June 20, 2024
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Reviewing: ‘A Tiny Taste of Heaven: Amazing Stories About the Power of Hafrashas Challah’ by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer. ArtScroll/Shaar Press. 2020. English. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-1422627549.

I’ve been following Rabbi Nachman Seltzer’s literary career almost from its inception. (Full disclosure: I also know him personally. Talented fellow. Nice guy.) Here is the first thing you have to know to understand his popularity—and popular he is, this prolific writer, with more than 30 books in print:

Nachman Seltzer is a novelist. Even when he’s not writing a novel.

His first few books were thrillers, with all the edge-of-the-seat excitement, vivid prose, and unexpected plot twists and turns that you’d expect from the genre. Then he switched to what is now called “creative nonfiction”—a term apparently coined sometime in the 1970s, though the idea behind it existed much earlier.

Nonfiction, as we all know, means a true story. Add “creative” to it, and you get what aficionados like to call “true stories, well told.” Events that really happened. People who really lived. Their stories told using narrative techniques that once only belonged to fiction writers.

That’s what Seltzer does, and does very well: He finds unusual stories from the Jewish world and tells them with his trademark fiction style.

His newest book, “A Tiny Taste of Heaven,” is classic Seltzer: lots of interesting stories about divine providence, hidden miracles, the power of prayer and of kiruv rechokim. What makes it different, though, is his topic—the mitzvah of hafrashat challah.

“A Tiny Taste of Heaven” is based on the experiences of Nava Ben Moshe. A native Israeli, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, where he became a successful businessman and she became the stay-at-home mom of a growing family.

Did you know that L.A., with approximately a quarter of a million Israelis, is the fourth largest “Israeli” city? As part of the burgeoning Israeli expat community, the Ben Moshes realized that many—maybe most—of the Israelis living in the Big Orange were assimilating at a frightening pace. With the help of a few other concerned Israelis, they founded Maor, a mom-and-pop outreach operation that gave seminars and ran shabbatons, hoping to infuse some Torah knowledge and observance into their brethren. Nava did a lot of behind-the-scenes work for Maor, keeping a low profile until, almost by accident, she found herself giving a Torah class to several women.

Several women soon turned into dozens, and then hundreds. And then, once again almost by accident, she discovered the power of challah bakes—now routine outreach events, but in the ’90s still a novelty—to connect Jewish women to Judaism. She also discovered the power of the mitzvah of hafrashat challah to transform lives and, yes, occasionally even make miracles happen.

Miracles like the woman whose surgery to remove a tumor left her hands paralyzed. Having seen many strange and wonderful things happen when women performed the mitzvah of hafrashat challah, on an impulse Nava placed those useless hands into a bowl of dough and helped the woman perform the mitzvah. Incredibly, within a short time this woman regained use of her hands, becoming, of all things, a talented graphic artist.

Many of the stories, though, are less about overt miracles and more about the miracle of the Jewish neshama and how a seemingly simple mitzvah—take off a piece of dough, say a blessing and burn it—connects them to their lost heritage.

As Nachman Seltzer points out: The minute [a woman] starts baking challah and takes the time to daven throughout the process, she finds that she can’t just cut the challah and lather on the chummus when it comes out of the oven. This isn’t a regular loaf of bread. This is Shabbos challah … It brings the woman back to the home of her grandmother, to the unique aromas of her childhood.

Once that challah emerges from the oven in all its glory, she can’t just place it on the table. No. The table needs to be set so that it is worthy of such challah. Before she knows what’s happening, she is lighting Shabbos candles, because challah and candle lighting are the kind of mitzvos that go together.

It’s a chain. A wondrous chain that has brought so many back to full mitzvah observance, all from the very outwardly simple act of baking challah—a process that will make a person’s life so much sweeter.

If you’re a challah baker, this book is a must-read for you. If you’ve always wanted to bake challahs, but somehow never got around to it—again, a must-read. If you (like me!) prefer hanging around in bakeries rather than kitchens but love a great story—this book is for you, too. And if you’re looking for a terrific gift idea for this Chanukah—you’ve got it right here, fresh out of the oven.

By Atara Greenstein

 

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