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bread and baking part 2: baking as a spiritual practice

February 22, 2012

Part 2 in a series on bread and baking.

“One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.” -Martin Buber

Like many people who grow up in the Conservative movement, I did not have a natural sense of spirituality associated with Jewish ritual, prayer, or liturgy. I am not sure this is Conservative Judaism’s strong suit. I struggled with what role God does or should play in my life, what the purpose of praying is, how to find meaning in the canon of Jewish liturgy.

Spirituality, what does that even mean? Right now it means a sense of a power larger than me, who partners with me in creating my life. I have a sense of feeling part of something else, something beyond my own decisions and actions. It also connects me with my history, both personally and communally. And it gives me the ability to look at everyday actions, beauty, friends, solitude, music – with a sense of awe, though I sometimes think of myself as a cynic.

I picked up baking. Bread, specifically. And the start of bread baking for me was also the beginning of a new chapter of spiritual practice. I could say that I baked bread for the purpose of having bread to eat – that would be simple enough. But I was living alone at the time. And as my “hobby” picked up, I started to have more bread than I could eat, so I would share it with co-workers and friends, which gave me a second layer of satisfaction beyond baking it and eating it in my own kitchen.

round challah rising

learning to slow down: a rosh hashanah challah is carefully braided and then rises again before being baked

Coming into this spiritual practice also required leaving New York. I needed to feel more connected to my body, my food, community – and I needed to slow down in order to do that. In Boston I had a more flexible schedule, more time to cook and bake. And at the same time, I was coming to the realization that I had a gluten intolerance. My body could no longer digest the magical bread I had started baking only a year earlier. I was devastated.

So here was the moment. What did I love about baking bread?
-Slowing down. The slower the better. Mark Bittman’s No Knead bread was a revelation to me. All this bread needed was yeast, salt, flour, and water. And time.

no-knead bread

no-knead bread rising in a floured towel

-Planning ahead. I have always been a planner. Baking bread really took full advantage of this skill. There’s something that I actually love about how you can’t eat bread 5 minutes after you thought to make it. The best bread takes thoughtful planning, no shortcuts or tips or “30 minute meals” here.

-Presence. Bread does not bake itself. Whether it’s bread that requires kneading or overnight time or, in the case of gluten-free bread, careful measuring and balancing of flours, you need to be present. This might be the crux for me: much like meditation, bread baking requires mindfulness and focus. Just because you know the recipe by heart does not mean you can check out and think about something else. You might forget the salt, or overknead, or not leave yourself enough time for your bread to rise.

-Magic. Here is where Shechina/God comes in. Bread is a partnership between humans and divinity. The fact that you can take a grass (I’m talking gluten here), grind it up into tiny disparate parts, mix it with water and live cultures and turn it into bread? There’s something magical happening there. I believe that even those chemical reactions are God.

-Connection. Nourishing other people with your hard work – do I even need to get into this? What a blessing for everyone involved. We nourish ourselves by nourishing others.

With all of this in mind, I began a Community Supported Breadery (CSB) in my new community in Boston, and became known in some circles as “the bread person.” This was at the same time I stopped eating gluten. A lot of people were confused by this, but it made perfect sense to me: bread baking brought me so much spiritual and emotional nourishment and I could no longer eat it – so I needed an outlet for it. This was it. And it was wonderful. I was fully present, immersed in flour and yeast and caraway seeds and raisins two days per week, and was visited by new friends and community members, excitedly picking up warm loaves of bread from my home.

The CSB proved to be a perfect bridge between my short-lived bread baking and eating days and my gluten free days. It allowed me to continue the spiritual practice, to cultivate it multiple times a week, without having to eat all that bread.

pile of fresh bread

community supported breadery (CSB) breads awaiting pickup

I believe that each of these parts of bread baking are spiritual practices to cultivate on their own. And each time we practice one of them in our kitchens we work towards turning our kitchen tables into altars.

Upcoming installments: feminism and connections to the past; crossing over to the gluten free side of baking, and more.

One comment

  1. [...] some degree of regularity, I would say that my reasoning for continuing to love bread baking, and the ways that it is a spiritual practice, remain the same. I love to focus on my baking, though a lot of the focus here is on weighing [...]



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