So, your father-in-law just passed away—sorry about that by the way—and now you’ve been told you need to make something for your mother-in-law’s sitting shiva. What the hell is a shiva anyways? Why is it sitting? It’s a good thing you opened this particular link in the all-knowing search engine because this is where you’ll find the answers you didn’t know you needed. Although your spouse Noa isn’t a practicing Jew anymore, their parents are, so you need to know these things before you go. A sitting shiva is kind of like a funeral, a time of mourning for the immediate family of the deceased—John’s wife Miriam, his kids, and such.

You don’t know their culture or customs, but obviously, you care because you’ve already figured out challah has a Jewish origin, is served during ceremonies, and you clicked on this recipe because it has the word “traditional” in the title. And shiva isn’t the only thing you’ve been Googling. Noa hasn’t been the same person you’ve woken up next to for the last seven years. Yesterday morning, you waited around the corner of the living room a few seconds too long to scroll quickly through the article, “How to Support a Grieving Spouse.” As you stood hidden behind the white drywall, Noa stared into the television set with unseeing eyes.

Your mother-in-law, partner, and a few others are going to need you right now. At Noa’s parent’s house, they will be dedicating their time to remember and reflect on their lives spent with John. All of their time and energy will go into healing themselves spiritually and emotionally. This leaves you to pick up the slack. Miriam will not groom or feed herself for seven days, as this shiva is for her. A traditional shiva candle will be lit for the entirety of the week. Don’t think about what John said the night before your wedding; this isn’t about him

anymore. Besides, he didn’t mean it. So, get to the grocery store and bring this list.



3 ½ teaspoons Dry Yeast

1 tablespoon and 1 cup Granulated Sugar

½ cup Vegetable Oil

5 Eggs

1 tablespoon Salt

8 cups All-Purpose Flour

Poppy or Sesame Seeds, Maybe


Step One:

You’ll want to grab a large bowl. Yes, the one you usually dump a couple bags of microwave popcorn into when your friends come over. Top shelf, to the right. Pour in 1 ¾ c. of lukewarm water and dissolve the yeast with 1 tbsp. of sugar. When you step down from the stool after grabbing the bowl, your knee threatens to give way. Don’t be nervous, this isn’t a hard recipe. In fact, you’re pretty sure you’ve seen Noa make French toast with homemade challah before. Remember? They snuck out of bed far before your alarm sounded so that you’d wake up to the smell of freshly ground coffee, baked bread, and powdered sugar. The kitchen is usually where you’d find them around any mealtime, but you’ve had to persuade them to eat the strawberry Life cereal and milk you set out for them these last few days.        


Step Two:

Now, don’t be alarmed when you walk in if Miriam is on the floor. Sitting on the ground, small boxes, or low chairs are the sitting part of shiva. It symbolizes being emotionally brought low by the passing of a loved one. This traditionally shows the mourner is uncomfortable and honors the loss, but has Miriam ever been comfortable in his house in the first place? The first time you were invited to Noa’s for dinner, she floated around in the background serving matzah ball soup. Indulging in a habit he picked up in his days of being a local politician, John talked over everyone else at the table. During the meal, John’s words crowded your ears, never leaving enough space between sentences for you to respond. Years later, Miriam still seemed to hold her breath when he walked into a room. Whisk the oil into the yeast. Then, one by one, beat in four of the eggs with what’s left of the salt and sugar. Carefully and gradually stir in the flour. You’re getting a little ahead of yourself. If you try to put too much flour in at once, you’re going to make it harder than it needs to be.

John had never missed a baseball game. Your nephew and niece on Noa’s side, they have a lot of school events. Noa loves their niece and nephew, so they’ve brought you along to every baseball game, ballet recital, and symphonic band performance they’ve been invited to. Even when one of the kid’s own parents couldn’t come, John was always there. You’ve seen the checks made out to the team sitting on his kitchen counter. You saw him slipping dollar bills into the jar by the auditorium door that read: “Donations encouraged, but not required,” while the band was tuning up. How bad was he, really? When the mixture combines and holds itself together into a dough, it’s ready to be kneaded. You could use a stand mixer with a dough hook and let it do the heavy lifting for you. Do you always let something else do your heavy work?


Step Three:

Toss some extra flour onto a cutting board, the counter, pretty much anything with a big enough surface area. Turn the dough onto the floured surface and knead it until it’s nice and smoothed over. John was pretty good at that, smoothing things over. Clean out the bowl and coat it with a bit of vegetable oil. He was drunk, alright? He was old and easily overexcited. You just need to pour a small amount in and then gently wipe it out with a paper towel. You know it’s not about John anymore. He’s gone, you’re rid of him. You all are. Return the dough into the greased bowl. What were you doing wearing that kind of outfit to a family function, anyways? Miriam warned you, “Nothing above the knees. It’s just family, but you gotta be respectable. Trust me on this.”

Two inches of skin is not a big deal, you thought to yourself, slipping your shoes off when you walked into the house. You placed your dark brown sandals between a pair of pink light-up Sketchers and black loafers on the mat next to the door. Trailing behind Noa’s niece into the dining room, you saw John through the sliding glass door standing at the grill with a beer in his hand. You remember the sinking pit in your stomach when he met your eyes over the table and underneath your bare feet were touching the cold kitchen tile. Even now, you can still feel the Impossible Burger grease from his fingers and see the dark slivers of charcoal stuck under his nails. Cover the bowl with the plastic wrap you keep in the bottom drawer next to the dishwasher, you know, the least convenient spot to fetch it from when your hands are gloppy with flour and oil. Let the dough rise for about an hour. Wash your hands. Leave a sincere Facebook comment about the loss of your father-in-law.


