Friday, April 5, 2013

Challah Bread, Tiny Houses, and Appreciating "Stuff"

Jews like me just completed the annual holiday of Passover, when we avoid anything leavened, like--especially--bread. One explanation is that at the commemoration of the creation of Jewish people-hood, we shouldn't get "puffed up," like risen dough, with our own sense of self-importance. We shouldn't be arrogant because God decided we were His people, or because individually, it's too easy, with Facebook posts and Instagram and Twitter, to think the world revolves around us. Not us: Me.

So with that recent reminder, it seems we ought to laud the folk who are smiling from the front pages of our newspapers and magazines because they've divested all their personal effects and decided to live in a 250-square-foot box. Downsizing to the ridiculous is now a fad, the "Tiny House Movement," perfect for anyone on the no-carbon-footprint bandwagon. Still, I respect those with small aspirations. In an engrossing documentary by Kirsten Dirksen on tiny homes, Stephen Marshall, who builds wee buildings in California, (quoting Michael Janzen, from the Tiny House Design blog) repeats the trendsetters' slogan: "Tiny houses are not a fad; it's McMansions that are the fad."

Not that people choosing small spaces are selfless. But generally, they are passionate that a life with minimal material goods is not just good; it's better for the planet and the soul.

I beg to differ. While certainly there's plenty of waste, plenty of hoarding and plenty of consumerism that unfortunately trumps kindness and spirituality, it doesn't have to be that way.  A Jewish approach holds that wealth is a positive, worth pursuing, as long as it's attached to the proper attitude. More money means you can help more people. Beautiful things are a blessing if they're appreciated and cherished.

How do I come upon this topic? I'm often heard saying, "I have more of (fill in the blank) than any human should be allowed to have." I have a collection of lovely paper napkins, each pack with a print that thrills me. They're too good to use, my "save it for the best occasion" self says, and then my smarter self takes over: "But what could be a better occasion? Who better than my friends and family to save it for? How many packs of heart-thrilling printed paper do I really need? There are more exciting napkin designs to be had!"

So I use them, and enjoy them, and frequently re-organize them. A simple pack of paper napkins (always bought at bargain price at Tuesday Morning or Ikea) enriches my day. Do I need 20 packs of paper napkins? No. But just having them reminds me how privileged I am to be able to collect them.

Same with napkin rings. I host Sabbath meals--fancy, formal, religious occasions--for 12 every week. And over 28 years of marriage, I've amassed a large collection of tableware. Table cloths. Cloth napkins. Vases. Drinking glasses. Table runners. If I can use it on a Shabbat table, I have "more than any human should be allowed to have." Occasionally I cull my possessions. Often, I enjoy and admire what I have (since every week, I'm designing another completely new tablescape).

I also have a drawer-ful of socks. More socks than I could wear every day for three months.
These are not my socks, but could be.
In fact, choosing my socks today spurred writing this post. I'm wearing a lavender top (a hand-me-up from a daughter) and could choose from many patterned socks. I recalled when I was in college and scraping by on my part-time minimum-wage earnings that I owned just two pairs of jeans, four tops, and four pair of socks. I owned two very cheap necklaces. It never occurred to me to spend time shopping, or that I needed more.

Now I have dozens of necklaces, selected at craft fairs because I enjoyed them, or gifts from people I love. Am I living an inferior life? No, I'm simply surrounded by more beauty, memories and joy. If I had to live in one of those eensie shoe-boxes, I could, but I'd feel loss when I gave up the necklace my son made in kindergarten or the one my friend bought, the same for each of us.

But as I get older and keep pushing aside the idea that there are only so many days left to use up all those napkins, wear all those pairs of socks or colorful necklaces, I view them all with increased appreciation and urgency. Yes, it's good to purge and even downsize, but it's also good to see something beautiful or useful and enjoy it. I don't have to own everything I appreciate; I certainly don't buy all the clever and gorgeous items I see or even want. But I don't think that people in spacious homes with lots of stuff are necessarily any less responsible than the tiny housers, and I don't think that embracing the bounty of our material world is inferior to eschewing it.

And now, post-Passover, it's once again the eve of Shabbat, the busiest day of the week for me, as I prepare to welcome my brother-in-law from Israel along with two tables-ful of guests, and must immediately make my challah bread dough, so it has enough time to rise.

                                                  Diane Medved's Challah

2 1/2 teaspoons yeast
2 cups warm water
8 1/2 cups King Arthur bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
2/3 to 3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 beaten egg for glaze

Sprinkle yeast on warm water in measuring cup; set aside for about 10 minutes. In large food processor with dough blade, combine flour, salt and sugar. Add oil and eggs but don't mix. Return to yeast/water and gently make sure all yeast is combined in water and starting to bubble. Flash blend while slowly adding yeast mixture, then process until dough moves as one lump around processor bowl. Remove the clump to a trash bag-sized plastic bag; knead a little and then seal the bag with a twist-tie. Place in a warm place several hours until risen. Line 2 large baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick spray. Punch down and divide dough into four large pieces. Divide one of the large pieces into three strands and braid onto the baking sheet; repeat so there are two long loaves per baking sheet. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush beaten egg on loaves and bake for 16 minutes, til golden. Say a blessing, and enjoy.


  1. Great post, Diane. I have also read about this Lilliputian trend, and while I don't have as many socks or napkins or tablecloths as you have, I totally agree that appreciating what we have, and using it to the good, as you so clearly and consistently do, is primary.

    Besides, if we all lived in (momentarily) stylish little huts, imagine how many jobs would be lost!

  2. Hear, hear! Well put. While it's great to be able to live simply, I see no harm in appreciating objects, either. We never 'shop' in our family, but we also don't throw much away (though on occasion we realize some stuff probably really should go...!). Even beyond saving memories and keepsakes, it's nice to appreciate the beautiful items people have crafted, to appreciate the great things in the world. I believe the Talmud says that those who have never seen Jerusalem in its splendor have never seen a fine city, and that's not referring to its spirituality alone.

  3. Thanks for the recipe. I appreciate all the little tricks of the trade and details. It is just like watching Mama in the kitchen.