Collective Memory: Mind, Body and Bowl

challahA couple of weeks ago, I made my first two loaves of homemade challah in probably more than three years.  I had made challah religiously (pun intended!) just about every week for Shabbat for the better part of 10 years, but paused when my son became gluten intolerant, and then stopped altogether once my daughter was diagnosed with a severe egg allergy.  Though I loved doing it, and missed it terribly, I simply couldn’t justify poisoning the children for the sake of tradition.  But when both children had finally outgrown their food intolerance/allergy (my daughter, Nili can now tolerate egg in baked form), I looked forward to doing it again.

Despite the long recess, I was surprised at how easily it came back to me.  I didn’t really have to think about it.  Most days, I couldn’t tell you what I ate for breakfast, but a recipe that I hadn’t made in years was still right there in the not-so-deep recesses of my brain.  And, perhaps even more amazingly, my body just knew what to do.  I moved through the kitchen smoothly and gracefully, gathering exactly what I needed, measuring, mixing, and then kneading until the dough felt just right.  With a final pat to the dough ball, and a damp towel placed over the bowl, the work was mostly done.  Only it didn’t feel like work.  (I would say it was almost like dancing, though if you have ever seen me dance, then you know that would have referenced an awkward disaster.)  This was memory coming almost magically back to life.

I started baking challah when my (now) husband, Jay, and I lived in Jerusalem.  This was a time of Jewish exploration, for both of us, of ritual, text, and tradition—including that of baking challah for Shabbat.  I was given a recipe by a dear friend, who had received it from her sister-in-law, who had gotten it from another family member, and so on and so forth.  As these are always the best kind of recipes, I felt this was an auspicious starting point.

However, Jay and I were poor students living in a sparse, poorly heated apartment, with handful of outdated appliances.  One of these was the “oven” I used for baking the challah, which was little more than an oversized toaster oven, with numbers on a dial from 1-10.  It took me weeks to figure out what setting and length of time were appropriate for baking, but I still couldn’t solve the problem of the cold.  The apartment was so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers, let alone get a challah to properly rise.

One Friday, in a fit of frustration, I called my father.  Why exactly, I can’t say; he had never baked a challah in his entire life.  Yet, remarkably, he knew exactly what to do.  He said, “You have to do what my grandmother did.  You have to put the challah in the bed under the down comforter.  It will have trapped heat from the night before and make the dough rise.”  I knew he was right before I even tried it.  (Most bakers will tell you that even on the coldest winter days, putting the dough in the oven with just the light on will do the trick. Assuming, of course, your oven has a light, which it seems neither my great-grandmother’s, nor ours in Jerusalem, did.)  After weeks of challot that felt more like Jerusalem stone than bread, I had finally produced a passable, edible, some might even say good, challah.

ingredientsYears later, when I moved to Denver, Colorado, making the challah dough became a weekly ritual with one of my dearest friends.  In the beginning, she wanted to learn to make challah, and I wanted learn to bake at high altitude.  But soon Thursday evening became our time together.  We each brought whatever ingredients we had to share and sat at the counter in her warm yellow kitchen.  Over a huge mixing bowl, we talked and talked.  We shared stories, recipes and secrets.  We talked about family, marriage, financial stress; about what scared us and what gave us hope. Sometimes we laughed until we cried.  Sometimes we just cried.  We shed so many tears over those bowls of dough, that I often felt we could omit the salt.  It was our tradition and we loved it, but we most certainly hadn’t invented it.  How many generations of Jewish women had talked and laughed and cried while making challah each week for Shabbat?

For me, making challah is a kind of “collective memory”.  This concept is first presented by the father of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim (1912).  Though he never used those exact words, he studied ritual, and the objects used in ritual practice (referred to as totems), noting that they create a kind of collective “effervescence”—lasting powerful experiences which transcend both the individual and the event itself.  When individuals think back on the event, or look at totems from the event, they recall not only their own individual memories, but the shared effect of bonding and sense of unity within the group.

It was Durkheim’s student, Maurice Halbwachs (1952), who actually coined the term “collective memory” and ran with the idea.   He suggests that we don’t really have individual memories, other than perhaps in our dreams.  What we think of as our own personal memories are actually shaped by the social context in which events occur, and by the kind of language we use to describe them.  He argues that groups construct collective memories—meaningful frameworks to help us understand past events.  However, it is the individuals who do the work of remembering.  Each time we, as individuals, participate in a ritual behavior, we help recall and re-create the communal experiences which made that ritual meaningful.

Halbwachs’ work is carried even a step further by sociologist Paul Connerton (1989), who developed the notion that the human body can be seen as a container or carrier of memory.  When our body goes through traditional or habitual motions, it is not merely an expression of our own individual memory, but rather of our collective past.  Thus, when I make challah, and my body almost automatically goes through the physical motions, I not only embody the memory of the many personal experiences I had of this ritual, but the collective memory of generations of Jews who have performed the ritual of making challah.  Not just any old bread, mind you, but Jewish bread—the bread of my community—a specific kind of bread, made in a specific form, on a specific day of the week, to be eaten in specific ritual, and, well…you get the idea.

If you think about it, it sounds pretty out there—this idea that I not only have my own individual memories, though perhaps not even these, but my mind, body, and even my bowl, carry the collective Jewish memory.  Definitely a little woo-ey, yet oddly comforting.  There is something about this concept that resonates, not just within my sociological brain, but within my Jewish soul.  Jews are actually commanded to remember the Sabbath and the story of the Exodus, among other memories.  In fact, we are told to read and remember the Passover story as though we, ourselves, were Jews in Egypt.

It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite literary quotes, by Jonathan Safran Foer:

Jews Have Six Senses

Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory.  While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger.  The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins…When a Jews encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like? (Everything is Illuminated, 2002, 198-199)

Every now and then, I have the urge to put my challah dough in the bed under the comforter, just for old time’s sake, to remember what it was like.  I also dream of someday passing on my mixing bowl to my children so that they can continue the tradition of challah baking.  Believe me when I say that the bowl is nothing special—I bought it at Ikea.  But, it is just the right size and shape for mixing and kneading the dough right in the bowl.  I like to think of their bodies in similar movement to mine as they mix and knead, maybe while talking, laughing and crying with someone they care for and trust.  I like to imagine that, perhaps, at some molecular level, invisible to the naked eye, it has “effervescence”—that this bowl vibrates ever so slightly with the Jewish wisdom of generations past.  And I hope that, as they use it, they will remember my memories, my great-grandmother’s memories, and the memories of countless Jews making challah for those they love.

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