Rolling in dough
Israel’s Challah Prince talks about meditation, braiding, and life
Braids are one of those physical things that work wonderfully as metaphor.
A braid is an entwined thing that allows each of its parts to retain its own identity but also to dance around all the others, to touch and back away. It’s strong and durable. It can get messy while remaining entirely braid-like.
It can be beautiful.
A non-physical braid is a chain, a connection, a series of interconnected human relationships.
Challah is made of braids; when it’s baked, it becomes one loaf of bread, which of course has to be deconstructed in order to be eaten — the fate of any challah — but until it’s baked, it’s separate strands. The act of baking changes the nature of the braid, just as the act of baking changes the nature of the dough.
There’s an awful lot of mileage you can get from a braid.
The Challah Prince of Israel — Idan Chabasov, when he’s not baking — a self-made challah artist (not that he calls himself that), will show a group of BBYO members how he braids challah at an upcoming convention, to be held in north Jersey. (BBYO is the group formerly known as B’nai B’rith Youth Organization; it now choses to go by its initials only.)
Before that, he talks about how he came to be the Challah Prince, and we explore the chain of events that brings him here.
When Idan Chabasov was 28, he left his home in Israel “for adventure,” he said. “I thought, okay, I need to move. I need to have different experiences in my life.” He had earned a degree in animation and video art in Tel Aviv; before that, he’d been a ballet dancer. He was creative, working in both visual and performance arts. And he was ready for something new.
So he moved to Germany.
“I thought it would give me the opportunity to explore the art scene outside of Israel.”
He never thought of baking, he said.
He knew a lot of people in Germany, Israelis who’d made a move like his, so he had expected an easier transition than the one he had. He didn’t speak much German then. “There is always some fear when you are in a new place, and that fear really took over. I was depressed for the first year there. So I started to meditate. Then I studied how to facilitate, and I became a meditation facilitator for two years.”
And then, somehow, in a move that was more intuitive than logical but seems logical in hindsight, “meditation brought me a passion to bake,” Idan said. “Or at least to reconnect to my Jewish identity through challah, through creation, through making something that was beautiful and fun.
“I always knew that I was an artist, but I never thought that I would be creative through food.”
Baking, like meditation, is a process that cannot be rushed, he said. “If you aren’t present, you probably will miss something.
“I remind people to relax and smile” as they prepare their dough, knead it, and bake it. “The dough can feel our energy. Each time when I come into the kitchen, it is a different journey, and I don’t know how it will end. I have a vision in my head about how the challah will come out, but until I experience the dough in my two hands, I will never know.
“The journey can bring disappointment or happiness or pride or satisfaction. Like meditation, it brings many emotions. It is physical; like active Osho meditation, breathing with expression.”
There is so much involved with baking challah that “I love to say that the fact that we also eat it is just a bonus. It’s an extra.”
It’s probably not accidental that Idan felt so connected to the Jewish community in Berlin, a place not associated with happy Jewish communities for much of the last century. The community there is small and tight. Braided together, in fact. “It is so beautiful to see how people love it, connect to it, relate to it,” he said. “To see what the challah means to each person.”
Idan first got the idea of baking challah when he started noticing that although he and his friends would gather for Shabbat dinner in Berlin, “we always had just bread on the table.” That’s because it’s hard to get challah there, and almost impossible to get good challah. Most of it “is dry and tasteless,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Okay, Idan, you probably have to bake challah.’ His first one “was terrible, but to open the oven that first time, it was heaven.’”
Idan is a self-taught baker. He used YouTube videos at first, but after he learned the basics, he found those resources to be more repetitive than useful. “I taught myself; I worked at it every day, and asked my friends, and read about the chemistry, the yeast and the salt and the dough. It took me a while, but I am so happy because I did it on my own. I really found my own way to do things.
“I came clean to this process, and that was my biggest gift.” Much of it happened during the early part of the pandemic, when there wasn’t much else to do; that also helped, he said.
When he felt confident baking challot, he tried to “bring different tastes,” Idan said. “I tried to do it with chocolate, with extras. But I discovered that I wasn’t interested in those kinds of recipes. I loved the visual. I always like aesthetics.
“So it was like a huge insight, okay, right, these kinds of recipes, they’re just maybe not me.
