More than anything, I wanted a sister. When I turned 12, Rebecca finally came along.

Showered with love

Becca, as we always called her, was smart, strong and devilishly clever. Between the two of us, our brother Avrum didn’t stand a chance. There were few things Becca and I loved more than torturing him, especially when he took a shower. Our home’s plumbing was such that turning on the water in one area invariably affected water running in another area. Whenever Avrum got in the shower, Becca and I conspired. So many opportunities: we could turn on the kitchen faucet or the dishwasher, flush a toilet. Moments later we would listen with glee as Avrum screamed, his water suddenly icy. Then he would yell: Who turned on the water?!”

One “hot mamma”

I have a suspicion that Becca and I inherited our wicked sense of humor from Max and Tillie Kaplan, our great-grandparents. Max and Tillie were immigrants who settled in Detroit and helped establish the Workmen’s Circle here. They were extraordinarily kind and loving people.

Our family was living in Columbia, Missouri, and Max and Tillie were in Oak Park, Michigan, when we came to visit one summer. Max and Tillie must have been well into their 90s, but they had such patience with us, playing game after game of Perfection, where you try to fit tiny, plastic yellow shapes into their proper places in just 60 seconds. At the end, a timer goes off and all the pieces happily jump up, making you laugh and surprised even though you know to expect it.

At one point, I remember Tillie saying: “It’s always hot in this place. Even at night I’m too warm!”

“It’s not a problem with the heat,” Max told her. “That’s because you’re a hot mama.”

I wish I had told Max and Tillie how much their humor shaped my own.  What a gift to know exactly how you have influenced someone you love.

Sisters, best friends forever

Becca eventually went to college in New York, married, had three children and settled in Chicago. I married, had four children and moved to Oak Park, the very city where my great-grandparents lived in their final years.

On the surface, Becca and I are different. I’m obsessively clean; she is not. She loves shoes, and I like purses. Becca lives yoga; my idea of exercise is walking across the room to get cookies.

Yet, outside of my husband, Phillip, Becca is my only true close friend. Whether as my partner plotting against our brother or hearing my problems today, she always knows what advice to give.

Unlike me, Becca is also an exceptional cook, so a few years ago, when I finally decided to start making my own challah, I knew where to turn.

“Make the directions SIMPLE,” I e-mailed Becca, because she’s the kind who can look at dough and say, “It needs some flour.” I warned her not to do that.

Now, whenever I make this challah, I imagine Becca making it in her Chicago apartment, as well. She’ll likely just be back from yoga or planning an activity with friends. Unlike me, she will not reach for a paper towel the second sugar spills.

 

Rebecca Sykes’ Challah Recipe (with her comments)

v'ahavta looking down

Becca Sykes, exceptional sister, rabbi’s wife, mom, cook and challah-baker

2 cups very warm water (hot, like a nice bowl of chicken soup)

2 packets of yeast

1 cup honey or sugar

8-10 cups of flour (maybe a little more)

2 tsp. salt

4 eggs

¾ cup oil

1 beaten egg, mixed with a little honey

 

  1. In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in the hot water. Add the cup of honey and stir to dissolve. Let it sit for a few minutes and get bubbly. A fun fact to discuss while waiting: the yeast is actually alive, and it will wake up in the bath and begin to eat the honey.
  2. Add the eggs, oil, salt and two cups of flour. Mix well. You can use a mixer that has a dough hook attachment (for wimps) or just use a wooden spoon.
  3. Gradually add the remaining flour. You will have added enough when the dough starts to feel smooth and elastic, not sticky.
  4. If you are doing this on Thursday night, add oil to the bowl, scrape the sticky gunk off the sides and make sure that puppy is slicked up like a Coppertone beauty. If you are doing this on Friday, keep kneading for about 15 more minutes and then add the oil.
  5. If it’s Thursday night, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator. Do your dishes and clean up the flour that spilled on the floor. Your mother doesn’t work here. (If you are baking on Friday, let the dough rise until doubled, covered, for at least an hour.)
  6. In the morning, set the bowl (still covered) on the counter and go about your business. In the afternoon, punch down the dough and give it a quick massage.
  7. Divide dough into four equal parts and shape.
  8. Preheat oven to 325 degrees and place challah on the prepared sheet. Let the challahs rise again, uncovered, about 30 minutes. Bake for about 25-30 minutes. The challah will be brown when done and sound hollow when you thump them.
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