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Michael's Challah

There's something magical about family numbers: how many people in the family, the first born, the last, whose birthday is when, how many chairs we need at holidays, the memories we link to how old our children were at the time, how to double or triple a recipe to accommodate everyone.  These numbers are embedded in our thoughts, marked on our calendars, and woven into our rituals.  When someone in the family dies, it throws all the numbers off. 

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My brother Michael was only thirty three when he died of a heart attack in 1986.  For some reason, in my grief, I kept making observations about numbers.  Suddenly I was the oldest child instead of the middle.  Suddenly I had one brother instead of two.  Suddenly my parents had only two children instead of three.  The date of  his death, the day of the week, the hour of the day,  instantly became as personal and familiar to me as his name.  And the date of his birth, that number I circled every year as part of "breaking in" my new calendar, became one of a pair of numbers that were like bookends around Mike's short life: his birth day, his death day.

      He died of a heart attack.  It was sudden, and yet, we shouldn't have been surprised because we had all warned him endlessly about his eating and smoking habits.  But those were only words.  And his response to our admonishments was, "I don't care if I die young."   When he did die young my anger was as powerful as my grief.  I couldn't separate them. 

      Michael knew our father's family had a history of bad hearts.  In fact, when dad had a triple by-pass, Michael spent the hours during the surgery in the hospital cafeteria eating junk food and smoking.  Ignorance didn't kill Michael.  If it had, maybe I wouldn't have been so angry.  To me it seemed that he had virtually killed himself.  And, like the survivor of any suicide, I kept asking, "Why?"

      Anger at my suddenly deceased brother was a new and different kind of pain for me.  I had been angry at him often while he was alive.  He could be inconsiderate.  He could be dishonest.  But after his death I felt ridiculous for feeling angry.  And I also knew that my anger was preventing me from experiencing the mourning I needed to.  I needed simply to grieve.

      I wasn't really aware of what I was doing as I made a mental inventory of what we had shared.  Since we weren't that close as adults, it was difficult. But there were two things that emerged out of my anger and sorrow.  Two things I knew Mike and I shared that were very special to me.

His humor: it never failed to break through my anger whether I wanted it to or not.  I hated to be manipulated and yet I loved the laughter and instant intimacy it brought.  We shared a love of the absurd.  We found things funny that no one else did, and we could never use words to explain why.  He was also capable of terrific physical comedy due to his weight and rubbery features.  He resembled Zero Mostel and nicknamed himself “One Levine.”  He would break into a funny accent for no reason, at the strangest time.  His sheer eagerness for laughter was childlike and irresistible.

            The second thing I realized, was that he was the person who encouraged me the most when I was learning to bake bread in my late teens.  Of course, his so-called "support" was entirely selfish.  He just loved to eat.

            I remembered all those hours in our kitchen in Brooklyn as I kneaded (and he refused to help) and waited and hoped for the best.  When I forgot to add the yeast, and the "bread" was a huge dense cracker, he ate it.  When I made "whole wheat" bread but absent-mindedly used white flour, he ate it.  I never had to throw away a loaf.  I was seventeen, Michael was nineteen.  I can still remember our old address, our old phone number, and the twenty-three steps we had to climb to get to our second floor apartment.

            The one bread I loved to make was challah.  Just handling the silky dough was a pleasure.  I didn’t have time back then to perfect it, but once I got married I baked challahs every year for Hanukkah and I actually got pretty good at it.  I gave these as gifts to my family.  Everyone loved them but only Michael was obsessive about them.  And his relentless pursuit of my challah added a touch of fun and even absurdity to the whole thing.  I would bake two batches, each one producing two large loaves.  One loaf went to my father and his wife, another to my mother and grandmother, who lived together.  I gave my younger brother and his wife another loaf, and Michael got his own.

            Five months after Michael died it was Hanukkah.   I had been holding a Hanukkah Party for years by then.  Of course, that did not happen.  But what about the bread baking?  The numbers were off.  If I baked one batch it wouldn't be enough.  If I baked two, what would I do with Michael's challah?  I considered going to his graveside and leaving it, but I knew that was ridiculous.  I could adjust the recipe to make only three loaves.  Three.  It was an awkward number.  Dividing the ingredients would be a mathematical feat; the results unpredictable.  I was paralyzed with indecision and grief. 

A year later the shock was gone but the grief was still part of my identity.  My family body still felt amputated.  But at least as Hanukkah approached I had time to plan.  I decided to throw my party again and invited enough people to populate a small town.  As each family entered, they picked a small piece of paper from a basket, a “raffle.” Then we ate latkes and blintzes and drank wine and sang.  We played with the dreidels (small tops) and gave the children chocolate gelt (coins), and lit the menorah.

Towards the end of the party I picked the winner of "Michael's Challah."

            When I designed the raffle, I knew I needed to write a few words about the meaning behind it.  It was only then that I understood all the reasons why this intuitive gesture was so important to me: it let people know what a funny and fun-loving person Michael was. It served as a reminder of the times we shared in that kitchen in Brooklyn.  It made me laugh knowing that if Mike were alive he would have had the whole thing rigged!  Written on the raffles was a wish that whoever won it would think of my brother and enjoy the bread as much as he would have.

      At every Hanukkah party since then we have our Michael Levine Memorial Raffle.  And when I hand the winner “Michael’s” challah, in a strange and wonderful way, it makes the numbers right again.

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