“My role was to bring some new shapes, to challenge myself as an artist.”
That’s when he started braiding.
Sometimes he creates new shapes; sometimes he uses old ones in new patterns. “It’s like being a dancer,” he said. “The movements are the same, but you use new sequences. New choreography. It’s the same with challah. You use the same braids, and place them in different ways.
“And then you eat them!”
Idan tried to start his challah business in Germany, but it was too difficult, and anyway, it was time to go home. So he moved back to Israel in May 2021, and the Challah Prince took off. He’s now a huge and growing presence on Instagram, and he frequently comes to the United States to give workshops.
At the workshop at the BBYO convention, he will give participants dough that’s ready to braid; it’s not a baking workshop. It’s a braiding one.
Emily Goodman is BBYO Manhattan’s regional director. She’s bringing teens from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to the north Jersey convention.
BBYO “is the biggest Jewish teen movement in the country,” Ms. Goodman said. The convention “will have about 150 teens. It’s about leadership, about bringing teens together, having fun, understanding their Jewish identities, and developing into the leaders that they are.
“We’re bringing Idan in for the keynote so kids can make challah and learn from him and his story.” They’ll learn at least the beginnings of how to braid challah, but the lessons will go far beyond that. “The convention theme is mental health and wellness,” Ms. Goodman said. “It’s Yom Menucha” — the day of rest, Shabbat — “taking a break from everyday life, being present, being in the here and now, enjoying the time together.
“Kids have a lot of mental health issues now, because of the pandemic, and because of being in high school. We want to show them outlets — through the arts, cooking — other things you can do to feel better.”
One of the convention’s goals is to show the connection between creativity and wellness, she said.
After Idan gives the keynote talk, there will be two limmud — study — rotations, Ms. Goodman said. “About 60 kids will go into the room with the Challah Prince, and during that time they can try hands-on braiding.
“Kids figure out who they are at conventions, and a lot of them are looking for an outlet to help them figure out what their hobbies and passions are.” Baking and braiding might be one of those hobbies or even one of those passions, as it improbably turned out to be Idan’s.
It’s not necessarily easy to get kids in the New York metropolitan area to go to Jewish activities, Ms. Goodman said. “Jewishness is always surrounding you, so you don’t have to look for it.” That’s why Idan will be at the conference. “The better the programs, the more people come to them,” she said.
Once BBYO leaders knew that they wanted Idan at the convention, they began to ponder logistics.
They need a lot of dough. It has to be prepared, kneaded, and ready to braid.
That’s where the other kind of braiding came in. The human kind. It wound through the Kushner Academy in Livingston, whose caterer knew that the bakers needed a huge kosher industrial mixer, and suggested calling Super Duper Bagels in Livingston. That worked. The dough will be mixed there. Some of it will be stored at B’nai Israel in Millburn, and some at Congregation Ahavas Shalom in Newark. And it was through Mariela Dybner, B’nai Israel’s immediate past president and the mother of twin boys who are Eagle Scouts, that the connection to Rabbi Lisa Vernon was made. Rabbi Vernon leads the Boy Scout troop.
In other words, it took Orthodox and Conservative Jews, shuls and schools and stores, and a Boy Scout troop, to get this BBYO program about challah-braiding, aimed at New York kids, to work.
“The coming together of all these various streams is different,” Rabbi Vernon said. “I’ve been living in MetroWest for over 30 years, and I have not seen or been aware of this kind of cross-cooperation. It’s great.
“I’d love to see it become a more frequent occurrence, people becoming aware of the resources that they all have.”
The MetroWest Boy Scout troop — which now includes girls — is 28 years old, Rabbi Vernon said; still, many people don’t know about it.
Increasingly, she hopes, people will hear about it.
Rabbi Vernon is going to interview the Challah Prince for the keynote talk. “He’ll be able to tell his story, and he can focus on the challah,” she said. “He can be interactive with the kids.”
It’s all braided together.
Idan Chabasov is on Instagram at challahprince. Local teenagers can learn about BBYO at bbyo.org, and about BBYO’s New Jersey programs at the Greater Jersey Hudson River region, which stretches from Albany to Ocean County and has its headquarters in Scotch Plains, by following the links on that site.