Idan Chabasov took many detours on his way to finding his true calling. He was a ballet dancer, worked in public relations and high-tech, studied art, meditation and animation. Born in Israel, he moved to Berlin at the age of 28. There he found his calling as a baker, almost by accident, while working at a hummus restaurant.
Over 64,000 followers later, the 36-year-old Chabasov, aka “The Challah Prince,” recently returned to Israel, to “bake challah in the land of challah, I just missed Israel too much.” He also felt it was the right move for his budding business.
Chabasov chose the online handle because his friends and family always called him a prince. “At first, challah was just bread for me,” says Chabasov. “It was very simple: I wanted bread, so I baked.” He started baking challah, the bread traditionally eaten by Jews on the Sabbath and holidays, in his kitchen in Berlin.
On a whim, he decided to open an Instagram account in late 2019. Using his skills in video animation and tapping into his artistic background, he posted photos and videos of his challah creations. Within six months, he had 6,000 followers. The numbers grew steadily.
“After a while, I started making more sophisticated challah bread. I recognized a need among my followers who wanted to see different things,” he says. “I felt it was my role to fulfill.” So he learned on the job, trying new braiding techniques. He even made human-shaped challah for Halloween. "The social media platform challenged me, stretched my boundaries,” he says.
The irony of his newfound passion was not lost on the secular Chabasov. Although he comes from a traditional family, he never defined himself as close to Judaism. It was in Berlin where he felt the need to seek the company of other Israelis and Jews. He found his way back to basic Jewish traditions, often conducting the weekly kiddush ceremony on Friday evenings, marking the sanctity of the Sabbath.
An estimated 30,000 Israelis and thousands of other Jews live in Berlin. “It’s the best revenge on Hitler,” he chuckles. “I was proud that this process was happening to me in Germany. “There is a paradox in me discovering Judaism, to connect to my Jewish identity – it makes me proud and laugh all at the same time,” says Chabasov.
His Instagram feed is chock-full with appetizing photos of the simple bread made from a simple recipe. At first, he produced a basic three-strand braided challah. After gaining confidence from positive feedback, he upped his game. Complex braiding techniques and special shapes followed. The more intricate he got, the more followers signed on.
“Challah is a symbol that is very easy to relate to,” says Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten, an expert on Jewish history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This is true for both religious and secular Jews. Challah is part of the Israeli culture of the Sabbath.”
According to Baumgarten, the tradition of braiding challah bread comes from a desire to make the sacred ceremonies prettier. “The more sacred and important the ritual, the more intense the work,” she says.
The COVID-19 lockdowns definitely gave Chabasov’s Instagram page a push. With people holed up in their homes, many took to baking. “Baking during a pandemic is a way to feel like one is providing for themselves,” Baumgarten adds. “Investing time in baking is also soothing, pleasant, and satisfying. Feeding the family is fun and doing things you were used to doing before the pandemic is comforting.”
“Challah isn’t just bread. It is not so technical, but very creative, it can be so many things,” says Chabasov.
As his posts gained more exposure, he began branching out. Holding live online baking lessons and workshops for people all over the world, Chabasov found himself knee-deep in dough and enjoying it.
The self-made challah guru also conducts “hafrashat challah” ceremonies. This is a Jewish tradition in which part of the challah dough is separated and discarded before being baked, as an offering for good fortune. People participate in the ceremony as part of their efforts to heal from disease, become pregnant or find a relationship. “I discovered the magic of this ceremony,” says Chabasov.
He was invited to run such a ceremony via Zoom for a Jewish family in Los Angeles praying for their one-year-old daughter to recover from cancer. Over 300 people participated in the online event.
Challah bake events have also become common in U.S. synagogues, part of efforts to increase participation in Jewish life and ceremonies.
“Judaism abroad is more accepting, freer than Judaism in Israel,” he adds. “I suddenly felt comfortable reconnecting to my faith and to the power of the challah ceremony.”
He is working on a “Challah Prince bake tour” in the U.S., expected to begin in the coming months. Chabasov, who is gay, says that in Berlin he discovered faith can be “a private agreement with God.”
The article was written by Keren Setton and reprinted with permission from The Media Line