How a small challah-baking business is building Jewish community in Astoria, Queens


(New York Jewish Week) — Cody Butler was 25 years old when he first tasted challah, the braided bread traditionally eaten by Jews on the Sabbath. As an Irish Catholic growing up in Astoria, Queens, he had had his fair share of bagels. But challah? Never.

Six years later, Butler is now an Orthodox Jew who bakes challah for himself and the Western Queens community under the name Bread of Idleness. Each week, he bakes between 10 and 15 loaves that he sells to Astorians who have pre-ordered a challah or two; on Thursday evenings, he sits on his stoop and personally hands off the lovingly packaged loaves. Many of his customers see Butler’s challah as a key ingredient in helping to build a Jewish community in the diverse neighborhood.

“It was a way for me to get into Shabbat,” Butler told the New York Jewish Week, explaining how he got his start as a challah baker. “The process of making challah extends Shabbat another day for me.”

But increased spirituality wasn’t his only motivator. “We don’t have good challah here in Astoria,” Butler said. “I wanted to have something special.”

Butler, 31, became a lover of challah — and Judaism —  following a long spiritual search. After attending Catholic school through high school, he enrolled in CUNY’s Hunter College where he initially majored in philosophy before switching to classical philology. Through his studies, he was introduced to the writings of Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, Martin Buber, Simone Weil and Emmanuel Levinas. He also read Torah with traditional commentary and discovered that he loved “the system of thought,” as he told the New York Jewish Week.

One night, while walking the streets of Astoria, in a state of despair over his growing feelings of alienation from Catholicism, he passed the open doors of a Conservative synagogue, the Astoria Center of Israel. He ventured in, and he was warmly greeted by Rabbi Jonathan Pearl, the congregation’s rabbi at the time. Pearl told Butler that Shabbat services were about to begin downstairs, followed by dinner, and he invited Butler to stay.

Butler said he loved the prayers and the music. As he sat there, “I felt my wounds beginning to knit themselves shut,” he said. At the dinner that followed, Butler had that first bite of challah and immediately liked it. “For me, at that point, all challah was good challah,” he said.

The following morning, Butler returned to the synagogue for the Saturday morning Shacharit service. He kept coming back, week after week and, said Butler, it “pretty rapidly became the centerpiece of my week.” He became a regular at Astoria Center of Israel.

As the pandemic took root in the spring of 2020, Butler continued to pray and to study, albeit alone at home. During the long months of social distancing, he explored Orthodox Judaism and discovered he was drawn to a commitment of a religiously observant Jewish life.

Like many stuck-at-home folks across the globe, Butler also decided to try his hand at baking — not sourdough bread, but challah. “My early attempts were disastrous,” Butler said. “The dough wouldn’t rise, or it rose so much the braiding disappeared, or the challah was pale or burnt,” he said. “But I worked through it one problem at a time.”

By trial and error, he found a recipe — a vegan one, at that — that worked, and he learned to braid challah by watching videos online.

Meanwhile, in August 2022, Rabbi Pearl left the Astoria Center of Israel to found a new pluralistic, unaffiliated Jewish community, Ashreynu, with his daughter, Ayelet Pearl, and Stephanie Luxenberg. “Ashreynu was created out of a desire to grow an energized, intra-connected Jewish community in Astoria,“ Luxenberg and Ayelet Pearl told Queens Scene in December 2022. “It came out of a longstanding goal of Rabbi Pearl, to create his own pluralistic, musical, Jewish community, and to offer a new model for how community can thrive, supporting clergy, creativity, and growth.”

For Butler, having Pearl as his spiritual leader was a huge draw for him to join the nascent community. Once Ashreynu began holding Shabbat services, Butler became a regular. “I attended their first service and every one since,” he said. He would bring his challahs to services and to the homes of people he met there.

“Cody started bringing challah to shul for kiddush, and everyone was excited,” Luxenberg told the New York Jewish Week. “He tried out different flavors. For Purim he did a sprinkle challah and the kids loved it. We didn’t know what to expect each week.”

At Luxenberg’s and Ayelet Pearl’s urging, Butler began selling his challah to community members. The enterprise, they said, would help “strengthen the feeling of the neighborhood.”

In April, Butler began baking and selling challah under the name Bread of Idleness. “It comes from the words of ‘Eshet Chayil,’ [Woman of Valor] the poem we read on Friday nights,” Butler said. “The idea is you get to be idle —  you pick up the homemade challah — because someone else is making it. But then, of course, textually it connects to sitting around the Shabbat table with family and friends.”

Butler isn’t afraid to experiment with his bread. In May, in honor of local Queens Jewish icons Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Butler made a “Scarborough Fair” challah, flavored with — you guessed it — parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And in June, to celebrate New York’s most iconic carbohydrate, the bagel, he made an everything bagel-flavored challah. (In addition to Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel seasoning, Butler incorporates barley malt syrup into the dough, which is “the secret essential ingredient for that bagel taste,” he said.)

Anastasia Nevin, a 38-year old dietician, yoga teacher and mother of two small children, is a regular customer. ”The challah gives us more connection to the Ashreynu community,” Nevin told the New York Jewish Week, adding that she often runs into people she knows at pickup. “There is something nice about eating something that is not store bought but made with love by someone you know.”

Butler sells the challah for $12 each, although members of Ashreynu get the preferential rate of $10. As a bonus, he also makes babka from the challah dough, in flavors ranging from chocolate hazelnut to peach and sweet cheese or savory babka stuffed with caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes.

His bread has a growing number of fans in Astoria. Butler said that, in recent weeks, his customers have extended beyond the Ashreynu community. “I get people who I hadn’t seen at any of the shuls in the area,” he said. “Yet they are getting challah which makes me so happy because I know that they are getting a little piece of Shabbat for themselves.”

Astoria is home to Ashreynu, Astoria Center of Israel and Congregation Sons of Israel, a small Modern Orthodox congregation.

And yet, “Astoria feels a little bit like a Jewish desert,” Ayelet Pearl said. “Some things that we take for granted in living in New York, like being able to get a challah on Friday or a pomegranate before Rosh Hashanah, don’t exist. Getting challah isn’t an option [here] outside of what Cody is doing.”

Thanks to Butler’s challah, the neighborhood now feels “more Jewish,” she added. In fact, Pearl and Luxemberg, who were named to the New York Jewish Week’s “36 to Watch” list this year, named “when we ran into all our friends picking up challah from Bread of Idleness” as their “best experience” as Jewish New Yorkers.

“This is all about giving people a little bit of Shabbat that they might not otherwise have,” Butler said. “It is a taste of home. It is building community. I have parents who come with their children.”

Butler has converted to Judaism twice. His first, a Conservative conversion, was overseen by Rabbi Pearl. His second, which he completed this past May, was an Orthodox one presided over by Rabbi Adam Mintz. the rabbi of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a Modern Orthodox community he founded on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

For now, Butler is keeping his “day job” as a Latin teacher at a charter school in Brooklyn. But he has already begun scouting out commercial ovens in the area to rent, once he can no longer satisfy demand for the challahs which he bakes at home. “I would love to provide challah to more people,” he said.

He is also considering creating a “Shabbat in a Box,” which would include challah, candles and spices as a way to bring Shabbat into more people’s homes. “For me, as a convert, I was amazed by the feeling of Shabbat and its palpable holiness, energy and community,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t live without it. “