Sara de Briman is a Mexican chef renowned for the delicious challah she bakes and distributes every week, and for teaching other Jewish women how to perform the mitzvah of challah baking. Every loaf she bakes is dedicated to the memory of her beloved daughter Karen, who provided the recipe and the inspiration. Sara bakes 20-30 loaves each week and distributes them to Jews throughout Mexico City. For Rosh Hashanah, she bakes over 400 loaves, plus holiday classics like gefilte fish, honey cake, and poppyseed cookies.
Sara, a professional cook and cooking teacher, started her weekly challah distribution during the pandemic to keep herself busy, and quickly realized how important it was to the community. Many local seniors were stuck at home alone, deprived of the Jewish communal events that brought joy and meaning to their lives. The isolation untethered them from Jewish traditions and Sara’s fresh-baked challah provided physical and spiritual sustenance.
Mexico City is home to a diverse community of 40,000 Jews, a mix of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrachi, who support over two dozen synagogues and sixteen Jewish schools. Sara’s parents were Eastern European immigrants who spoke Yiddish in the home. Sarah and her husband Pablo are highly engaged members of the community who are traditional and observant, though not Orthodox.
The Brimans’ daughter Karen decided to increase her religious observance after attending Jewish camp in the United States. Karen’s newfound interest in keeping strict kosher and following the laws of Shabbat created some challenges at home, but as the years went by Sara came to see the beauty of her daughter’s spiritual transformation and supported Karen’s choice to further her Jewish education in Israel and New York.
As Karen continued her learning and spiritual growth, back in Mexico her mother’s catering business was booming. One of her most popular creations was the delicious challah she baked according to the recipe passed down by her grandmother, who owned a bakery in Poland. Karen was studying at Stern College at Yeshiva University when she realized there was a problem with her mother’s challah recipe. Sara made her challah with butter, which affected its kosher status. All kosher bread must be dairy-free, lest someone mistakenly use it for a meat sandwich and violate the prohibition against eating meat and dairy together. Karen told her mother she had to change the recipe but Sara resisted, explaining that her clients didn’t keep kosher and they loved the challah just the way it was. Karen said “Don’t argue with me, they are going to love it!” When Sara still balked at changing her popular recipe, Karen decided to show her mother how to do it rather than try to explain over the phone.
It was exam time at Stern College but Karen asked the dean if she could return to Mexico on an urgent mission to kosherize her mother’s challah recipe. He asked her, with some skepticism, if she wanted to go home because she missed her family, or truly because she wanted to fulfill the mitzvah of challah baking. Karen convinced the dean of her sincerity and was allowed to go back to Mexico for four days. She taught her mother to make challah the proper and holy way – hafrashas challah, which has to be made with at least five pounds of flour. Making such a big batch requires a special blessing, and Judaism teaches us to make a blessing whenever we have the opportunity. “Challah” actually refers to the small piece (olive-sized) that we take out of the dough before baking. Originally that dough was given to a Kohen, a descendent of Aaron who served in the Temple. When the Messiah comes (may it be soon!) that practice will resume. In the meantime, we burn it. “Taking challah” teaches us that whatever we are given is not just for our own use, but must be dedicated to Divine service.
Sara was still skeptical because as a successful caterer, she needed to satisfy her customers. What if they complained that the challah wasn’t as good? But out of respect to her daughter, she changed her recipe, hoping nobody would notice the difference. That Rosh Hashanah her biggest catering client ordered his usual 200 loaves. After the holiday he called Sara and said, “I have two things to tell you but I have to see you.” Sara was very busy in the kitchen but he insisted that they talk in person. Finally she agreed to meet him at a Starbucks near her house for fifteen minutes. At the coffee shop he asked, “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” Apprehensive, Sara asked for the bad news first. He told her that customers were driving him crazy pleading for more challah! The good news, he said, was “I don’t know what you did differently this year but they came out amazing! I wanted to tell you personally and give you a big hug.” Other clients told Sara the same thing and wanted to know her secret. Sara explained that the most important ingredients are blessings and love.
Karen taught her mother how to make challah in a holy way. While kneading the dough, Sara prays for her family, for the sick, for health and prosperity. As the dough is rising, Sara makes a choice to be calm and happy, and not think about all the things she has to do later on. Her customers appreciate the reminder to observe Shabbat and be especially joyful on that day. One man told Sara that for years his kids were upset that nobody asked their grandmother for her challah recipe before she passed away, but now the whole family was celebrating because Sara’s challah tasted exactly the same. “How do you do it?” he asked, “You never even met my mother!” Another one of Sara’s customers was very ill and couldn’t sleep; after a three am slice of challah, she slept like an angel.
Currently Sara makes challah for families in Mexico City who have children serving in the Israeli army. She doesn’t charge them anything, nor does she charge for her popular Mega Challah Bakes, where she teaches large groups of Jewish women how to make challah, using the lessons she learned from Karen. She’s done challah bakes all over the world, including some surprising places like Bloomingdale’s in New York! Sara asks only that the organizers donate at least 10% to organizations such as those that help needy brides, one of Karen’s favorite causes.
Tragically, Karen passed away at only thirty years old, leaving her parents, husband and brother bereft. Every loaf Sara bakes is in Karen’s memory, and all the challah baked by people who learned from Sara are also adding to Karen’s merit in the World of Souls.
The newest member of the family is already helping Sara in the kitchen. Her 1.5 year old grandson Alexander recently learned to knead challah with his bubbie. She explained the custom of praying for the Jewish people and Israel while kneading. Alexander closed his eyes for six seconds, then opened them and said with much enthusiasm “Si!” Yes, he had said his prayers. And so a new generation of Jews continues the beautiful tradition.
For baking and distributing delicious challah that helps the Jews of Mexico City observe the fourth commandment (“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”), as well as teaching others how to bake challah, we honor Sara de Briman as this week’s Thursday Hero. Dedicated in memory of Karen Briman Drazner.
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