Notes toward a morning prayer practice
This week's portion: only connect

Bread and soup and blessing

The year after I graduated from college, I worked at the bookstore in Williamstown, selling textbooks to college students and "regular" (trade) books to townies. I liked that job. The work was sociable and not especially taxing, and the store gave me a thirty percent discount on books...which meant, of course, that I spent far too much of my small paycheck on books; they were so cheap! I used to enjoy opening the store: arriving early enough to turn on the lights, put on a pot of coffee, set some jazz playing on the stereo, roll out the awning. Like getting ready for houseguests every day.

The schedule was one of the best things about that job. In return for working Sundays, I got Fridays and Saturdays off. In those days the only Shabbat practice I maintained consistently was baking challah: I made bread every Friday that year. That physical act connected me to the rhythm of the week.

There's something about baking bread that has always both awed and soothed me. The alchemy by which flour, water, yeast and a bit of salt are transformed into bread still amazes me. And the process is so physical, so embodied: the scent of the poolish (yeast and water and flour beginning to percolate), the silk of a handful of flour, the satiny quality of dough as it becomes ready to rest and to rise.

I'm making bread and soup today, and as I set the dough to rise and put the chicken in my soup pot I thought, "what a classic Ashkenazic Shabbat dinner this could be!" Except, of course, that it isn't, exactly. Homemade bread yes, but not braided challah: this dough is golden with a cup of cornmeal, flecked with roasted onions and minced cilantro. The soup begins with a chicken, sure, but over the course of the afternoon I've added the black beans I soaked overnight, and dark poblano peppers, and a can of hominy. Later, as the dinner hour grows closer, I'll add fresh cilantro and a jar of the corn relish I put up last August.

But as I kneaded the dough this morning I whispered blessings, my hopes that this bread be capable of nourishing those who eat it on many levels at once. As I've been tinkering with the soup -- pulling meat off the bird's bones, slicing the jalapeño peppers I put up in September -- I've had the same prayer in mind. When I raise my wineglass tonight, I'll be thinking of my family and friends in farflung places, mentally and spiritually sending the blessings of Shabbat to their tables and their hearts. Isn't that what makes Friday night dinner into Shabbat supper? Not what we eat, but how we eat it; not what we make, but who we aspire to be.

A sweet Shabbat to all of you reading this, whoever and wherever you are.


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