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Me-a Shearim, Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox quarter, was agitated not long ago. A poster, or pashkevil in Hebrew, warned neighbors to be careful and to avoid going to Nechama, one of the oldest and most beloved bakeries in the holy town. For more than 100 years its challah has had a reputation for being irresistible.
“Our eyes got dark, our soul got frightened and our body shook watching the lewd scenes rampant till 4 o’clock in the morning in the bakery square,” says the poster. “Men and women with loose morals spend their time together over there.” Translation: In the ultra-Orthodox communities, men and women don’t freely socialize, but Nechama’s customers, perhaps overcome by the sensorial overload of its delicious breads and pastries, are considerably more relaxed.
Challah, sometimes called “the Jewish bread,” is a braided loaf eaten on Shabbat, the resting day of the week, and other Jewish holidays. It is made traditionally from lots of eggs, white flour and sugar.
The best bites from this tasty sweet bread are enjoyed just after it comes out of the oven. At Lehamim bakery in Tel Aviv, or Sin City as the people of Jerusalem call it, the line for challah on Friday mornings is almost endless.
“I am here with you now because we sold the last challah,” says smiling Uri Sheft, the baker-owner of Lehamim, from the safety of his office. “I ran away so I wouldn’t have to face the angry customers. It will take 30 minutes for the new ones to come out from the oven; they won’t forget that I made them wait.”
Every week, from Thursday evening through Friday afternoon before sundown, Sheft bakes more than 1,200 loaves of challah with his staff. Before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which was celebrated in September, Sheft baked as many as 6,000 of these golden loafs. “Challah is like a drug,” he says. “It is an addiction. People say to me: ‘Do not mess with my challah!’ They know what they want for the weekend and ask for no surprises.”
Besides the regular loaves, that start at $4 each, there are special challahs for special events. The collection of the braided pastry is impressive: A ringed version for Rosh Hashana symbolizes the cycle of life and is sometimes flavored with raisins. A small plate of honey placed in the center represents a sweet new year. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, some bake a challah in a shape of a ladder, hoping that on its steps their prayers will rise to God.
At Viznitz, the most famous bakery in Bnei Brak, an ultra-orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, you will see huge challahs, some as long as a meter and costing up to $100. They are as tan as the sunbathers on Tel Aviv’s beaches, sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds to taste. Annointed with butter, nothing else, every Israeli would swear the bread is “the taste of heaven.”
Return to traditional home baking
In recent years, more and more people have been making their Shabbat challah at home. The scent of fresh Jewish bread filling the house makes all the difference — not just when it comes to meals. “They say that if you would like to sell your house, bake a challah,” says Sheft, who teaches challah-making courses in English at his bakery. “The buyer would smell it, feel at home and buy the property.”
Tzvi Cohen, owner of the 60-year-old Hatzvi bakery in Bnei Brak, offers challah dough to-go for those who would like to bake it at home but are pressed for time. “A good friend of mine started to bake challahs at home believing the bread will bring happiness to her single grown up children,” says Dorit Barak, a tourist guide in Bnei Brak.
According to the poster in Me-a Shearim, the challah at Nechama seems to be doing the trick.
Zester Daily contributor Ofer Vardi, a Tel Aviv-based journalist, is the author of “Going Paprikash,” a best-selling Hungarian kosher cookbook. After years as a television journalist and editor, Vardi is now the Lifestyle editor of Israel Hayom daily newspaper, and the owner and editor in chief of LunchBox Press.
Photo: Challah stacked on a trolley at Jerusalem’s Viznitz bakery. Credit: Avi Paz
Slide show credit: Daniel Layla
It is almost noon in Tel Aviv and Abu Dubi (A-bu Da-bi), the little hummus place on 81 King George St. is packed. As Israelis say, the real battle in the Middle East is finding a free table during lunchtime in Tel Aviv, especially at one of the 70 hummus restaurants. “Try to find a place to sit and you’ll see what war is,” says everyone in the city called the Big Orange.
Hummus is a local delicacy with Arab roots, made from cooked and mashed chickpeas mixed with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt. It is a cheap meal — not even $6 for a plate that includes pita bread and pickles — and vegetarian-friendly. While it’s something of a national dish, “In Tel Aviv most of the people who eat hummus are from the Facebook generation,” says Shuki Galili, an Israeli journalist who publishes The Hummus blog. “These people are mostly young, well-connected and educated, students who know what is going on and are quite cosmopolitan. This is the hummus generation who built the ‘tent city’ on the fancy Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv this summer. They called for social justice after the Jewish state became one of the most expensive places on earth.”
Only a few guests used to come to Abu Dubi from the tent city, a five-minute walk from here. The hummus shop — hummusi-ya in Hebrew — sent a big bowl of their chickpeas deep into the tents (which have been dismantled) every day.
The food of the Middle East’s Everyman
“Hummus is the fuel of the revolution,” says Gal Eilam, 38, one of the owners of Abu Dubi. “Hummus was always the food of the working class. Our neighbors, the Palestinians, wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and eat a plate of hummus before going out to the field. When I was a student, I had no money in my pocket, so I had hummus for breakfast and it was enough for me till dinner.”
You make hummus with love or you don’t make it at all, as an Israeli advertisement once said. Eilam, a Jewish Israeli, and his partner, Samir Ayub, 34, a Muslim Arab Israeli, opened Abu Dubi in November of 2006 after working together at another restaurant. They decided to create a place that combined their loves of hummus and reggae — the music that decorates the atmosphere in Abu Dubi (Dubi — for “Dub music”). “Hummus has no borders,” declares Eilam. “It is apolitical, it connects people. I feel much closer to an owner of a hummus place in Cairo or Beirut than to any other politician.”
Tons of hummus to love
Nonetheless, this tasty chickpea delicacy was at the center of a battle between Israel and Lebanon. The countries vied for the title of the World’s Largest Hummus Plate. Early last year, Israel won with a four-ton batch, but a few months later, in May, Lebanon took over the title, with an 11.5-ton (23,042 pounds/10,452 kg) entry. “Let’s hope it will be our only war with them,” says Eilam.
“It was so important to the Lebanese to win this battle so the world would see that they are the best as the inventors of hummus,” said Claudia Roden, one of the most important Middle Eastern food writers, during a recent visit to Israel. This desire for hummus supremacy would not bring peace to the region and might even make it more elusive, she continued.
At Tel Aviv’s Abu Dubi on any given day, nobody cares who first made the internationally chickpea dip that elicits such passion. As Bob Marley’s lyrics “One love, One heart, Let’s get together and feel alright” waft over the diners all anyone cares about is having finally found a seat, and the bowl of hummus in front of them.
Ofer Vardi, a Tel Aviv-based journalist, is the author of Going Paprikash, a best-selling Hungarian kosher cookbook. After years as a television journalist and editor, Vardi is now the Lifestyle editor of Israel Hayom daily newspaper, and the owner and editor in chief of LunchBox Press.
Photo: Hummus and accompaniments at Abu Dubi. Credit: Assi Haim