Tisch in the Desert: Making Bread Together

March 22, 2012
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We would roll the bread together sometimes, on a table in the middle of our mud plaster field kitchen standing in the middle of our Bustan, surrounded by mud plaster domes inspired by Buckminster Fuller, together nestled in the middle of the Negev, surrounded by red mountains and yellow sand, acacia trees and also the low, simple buildings that made up our kibbutz.

The whole wheat flour would drink water poured into the bread bowl becoming an earthy smelling mass, yielding to the squeeze and kneading of our hands, we’d ask, “Should we add a little sugar?  How about an egg?  What will happen this time?  Is the oven hot?”

We baked the bread in a mud oven, made in a relatively traditional style all but for the base made of used tires and the door made of leftover, found materials from nearby projects.  The preparation process for using the oven was essentially making a campfire inside the chamber and waiting for it to die down to coals, the mud mass of the oven, having now absorbed enough heat, could now radiate at cooking temperatures for a few hours or more.

There was a game to the whole process too, wait too long for the bread to rise and the oven might cool, not long enough and the bread would be hard, put it in too early and you’d get a black crust with a doughy middle, not quite what you were looking for just before Shabbos.

But a game it still was and the little sub-community we had formed within this already small kibbutz community held at times a special quality.  We made things together, whenever we could.  We re-used materials as a practice for life outside.  As apprentices at the Center for Creative Ecology on Kibbutz Lotan we had invested ourselves in an experiment in sustainable living, in community life, in learning how to do it all and make it work.  Little bits of magic sometimes emerged.

My friend Miriam would often lead the bread-making, I think it was some kind of rhythm in her body, like a moon cycle or creature knowing it’s time to collect acorns for Winter; she could sense the Shabbos spirit coming and knew it was time for Challah bread, for making our own, sometimes by herself, but more often with the help of fellow apprentices – a new recipe, a new ingredient, a new bit of curiosity that might unfold to great taste or to a childish discontent at the futz-up of a mass of dough that holds the braided shape of something that might have renewed the holy covenant that night, but instead became a shrug, a smile, an unspoken promise of “get you next time”, a new variety of pretzel.  It all got eaten anyway.

The best though was when it came out well.  Then the problem was not eating it on the spot; we were always hungry for some reason.  But at the Shabbos table, surrounded by the whole kibbutz, eating the same courses that was served last week, the key making it special relative to all other meals that it was served to your table and the quality was overall lower, no that was not a typo, than the buffet style food served during the week.  Yet…

It was Shabbos, and the entire air was kinder, the spirit of community deeper on this little kibbutz, a bastion of true community, struggling to survive because it’s worth it, in the middle of the desert.  Children played those nights with greater heart than during the week, while many adults would down the over sweet, red table wine with the vigor of kings savoring rare varieties.  Some milked the cows in the refet, so that their community might survive.

And the home made Challah would come out of the folds of a cloth napkin, and the food was somehow made sweeter, our point for being there made clearer.  It wasn’t just about Shabbos, or shouting “Yay!” we made it through another week, nor purely a celebration of the great Jewish community in which we share… but that there are small parts of life we could build together, with those around us; that there are little experiences that we can share which have too often been forgotten.  That mud oven, sometimes crispy, never the same, funny shaped, always tasty, home made Challah made me remember.

We can still make bread together.  We can do it in an oven made with our own hands, one day with ingredients that we’ve grown ourselves while listening to our iPods or Skyping with family around the world.  In this age of world wide communication and distributed media we have been given gifts, great gifts, and the opportunity to use them for love and in great responsibility.  You can go online to watch a video about how to make your brick oven.  You can look up a bread recipe and find out where a farmer’s market is to purchase local ingredients.  You can Facebook pictures of the results for better or worse.

But please, remember, as you kneed the dough, make sure more than one set of hands are in the pot, add a funny ingredient, and smile, no matter what, smile at the result.  Then, eat it together, look in the eyes of those who share it with you.  Bring it to the table, and enjoy.

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Lee Frankel-Goldwater is a professional environmental educator, writer, and social good project developer as well as a recent graduate of NYU's Environmental Conservation Education masters program. Lee has also studied at the Center for Creative Ecology on Kibbutz Lotan, Israel and at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Currently he has been leading development of the Global Action Classroom, an Earth Child Institute initiative focused on global youth environmental cooperation and helping to create the Global Sustainability Fellows, a program of The Sustainability Laboratory seeking to design a new and innovative, international sustainability masters program. Other projects include: developing mobile applications for encouraging social action, mixed media video design, leading peace and environmental education workshops, and doing his best to live a life in connection with the Earth while helping others to do the same. At heart Lee is a poet, traveler, musician, and philosopher with a deep curiosity for new experiences, unfamiliar cultures, learning languages, and often dancing to the beat of a different drummer. As student of yoga, meditation, and spiritual arts, Lee aims to connect the inner journey with the outer one, hoping, as he can, to share what is learned along the way, enjoying the journey.

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