The Light at the back of the Oven

It is now officially more than nine years – whichever calendar you use – since we took the plunge and headed across the seas and overland to Ma’ale Adumim – an outpost a little bit east of Yerushalayim. Some tactless person might well inquire about the extent to which I have mastered the Native Tongue. To which, I would smile and blandly suggest that my Hebrew is a little better than when I came – just don’t tell me a joke and expect me to get the punch line. Now my shopping skills, especially regarding things to eat and drink – that’s another story! Suffice to say, these days we are well provided for. If nothing else, I can say, with no false sense of modesty, that I know my way around the Mahane Yehuda shuk. I have my cheese store, my butcher, my fish monger, plenty of choice for f & v, not to mention where I can go to get the most amazing coffee, ever. If you ask me where to get the best bread, I can give you some informed suggestions. But what about challah, the special loaves for Shabbat? That’s another matter – something of some significance in our household.

What puzzles me is that Barbara and I have very different memories of the quality of challah back in The States, hers being favorable and replete with nostalgia . I have no choice but to remind her that for the last several years before we left I was making our challah myself, kneading the dough in a bread machine that we got dirt cheap and, with my limited skills, braiding it and sticking it in the oven.

Here in The Land, challah is as plentiful as street cats. The problem is that most of the good stuff doesn’t arrive until Friday morning – which doesn’t help me because I’m usually shopping on Thursday, not Friday, when I’m doing the cooking. (And now that Natania is on her own, I’m really doing the cooking.) Then throw in another issue. Lot of good folks here eschew challah made with eggs – removing most of the taste. In other words, holy cardboard.

So depending on this and that, we’ve bought our Shabbat bread here and there, never settling on any one purveyor. Mostly what happens these days is that Barbara heads up to our mall Friday morning and comes back with some sabich (“ch” as in “challah”), which is an elongated flat bread – akin to a pita – from the local French bakery, Bonpat. While it’s tasty and one can certainly use it, it’s not the same as a scrumptious challah, and try making French toast with the leftovers.

Then on July 22 of this year, I saw what I hoped would be the light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe the light at the back of the oven. In the weekend guide section of Haaretz (a very left-wing newspaper that doesn’t ever bother to indicate if something is or is not kosher), there appeared an article about Lendner Bakery (which you can read for yourself), one of these establishments unknown to most of us, but well-known to the cognoscenti of Shabbat victuals. The bakery, in a neighborhood adjacent to Meah Shearim, first opened in 1893. Mati Lendner, the grandson of the original baker, was quoted as saying that ““Customers who eat our challahs claim that anyone who bakes such bread should bake the shewbread [or Showbread] in the Temple, so I’ll simply continue working until the Messiah comes.” (That’s probably a good thing, since none of Mati’s children has indicated any desire to take over the bakery.)

OK, you’ve got my undivided attention. Keep talking. The article goes on, “The Shabbat challahs – which emerge from the oven hot with a hard lower crust and crunchy top crust, soft and white inside and begging for mounds of yellow butter – are the most famous of all, and have sworn devotees. ‘There’s no Shabbat without Lendner’s challah,’ declares a regular customer, one of many who have been coming to the bakery devoutly every week for decades.”

Now I’m not only paying attention; I’m starting to salivate!

The article goes on, and it gets better. Lendner’s success, you see, is thanks in great part to the efforts of Moshe Rogovsky, the master oven maker. He is the one, in the 1950’s, who built Lendner’s giant oven, four by five meters, still working, still making their magical bread seventy years later.

I must get over there and try it for myself. But I didn’t for over a month. It’s just too darn inconvenient, too out of the way. Especially if I’m planning to get to the shuk afterwards. But I finally figured: Look this place is not going to be there forever (with all due respect to the moshiach). It’s not going to be any more convenient to get to next month or next year, nor will I have more time sometime in the future. Let’s get off the stick and bite the challah.

It’s been a long time since I set foot on Rehov Mea Shearim. They have nothing I want or need there, and I don’t like the local attitude. But there I was, passing the signs that not so subtly suggest that people who aren’t like them stay away, passing the sign for the tiny eponymous Rehov Habshush, the back end of the small Yemenite quarter, where the now enormous multi-generational family got its start, and in whose apartment we were privileged to spend time. Finally, with a little help from the map I had photocopied from the Jerusalem A Neighborhood Street Guide created by the redoubtable Chanoch Shudofsky, I stumbled upon Leib Dayan St. – named after R. Aryeh Leib Dayan, a “prominent rabbi and civic leader…during the period of the Ottoman rule.” In case you wanted to know.

Not much happening on Leib Dayan St.

What was I expecting? At least some sign of commercial activity. There are a few shops along the way, but it could have been high noon in some frontier town out West – except the outfits would be way different. Down the steps, down the street a few blocks, until…a sign above a door, Mafiyyat Lendner. If you were looking for a window or some such indication that this is an actual store, you would have kept on walking until the street comes to an end several blocks away.

The rather non-descript store front for Lender Bakery

Might as well go and inside and see what’s doing. Ummm, am I in the right place? I walked the length of a narrow passageway and at the end turned right. There was a small oven, obviously in use. And yes, there were a handful of challot on a table. Anybody home?

I took out my trusty iPhone to take an image of this somewhat desolate scene, when someone did emerge from the gloom. Did I want to take pictures or buy some challah? To which I responded, does this space qualify as an actual store? When he responded that it did, I picked out two challot and a few rolls. They looked like any others we might have found in any number of bakeries, well-braided with a nice glaze on the surface. I am decidedly not a fan of white sesame seeds on the top, but sometimes you have to make allowances. We did the put them in a bag and pay the guy routine, and I headed out the door, retracing my steps back to Rehov Mea Shearim, up to Rehov Strauss, turned left, walked over to Yaffo and from there to the shuk, stopping long enough to get a potato knish at the Coney Island Bakery.

What do you do with a bagful of challot that you bought on Thursday? Stick them in the freezer and take them out a few hours before Shabbat. That way, they’re still fresh. If you’re on top of your game, you might remember to warm them up a bit – at the same time you’re remembering to turn off the fridge light and program the a/c. And you’re hoping. Will this challah be all it’s cracked up to be? Will my search for the perfect challah come to an end, speedily in our day (amen)?

By rights, this article should come to a rousing conclusion. Either the challah in question should be the all-time best, well worth the effort, or it should be the biggest letdown, dry, tasteless, palatable only to the denizens of Mea Shearim and surrounding areas. What do you do if the truth is somewhere in the middle? If the challah is quite respectable, with appropriate texture and an intriguing taste, certainly better than the holy cardboard or the Wonder Bread on steroids that is often offered to you – yet a grade or two below the true gevaldig level requiring a weekly pilgrimage (although I’ll probably be back there tomorrow). One thing you do is enjoy it – especially with the remains of the rosé wine on which you made kiddush. And then you turn the whole thing into an article.


Speaking of kiddush, our friends The Levines will be joining us tomorrow, in time for the Wine Festival at the Israel Museum, and then we are all off on Sunday for a cruise around and about the Mediterranean. Be prepared for an article, although I’m reminded that haven’t as yet put the finishing touches on my musings about our trip last March to New York, New Jersey, and Paris. All good things come to those who are patient.

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