If you visit the Berenson family home in Rosh-Pinah, you may notice an unusual co-existence between two ways of life – one religious and one secular. The women of the family – Noa Berenson and daughters Ayelet, Shira, Anat, and Yael, observe an ultra-orthodox lifestyle while simultaneously, father Aharon Berenson and sons Avraham and Uri, maintain a secular lifestyle. Aharon attributes the success of the family’s tandem lifestyles to keeping healthy boundaries, while Noa stresses the emotional aspects. "The warmth and love are the essence. That's what keeps people together." Lately, all members of the family have been taking part together in the publishing of The Secret of Challah, a book which originally began as an educational project, the brainchild of second-oldest daughter Shira (Berenson) Wiener.
Aharon Berenson, a businessman, was born in Kibbutz Kfar-Giladi in the Northern Gallilee of Israel. Educated in a strictly secular atmosphere, he served as a pilot in the IDF Air Force. While in service, he became acquainted with Noa, a charming soldier from Tivon, and the two were married. For a while, the young couple lived in Tivon and then moved to the country-side, to a small house in Rosh-Pinah complete with a goat and some chickens. A short while after their marriage, Noa embarked upon a slow but steady process of religious observance. While her husband, Aharon, refused to take part in the process, he respected his wife’s choices. The outcome: despite the hardships, the couple has been married for 30 years and they enjoy a special harmony.
"The beginning was hard" says Aharon. “The process of religious observance is sweeping and hard to stop. Those who turn religious tend to go to extremes. They go through a very drastic change in their behavior and in all aspects of daily life and they don't know where the sense of balance is, nor the boundaries or limits. It takes time till one who turns religious reaches some kind of balance. In our relationship, the good thing was that from the very beginning we set rules, both of us believing that our relationship as a couple is a precious value that must be kept by all means. Noah consulted with Rabbis and they reaffirmed this to her.“
Being married to an Orthodox wife naturally obliged Aharon to make compromises: "I didn't intervene when the girls wanted to go to religious schools. I also agreed that we have a kosher home and to keep kosher myself. I don't allow any non-kosher food into the house. I am very careful not to mix milk and meat. I respect it, and it doesn’t cost me any effort", he says.
From her side, Noa learned to keep her own sense of balance. "Let's say that by mistake he uses a dairy knife during a meat meal. I say to myself: 'It's better to throw away ten knives than to get cross with him. It's not worth it!’ When we go Abroad, I tell him he can eat whatever he wants. I eat what I bring with me. I came to a decision that it is not my duty to watch over what he eats. Everything needs patience".
The Berenson girls all studied at religious schools in Tzfat, while the boys studied in a secular school on a Kibbutz in the Upper Gallilee.
Noa appreciates and respects her husband's attitude to her way of life: "Everyone who meets me asks: 'And your husband – how does he agree with it?' and I answer that keeping mitzvot, preparing kosher food and living a full religious life is no problem. Many do that. The problem is to live with someone who doesn't keep a religious way of life. I appreciate that he agrees to it. We are very conscious of each other's needs. All we do is accompanied with the thought of not bumping into each other."
The Challah Project
Shira Wiener, second of the Berenson daughters and herself a mother of two girls, is a teacher. With her father's encouragement and the collaboration of all members of the family, she initiated and produced The Secret of Challah together with her older sister, Ayelet, an artist-designer. The project originated with a paper Shira wrote for her Bachelors degree:
"Since my childhood, Challot fascinated me as they are integral to the atmosphere of Shabbat. I loved to bake Challah but didn't feel comfortable with the baking because I didn't know all the Mitzvot – religious laws connected to it, such as hafrashat challah, the act of separating the portion of challah [which must be discarded] from the dough. A friend of mine wrote a university paper on hafrashat challah and while she started studying the subject an idea flashed through my mind. I suddenly realized how simple it is to bake challahs and how many spiritual ideas are connected to this practical activity. I
Slowly but surely, the pamphlet turned into a book and more and more contents were added: different forms of braiding, an extensive and detailed explanation of the tradition of baking challah, and the role of the woman in combining spirituality with baking and cooking in general. Then came the seder – sequence – of hafrashat challah, for which Shira consulted with highly acclaimed Rabbis. Finally, there came the chapter on the art of baking itself, recipes and instructions for successful braiding.
As the book took shape, Shira and Ayelet realized that their “pamphlet” had really developed into a very special and unique book. Among the first ones to be excited was her father Aharon. "My father realized from the very start that this is a book with a lot of potential, and he directed us to design it as a gift book. He told us: 'Make this a book that every woman will feel comfortable with, written in a language that will speak to all, colorful and attractive.' And that's what we did."
Shira and Ayelet worked on the project tirelessly for a year and a half, encouraged and supported by their father. The highly satisfying outcome justified the investment. Since its first printing in 2005, six editions of the book – thousands of copies – have been published.
All members of the family are involved in the project. The Berenson sons receive and package the orders, and Mr. Berenson is the book’s foremost spokesperson!
"When Shira'leh started out with the project, I saw how much the 'halachic' – religious lawful side
occupied her, but I also understood the importance of it – Integrating spiritual tradition with practical deeds. From the very start, this book sounded to me like a very good idea. I'm a declared secularist, but challah is something that every heretic kibbutz member eats on Sabbath. It's something even more common than 'Yom Kippur' – a cultural tradition that’s not infuriating, but tasty, nice and aromatic. Challah is something that unites."