The Shabbos Bride
After we light the Shabbat candles and drink from the kiddush cups, my sister Ashley stands at the head of the table, in front of two white napkins. We’re all sitting around the table, mom, dad, me, grandma, and Ashley’s fiancé, Chuck the goy. Ashley pulls the napkins off with a flourish as if she’s revealing a prize. Two loaves of challah, braided and browned. She balances a loaf in each palm, says the motzi.
Mom made the challah, braiding it like she once braided my hair and using egg yolks to make a glossy crust. Ashley pulls hunks off the bread and pitches them overhand at each person at the table. She once played softball on the high school team. She throws hard, she throws fast, with chunks of bread that are fluffy and soft. My father makes this into a metaphor —It’s what we do as Jews, deal with what’s thrown at us. We don’t flinch as the bread hurtles toward us; not even our little cousins, when they come to Shabbat dinner, flinch at the oncoming comet of bread.
Well, all of us except for Chuck. He winces as the challah rockets toward him, but at least he catches it. When he first came to Shabbat dinner with Ashley, she threw the chunk of challah at him and he ducked. We gasped and it would have been an automatic disqualifier if he didn’t grin and pick the bread from the floor, citing The 5 Second Rule, so we put him on probation.
We bite into the challah and one loaf disappears. I could make a dinner out of only challah; there’s never any challah left for me to bring for school lunches. Even Ashley eats it, and she’s given up carbs to fit into her wedding dress.
Grandma carries out the two roasted chickens on an earthenware platter. She always dresses up for Shabbat dinner. Today, she wears her leopard-print wrap dress with flip-flops, although she usually matches the dress with leopard-print kitten heels. The flip-flops suction against the soles of her feet.
The chickens are spatchcocked, backboneless, splayed wide. Grandma slices into the meat.
I wish I could make a chicken like you, grandma. Ashley peels the skin off her chicken breast, pushes it to the side of her plate. She sits next to Chuck; their bodies lean toward each other, as if there’s some magnetic force drawing them together, only a millimeter gap between their arms. I roll my eyes. Ashley will be a good cook when I get the leading role in the high school play—which is never.
Grandma says, Every Jewish woman should have a good recipe for roasted chicken.
I’m a vegetarian, I say. But I’m looking at the chicken, imagining my teeth breaking through the crispy skin, biting into the tender meat beneath.
At least this week, Ashley says. I stick out my tongue at her. She just preens.
There’s a moment of silence as the food is passed around. Then Dad tries to argue politics with Ashley, who just doesn’t care although she should; Chuck asks me about drama club and the play we’re performing. A crumb of challah hangs on some stubble he missed when shaving.
Mom asks Chuck about his conversion classes. He says, The Rabbi told us that we not only have the mitzvah to light the Shabbat candles, but to make our own customs, like how you guys throw the challah. So I’ve been thinking about the customs Ashley and I will make. He pats Ashley’s hand, the hand with the huge sparkling rock on her ring finger.
Silence hangs over the table. Won’t they come here for Shabbat dinner?
Grandma says, Family customs are fascinating. People—My eyes unfocus. Grandma has a Ph.D. in folklore, with an emphasis on Jewish lore. Well, Josh, just read my book, Dayenu & Other Passover Traditions. I’ll give you a copy.
Mom glances at dad. Josh (a Jew) was Ashley’s boyfriend before Chuck. Chuck was supposed to be her rebound guy.
I’d love a copy.
What would you do as a custom, Chuck? Grandma passes the chicken platter to dad.
I’ve been doing research, and is there any sadder four words? Everyone can tell about their favorite thing from the week.
This sounds horrible.
He adds, And no throwing challah, of course. That terrifies kids.
Ashley leans almost imperceptibly away from him. Like a magnet repelled. We loved it! Our cousins love it.
Having a hard object barreling toward them is scary.
Ashley crosses her arms over her chest.
Dad says, There’s plenty of time for you guys to talk about this.
Grandma says, Most family traditions evolve organically.
I tear a hunk from the second challah. The bread is golden inside. Mom uses the eggs from our chickens with bright orange yolks. I say, Our counselor at Camp Alonim told us to sleep with a bit of challah under our pillow and we’d dream about the man we’d marry.
I’m not sure if I really remember this, or if I’m making it up.
I’ve never heard of that one, grandma says.
I toss a piece of challah to Ashley, aiming at her face. She catches it easily. I’ll do it if you do it. I dare you.
Ashley’s not one to turn down a dare. But she says, That’s ridiculous.
Chuck leans toward Ashley. She’ll just dream of me.
Fine. Ashley closes her hand over the bread, squeezes it tight.
That night, challah under my pillow: I dream I’m in the costume room below the high school auditorium, flipping through the costumes for our production of Crosseyed and Painless. Someone stands behind me. I smell patchouli, a scent I hate, and I’m frozen and I can’t turn around to look.
When I wake, I text Ashley. Who’d you dream of?
She doesn’t respond for hours. Then, my screen glows: Such B.S.
There’s this great chart of Jewish holidays on the internet, by a paleontology student named Meig, dividing the holidays into categories of “They tried to kill us!/We’re alive!/Let’s eat!/Trees!” So many stories about Jews are in the first category (admittedly, we have a long history of prosecution), but I wanted to write about Jewish joy—and what better than centering Jewish joy around food and eating? Every holiday has its special food—matzah ball soup for Passover, hamantaschen for Purim, and a round challah for Rosh Hashanah (I am speaking solely from the Ashkenazi tradition, which I am most familiar with). Aside from food, these holidays are family-centered, whether it’s a large family meal or a carnival for the kids. Food is connection, and exclusion, and the ritual of eating—whether kosher or not—can also be seen as a religious ritual or holy act in itself. In another story from the same series as “The Shabbos Bride,” “Hide and Seek,” the family celebrates Passover, including searching for the afikomen. That Julia—the narrator in both stories—sits at the kids’ table and is made to look for the afikomen shows that her family thinks of her as a child, as opposed to her newly engaged and “adult” sister. And the sisters bond over a clandestine drink in the closet. In “The Shabbos Bride,” the mother makes her own challah every Friday for Shabbat, braiding the challah as if she is braiding the family together. The family’s ritual of throwing challah—this is not a universal practice—can include or exclude a person from the family. For Julia’s father, the throwing of the bread connects the recipient with all of Jewish history. Chuck’s wish for Ashley and him to make their own Shabbat practices indicates that he wants to create a family with Ashley, albeit excluding his in-laws—and this loss does not endear him to Julia.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, Craft, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019 and Best Microfiction 2021 anthologies. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com