Some Jews prefer their challah sweet, with golden raisins and flaky crust. Others swear by the doughier variety, the kind that has a little stretch in it as you pull it apart.
Too run of the mill? There's always the naturally fermented with whole-wheat flour and Celtic sea salt.
At Four Worlds Bakery in West Philadelphia, owner Michael "Challahman" Dolich churns out dense, flavorful sourdough (i.e., naturally fermented) challah made with wild yeast, sea salt and no white sugar.
His whole-wheat version doesn't use any eggs; the egg challah is infused with olive oil.
"I was after a certain flavor in my bread," Dolich says. "Now I'm so used to it that when I eat normal bread it tastes like cardboard. But people either love it or they don't."
Dolich isn't the only one enticing Jews and non-Jews alike with a modern twist on traditional baked goods. From vegan challah to online ordering, bakeries are keeping customers by keeping current .
Just how long has this been going on? Challah has a longstanding tradition, according to Joan Nathan's The Jewish Holiday Baker:
"The prayers and customs that accompany the mitzvah of making a special bread for the Sabbath are the same the world over," she wrote. "They link the present to the time of the Book of Leviticus, when God instructed Moses to place two rows of six challot each on before the Lord in the tent of meeting.
"For more than 4,000 years since, Jews have been making or buying some form of challah every Sabbath."
Dolich's first career was as a trial lawyer. Losing interest in his chosen profession, he headed to Israel to study at a yeshiva. Next came a summer at a Jewish retreat center in the Catskills, where he started experimenting with bread baking (the name of his bakery, Four Worlds, refers to a kabbalistic concept that the world was achieved in four stages).
Back in Philly, Dolich slowly turned his hobby into a full-time business. At first, working out of his home and selling only wholesale, Dolich made other breads — plus bagels and croissants — during the week, and challah on Thursdays and Fridays.
Then he opened his store (which doesn't have a hechsher) at 46th St. and Woodland Ave. "I realized people wanted challah all week. The neighborhood is diverse," he says, "and it's definitely not just Jews eating challah."
A Learning Curve
"There's sort of a learning curve for liking my bread, whoever you are. But I sell a lot."
Roz Bratt of Homemade Goodies by Roz, a kosher bakery at Fifth and Lombard streets in Society Hill, describes her egg-less challah in a similar way. "People just absolutely love it — or they don't," she says.
Bratt herself is, of course, a big fan: "It's completely different from egg challah, but it's out of this world."
There is egg in the egg wash that coats the bread, but that can be left off to make the challah vegan. Bratt also makes cakes that cater to vegans and, because the bakery is dairy-free, attracts lactose-intolerant customers, too.
Bratt, formerly a bank teller in Old City (she's from Northeast Philly), opened Homemade Goodies in 1997. Ten years later, with a push from a local rabbi, she decided to go kosher.
"I didn't want to do it at first. I didn't want to close on Saturdays. But it worked," she says.
A few neighborhoods over, Swiss Haus Bakery, near Rittenhouse Square in Center City, went kosher this past summer. "A lot of my friends keep kosher. So I figured why not expand my customer base, and do something for the community at the same time," says owner Jim Hausman, who opened the bakery in early 2008.
Hausman was on the board of the Chevra, a social networking group for Jews in their 20s and 30s. While the Chevra was in the process of raising money to renovate the site on South 19th St. and turn it into a Jewish cultural center, Hausman decided to rent space for a bakery.
The organization eventually decided to go with another building, but Hausman stuck around.
"I went into it doing a mitzvah for the Chevra, paying them rent while they were trying to make money, and ended up with a business out of it," he says.
Business has increased since Swiss Haus became kosher; challah is made only Friday mornings.
Lipkin's Bakery, on the other hand, like Four Worlds, sells challah all week. "Growing up, we always had fresh challah on the table. No matter what my mother burned, challah would make it taste better," owner Mitch Lipkin says.
Located in the Rhawnhurst section, Lipkin's is an old Northeast Philly staple for the kosher set, open since 1975. But as the neighborhood has changed, so has the business model.
"We used to be all parve, but now we have some dairy. The area is changing — it's not as densely populated with Jewish people — so we're changing, too," Lipkin says.
A year ago, he opened an online store to cater to farther-flung Jews. So far, relying only on word-of-mouth advertising, online ordering makes up about 5 percent to 10 percent of the business, attracting customers from the Main Line to the West Coast.
A portion of the clients are snowbirds from the area, Lipkin says, who stock up on his rye bread and knishes — and challah — before heading for warmer weather.
"It is a little different when we ship it, because here the oven is only 30 feet from the store, so customers get a lot of hot stuff," he says.
"Of course, sometimes they complain it's too hot."