat down on them mercilessly, and they ate only what they could forage. Now their native tongue was spoken in the towns, and their native fields lay around them, but the fields were unrecognizable, for last year’s crops were rotting, trampled into the earth, and the land lay dry and gray and riddled like the carcass of an ox set upon by wolves.
And while the armies crawled over the earth like worms, flocks of ravens soared overhead, calling with a dry rattling sound-the sound of tearing canvas-and swooped and slanted in intricate spirals, waiting for what would be theirs.
Between Kolov and Zhaditsa the starved and crazed legions caught up with large groups of Jews who had been ordered out of border towns, with their women, children, invalids, and bundles. A voice said, “Get them!” The words sounded the report of a gun. At first Vasil held back, but the loud screams of women and children and the repulsive, terrified faces of the men with their long earlocks and caftans blowing in the wind drove him to a frenzy, and he cut into the Jews like a mad bull. They were destroyed with merciful speed: The army trampled over them like a herd of galloping horses.
Then, once again, someone said in a shrill little voice, “The Jewish government!”
The words soared high and like a peal of thunder rolled over the wild legions, spreading to villages and cities and reaching the remotest corners of the land. The retreating troops struck out at the region with fire and sword. By night burning cities lighted their path, and by day smoke obscured the sun and the sky rolled in cottony masses over the earth, and suffocated ravens fell to the ground. They burned the towns of Zykov, Potapno, Kholodno, Stary Yug, Sheliuba; Ostrogorie, Sava, Rika, Beloye Krilo, and Stupnik were wiped from the face of the earth; the Jewish weaving town of Belopriazha went up in smoke, and the Vinokur Forest, where 30,000 Jews sought refuge, blazed like a bonfire, and for three days in a row agonized cries rose like poisonous gases from the woods and spread over the land. The swift, narrow Sinevodka River was entirely choked with human bodies a little below Lutsin and overflowed into the fields.
The hosts grew larger. The peasant left his village and the city dweller his city; priests with icons and crosses in their hands led processions through villages, devoutly and enthusiastically blessing the people, and the slogan was, “The Jewish government.” The Jews themselves realized that their last hour had struck-the very last; and those who remained alive set out to die among Jews in Maliassy, the oldest and largest Jewish center in the land, a seat of learning since the fourteenth century, a city of ancient synagogues and great yeshivas, with rabbis and modern scholars, with an aristocracy of learning and of trade. Here, in Maliassy, the Jews fasted and prayed, confessing their sins to God, begging forgiveness of friend and enemy. Aged men recited Psalms and Lamentations, younger men burned stocks of grain and clothing, demolished furniture, broke and destroyed everything that might be of use to the approaching army. And this army came, it came from all directions, and set fire to the city from all sides, and poured into the streets. Young men tried to resist and went out with revolvers in their hands. The revolvers sounded like popguns. The soldiers answered with thundering laughter, and drew out the young men’s veins one by one, and broke their bones into little pieces. Then they went from house to house, slaying the men wherever they found them and dragging the women into the marketplace.
One short blow with his fist smashed the lock and the door opened.
For two days now Vasil hadn’t eaten or slept. His skin cracked in the dry heat, his bones felt disjointed, his eyes were bloodshot, and his face and neck were covered with blond stubble.
“Food!” he said hoarsely.
No one answered him. At the table stood a tall Jew in a black caftan, with a black beard and earlocks and gloomy eyes. He tightened his lips and remained silent. Vasil stepped forward, furious, and said again, “Food!”
But when he said it, the word came out less harshly. Near the window he’d caught sight of another figure-a young woman in white, with a head of black hair. Two big eyes-he had never before seen such big eyes-looked at him and through him, and the look of those eyes was such that Vasil lifted his arm to cover his own. His knees were trembling, his whole body was melting. Why, why did they have to sell Christ? And to top of it all, they were to blame for everything! Even Rachek admitted it. And they just kept quiet, looking right through you. Goddamn it, what are they after? He squeezed his head between his hands.
He felt something and looked up. The Jew stood there, deathly pale, hatred in his eyes. For a moment Vasil stared dully. Suddenly he grabbed the black beard and pulled.
A white figure stepped between him and the Jew. Rage made Vasil dizzy and burned his throat. He clawed at the white figure with one hand. A long strip tore from the dress and hung at the hem. His eyes were dazzled, almost blind. Half a breast, a beautiful shoulder, a full, round hip-everything startlingly white and soft, like white challah. Damn it-these Jews are made of white challah! Fire leapt through his body, his arm flew up like a spring and shot into the gaping dress.
A hand gripped his neck. He turned his head slowly and looked at the Jew for a moment with slitted eyes and bared teeth, ignoring the weak fingers clutching at him. Then he raised his shoulders, bent forward, took the Jew by the ankles, lifted him in the air, and smashed him against the table. He threw him down like a broken stick.
The Jew groaned; the woman screamed. But he was already on top of her. He pressed her to the floor and tore her dress together with her flesh. Now she was disgusting, her face blotchy, the tip of her nose red, her hair a mess. “Witch,” he said through his teeth. He twisted her nose like a screw. She uttered a shrill cry-short, mechanical, and unnaturally high, like the whistle of an engine. The cry penetrating his brain maddened him completely. He seized her neck and strangled her.
A white shoulder quivered before his eyes; a full, round drop of blood glistened upon it. His nostrils fluttered like wings. His teeth were grinding; suddenly they opened and bit into the white flesh.
White challah has the taste of a firm, juicy orange in the sun. Warm and hot, and the more you suck it the more burning your thirst. Sharp, thick, strangely spiced.
Like rushing down a steep hill on a sled. Like drowning in sharp, burning spirits.
In a circle, in a circle, the juices of life went from body to body, from the first to the second, from the second to the first-in a circle.
Pillars of smoke and pillars of flame rose to the sky from the entire city. Beautiful was the fire of the great altar. The cries of the victims-long, endless cries-were sweet in the ears of a god as eternal as the Eternal God. And the tender parts, the thighs and the breasts, were the portion of the priest.