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Sara and I sit down one autumn afternoon at La Colombe to talk about Challah Back Girls‘ origin story, how to keep a project mission-driven, Bruce Springsteen, dad jokes, and why it is fun to cook with family (even if you hate measuring ingredients). If you’re looking for a little more CBG lore, check out our profile of Sara’s cofounder and sibling, Marni…but until then, read on and meet Sara!
Samuel: Big picture question to start. How did you get here, sitting across from me in a Challah Back Girls-branded shirt?
Sara: Challah Back Girls began as a full-on, bored-in-the-house, March 2020 passion project. My siblings, my sister’s boyfriend, and my parents came back together at the beginning of the pandemic, one by one. We’d grown up baking challah as a weekly ritual, and had all this time – though, now, we can’t find enough of it – so my sister, Hannah, started making a few extra muffins or challah loaves. Our Mom was working in the ER, supporting a network of doctors boarding in houses away from their families, so we would make the extra loaves for them.
It evolved again when the murder of George Floyd happened. We were feeling helpless as Jewish, white, American people in Teaneck, which has its own long racist and antiracist history. We would make all this challah, find an organization that was working to advance social and racial justice in some way, and include a note about [these organizations] in every package so folks would know where their donation was going and learn about organizations they may never have happened upon otherwise.
It was interesting to have all of our perspectives on it. One of my siblings is a researcher, one is a baker, one of us is very much Gen Z, one of us is very social. So, to combine all our interests and strengths to create this logistics-heavy operation and mission…we just loved it. This is our tradition, and we get to share it. Sparking that connection through the first year of Covid, which feels like forever ago and also yesterday at the same time. It was like an out-of-body experience. I can’t even fully describe it.
And, I’ve got to give credit [for the name] to my Dad, who apparently is a huge Gwen Stefani fan.
Samuel: That is such a dad joke. On your website, you describe baking and sharing challah as “an educational opportunity for healing and transforming social and racial injustice.” How has that mission evolved since Summer 2020?
Sara: I love this – it’s the essence of Challah Back Girls. As the person doing logistics and seeing the process through, I can get lost in the [details]. Mrs. Smith in Kansas City needs challah by Friday the 12th! But, I like to stop to think about the educational component and connected network that we’re building. Every package includes information highlighting an organization advancing justice in some way. To connect with those organizations and literally bring it to people’s tables through this challah, this Jewish traditionally braided bread, to merge these worlds in a really meaningful way…I haven’t seen it anywhere else, and I’m grateful and blessed that it is my work.
Samuel: What from your personal Jewish practice, growing up or now, has made it into the work?
Sara: It’s everything! It shows up in different ways at different times. When I’m packaging a challah to ship somewhere I’ve never been, it’s a way of extending my hand and saying: This is for you, and I want to break bread with you and hear about your culture the way you’re wanting to hear about mine. Especially when there is a tragedy, a natural disaster, a war, or something else happening on the ground, we can give each other space to talk about it. That’s a huge part of how my family grew up, and how we infuse that open listening practice into food and community.
Samuel: So many people resonate with that idea of breaking bread with others as a way of building connection.
Sara: We grew up visiting family and having family visit us. Grandparents, cousins. But we also invited people who were new to town. People routinely coming together in a special way inspires the work we do, and I can hear and feel my Jewish grandmother from above being like: Yes, I taught you well! [I love] being able to carry that legacy and tradition from all my grandparents. There’s just always this need to gather over food.
A scene just popped into my head from April 2020, when the local supermarkets had nothing on the shelves. My family had all this yeast, and it went from “let me run this packet of yeast down the block” to “let me make it for you, because I’m baking anyway.” I still see those empty shelves in my brain and think of all the resources my family was privileged to have during that time. Sharing it now, all I know is what’s on the shipping label. I don’t know what their day was like, how their bills are paid. To be able to share a resource – a packet of yeast, or this braided bread that symbolizes so much – is awesome, and meaningful, and reflects my family values as well.
Samuel: I’d love to know where the very punny CBG voice comes from.
Sara: My siblings, parents, and I are all just silly in that way. Even when we’re not feeling so silly – stressing out about whatever – it’s a good way to remind ourselves why we’re doing this. It’s fun to cook together…even if I don’t want to measure anything.
Samuel: As you talk about this, I feel like challah has a very deep metaphorical meaning for you.
Sara: Having everybody in my family come together on a local, intimate level, with all our different strengths getting braided into these challah loaves, which we then get to share with everyone, is beautiful. It captures a lot of what challah has meant to us as a family for the last thirty years. I often visualize our challah as the interconnectedness of everyone. We’re having a local impact, partnering with locally-focused organizations. We’re taking these different strands and purposefully braiding them. The more you braid, the more unconscious of an act it is, but even if you’ve done it a million times, you still have to intentionally find the strand and put it where it needs to be.
Samuel: Okay, a couple more. What comes next for Challah Back Girls?
Sara: Past making and delivering the challah, I would love to have a space where not only do we bake, package, and deliver, but we can also host communities, teams of people, schools, and other people to really see the process, learn, and discuss in a more interactive way.
Samuel: You’re hosting Shabbat dinner. Who would you invite and why? They can be living, dead, real, fictional, anyone. Invite Bruce Springsteen –
Sara: My family is obsessed with Bruce Springsteen! [Editor’s note: We talk about The Boss for, like, five full minutes. New Jersey, baby! Sara loves The River; I once saw Bruce open a concert in Hartford, Connecticut with “Sherry Darling”] Wow…my dad is going to freak out.
Samuel: Okay, anyway…who are you inviting, and what’s on the menu?
Sara: Ok I take this question very seriously. There are a few people I would invite but I would also be remiss if I didn’t include the close family that have passed. I would love to hear their favorite recipes.
I would invite Robin Williams, Sara Blakely, Elie Wiesel, Michelle Obama, Coach Beard from Ted Lasso, and a representative from each of the organizations CBG has partnered with thus far. Of course, anyone is welcome to join!
What’s on the menu? Where do I start! Challah of course, one or two dishes of zucchini (my favorite thing ever), a couple flatbreads to set the autumn vibe, a delicious kale Caesar salad, CBG babka bites, and then everyone would bring their favorite recipe from dips to soups to mains to desserts! I’m hungry already!
Samuel: Where would you tell people to start if they want to learn more about baking?
Sara: A lot of people ask me if I can share our recipe digitally. The answer is not a resounding yes, just because I want to do it with them, not necessarily keep it a secret forever. I want to connect on that level. We got our recipe off a little index card that my Mom and Grandma passed down to us. I want to stand in the kitchen side by side with you and create something from nothing. That’s the how and why of how this all came to be. I can’t believe how Challah Back Girls was a speck in the world at some point, and now it is this way of connecting strangers.
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