Step Four:

You did wash your hands first, right? Speaking of, that’s another custom you’ll want to know going in. When you get to John—er, Miriam’s house—there’ll be some sort of stand with a pitcher of warm water and a hand towel outside the front door. Rinse your hands with it, then just go right in. Don’t knock. Don’t ring the doorbell. It will be unlocked and just go in. Yes, it’s hard to go back to that place, but during shiva the last thing you want to do is force the grieving family into the role of the host. The doors will be unlocked for guests to come and go as they please. Besides, you don’t want to interrupt Miriam and her mourning. She’s been disturbed enough already. Do you remember the time you saw her in their backyard, at the pool? The bruises on her collarbone and underarms were yellow with age. So go in. Take your shoes off. Punch the dough, and cover it again with the plastic wrap (though you’re probably wondering if a damp towel would be considered more “traditional” at this point). Let it rise again in the same warm place for another half an hour.

You don’t have to forgive him. You don’t even have to forgive her for forcing you to sweep it all under the rug. But, you do have to hold it in because Noa is already crumbling away. You can’t show that the sound of sizzling hamburger meat still makes you shudder, as you can feel John’s hands pushing your skirt above your waist. You aren’t the only one who suffers while cans collect next to Noa’s spot on the couch as they are mourning the loss of their dad. The smell of fermented beer will always be John’s hot breath on your face and alcohol sweat pinning you in place. You’ll never forgive him for what he did to you. But, he’s dead.


Step Five:

Alright, try to keep up here. This is where it gets complicated. John was a good dad and grandpa—or good enough, look how well your spouse turned out. Now that the dough has risen a second time, take half the dough and section it out into six balls. Using your hands, roll each of them into strands that are about twelve inches long and an inch and a half wide. Lay them out in a row parallel to each other. They look kind of strange: lumpy worms all dried out in the sun on hot pavement. Stay focused. Pinch the top of the long strands together. Miriam told you he didn’t mean what he said, and you trust Miriam. She saw the way he would look at you. She believes you. She has to. Bring the furthest left rope of dough over the rest of them, lay it straight out so it’s perpendicular to the rest of the strands. Then go to the furthest right and do the same thing. Always keep two perpendicular to the rest at the top. You’ve got four ropes left. Keep two to each side so that you have a distinct middle.

Place the strand you started out with, one of the perpendicular ones, down that middle you created. A rift you made. Now you see what’s missing, right? You didn’t let Noa visit John since that barbeque. Have they forgiven you for that? Will they, ever? You need to grab a strand from the opposite side and make that perpendicular line again. They never got to say goodbye to their dad because of you. How could you tell them what happened? Miriam begged you to forgive him. Nobody wants to hear that about their dad, and besides, he’s dead now. But you know what? It is messed up that he didn’t get punished for it. Force the rift between the four, and repeat. It’s not that fucking hard. Search it up on YouTube for god’s sake, you’re not going to get it from some words on a screen. But she’s right, he’s caused enough pain that you don’t need to spread around. Once that’s done, don’t round it out—a braided loaf will do. Nice job. Do it again with the other half of the dough you set aside.

Okay, the second loaf isn’t going so well. You got about halfway through the braid and Noa called for you, asking for some tea. You quickly splayed the loose strands of dough across the table to rinse your flour-coated hands in the sink. A strong cup of peppermint tea was prepared and cautiously set on a stone coaster in front of your spouse. Noa’s fingers met yours for just a moment as you pulled away from the handle, their chipped nail polish juxtaposed by the finished clay of the mug. How you wished to help fill in the pigments of color. As you now look helplessly at the twisted web of dough you left behind, you are still thinking about turning their fingers over in yours as they wait for you to complete them. Take a breath. Untangle the braid and start over from the beginning.


Step Six:

Carefully move the raw loaves—more carefully than that—and place the braided dough onto a neatly prepared cookie sheet with parchment paper on it at least two inches apart. You forgot to prep the cookie sheet? It should have been mentioned somewhere already… By the way, all the mirrors in the house will be covered. It goes along with the mourners not taking care of themselves by not focusing on their appearance. A different kind of reflection is required at a shiva. Once you catch up to that point, beat the remaining egg you should have. Brush the egg wash generously over the loaves. This will surely bring out a golden brown color and make Miriam proud. This is not the time for you to start drama about her dead husband. You could sprinkle some sesame or poppy seeds, maybe. Let the challah rise for another hour.


Step Seven:

Preheat the oven to 375॰F about 45 minutes into that hour. Maybe Miriam’s house will be different than when it was John’s. Maybe, when you walk in, you’ll be able to breathe. The flush of a breeze from the perpetually open screen door won’t feel like fingertips creeping up your thigh. Brush the egg on the loaves again to avoid leaving light spots on the bread when they expand in the oven. The musty curtains won’t be forced open, refusing to hide even a single wrinkle of the old man’s neck.

Add some more poppy or sesame seeds, if you chose to do that. Stick them in the oven for 30-40 minutes (your oven has always been a bit finicky) until they reach that beautiful golden brown. Don’t overdo it, though. You have to move the loaves over to a rack to let them cool so the bottoms don’t burn. You can be happy he’s gone, but there’s more to it than that. Once cooled, you’ll wrap the finished products in tin foil, ready to protect them from the outside world. You don’t have to wear black when you go to the shiva, but you know what length your skirt should be. Sit with Noa in the car with your comforting hand on their knee. Do not suggest stopping and buying flowers on the drive there, only the gift of food is encouraged. You are the strong one. Follow all the prescribed steps, and breathe.