Breaking Challah with Justine Kuran

July 26, 2016

Breaking Challah is an interesting grass-roots project, can you explain the concept to our audiences?

It’s so simple; all we ask is that on 9 September you invite a non-Jewish neighbour, colleague, teacher or friend to share your Shabbat meal. We aren’t asking you to do anything you wouldn’t ordinarily do, except add another chair or two to the table. There are no rules, just conduct your Shabbat as you always do, but explain what you’re doing as you go along.

Justine and Bernie Kuran hosting 36 guests at the Inaugural ‘Breaking Challah’. Photo credit: Helen Reizer

Where did this project begin?

In my dining room. My Shabbat dinners always have included people of all backgrounds and at one in particular dinner, we had some very social media-savvy guests who posted photos online. The next day our Shabbat went ‘viral’. I realised that many people were seeing inside a Shabbat dinner and a Jewish home for the very first time and it may not have been what they expected. Of course they saw us lighting candles and saying the prayers, but they also saw the fun, the food, the laughter.

I understand that the project was set up as a social interaction with the intention of creating greater tolerance, can you perhaps explain how you think this is achieved, and the sorts of feedback you’ve received.

My non-Jewish best friend from school would occasionally come to Shabbat when we were growing up, and over the years she shared those memories when any negative or positive mention of Jews came up in conversation. We know that people will share their experiences and remember them for a lifetime, so if they tell their children and their friends about ‘a Shabbat I once went to’, we hope it will create a shift in any negative mindset and break the generational cycle of intolerance.

I have found that the internet provides us with the opportunity to share experiences with a larger audience. We respect all levels of observance, so it may be that you share with us a photo of your table before Shabbat (#breakingchallah) or post reflections of your experience on our Facebook page afterwards. Alternatively, some will feel comfortable documenting the entire evening.

In terms of feedback, I often meet people who have seen photos of a Breaking Challah Shabbat online and want to host, be a guest or just talk about it. There is a genuine feeling of goodwill and positivity surrounding this initiative.

The Inaugural Breaking Challah coincided with Chanukah, so guests to treated to candle-lighting, latkes and jam donuts. This is Peri Kuran lighting the menorah. Photo credit: Helen Reizer

Do you have a particular response that has resonated with you, that makes you really feel like this project is achieving its intentions?

Having only done one official Breaking Challah event, it is astounding to me that we have come so far, particularly in terms of our Ambassadors and Cultural Partners. I think the success is in its simplicity for hosts but also its capacity for social media engagement. When I am talking to groups or in social situations I am surprised that so many people have heard of this project.

Last year all the guests took turns to stand up and reflect on the evening, and hearing my friend talk about how his extended family only get together for Christmas and Easter made me incredibly proud of what we tend to take for granted, the closeness we have to our families, but also the ties to tradition. I hoped to have an effect on my guests, but I was surprised by the effect it had on me.

You have a number of collaborators for this project, what is the role of the cultural partners in this project?

We have 3 Ambassadors, our Co-Founder, Henry Roth, jeweller and philanthropist, Tanya Hamersfeld, and Pastry Chef, Pierrick Boyer. Pierrick is not Jewish, but attended our first Breaking Challah. He loved the evening so much that he approached us about getting involved in an official capacity. Our ambassadors will help me promote Breaking Challah through mainstream and social media as well as hosting and attending Breaking Challah themed events throughout the year.

We were approached by the NSW and Qld Jewish Boards of Deputies and the Jewish Museum of Australia who have come on board as Cultural Partners. These partnerships present limitless possibilities to expand Breaking Challah into the wider community and promote it within our own community. As we are only in our second year, we still need to define the relationships, but there are already some exciting events in the works.

Do you have any exciting cross-cultural partners you are collaborating with or would like to collaborate with?

Personally, my dream guest/collaborator is Dr Susan Carland. I’ve been intrigued by her for a long time and I would love to have her family join us for Shabbat. I think I’ll start a twitter campaign.

We bought a bottle of wine signed by Malcolm Turnbull at a recent fundraiser that I’m saving for when we can get him to come for Shabbat. I think a reciprocal Breaking Challah Shabbat dinner at the Lodge would be great!

Hearing about this project I was reminded of the work of contemporary artist Rikrit Tiravanija, I know that you are an artist yourself and I am wondering how much of this project is an artistic endeavour, if you consider the work of Tiravanija, where do you think this project sits within your practice, or if it does at all?

As an artist, I am always thinking outside the box, but I’d never thought about Breaking Challah as an artistic endeavour, other than the effort I go to to prepare a beautiful and welcoming table. Personally, I don’t think we are creating something new or original, simply inviting guests to experience something as old Judaism itself. On the other hand, having the Jewish Museum of Australia as one of our Cultural Partners, opens doors to endless creative possibilities. Thanks for the idea!

L-R Justine, Marley, Bernie, Peri and Shaini Kuran. Photo credit: Helen Reizer

You have obviously hosted many of these events yourself, do you have special family Shabbat traditions, or have you introduced new ones since opening up your dinners to wider circles of friends and family.

Spiritually, I am always moved when I cover my head with a piece of antique lace to light the candles. The lace belonged to my late mother-in-law who I never met, but it never fails to remind me of those who have gone before and I feel a deep sense of connection and tradition. I love telling the story of the lace to new guests.

When it is ‘just’ our extended family (of 20-ish), we always test each other on a week’s worth of ‘The Age’ quizzes over coffee. We take it in turns to read the questions and the kids love it when they get an answer right.

Finally, how can we get involved as Jewish or a non-Jewish person interested in hosting or participating in a Breaking Challah event?

Everyone can visit our website at Breaking Challah and ‘like’ our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages for regular updates. If you are a host or a guest, you can register on the website.