Rising to the Occasion

Modern bakers have not invented anything - as can be seen from this impressive catalog that accompanies a current bread exhibition.

When I received the catalog of the exhibition "Bread: Daily and Divine" that is now on at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I hadn't expected such a wonderful thing: This is not just any book, but rather the best bread book I have ever seen in my life. Perhaps because the breads discussed in the catalog are local ones, or perhaps because the 14 articles in it create a fascinating mosaic that grants the reader a tremendous amount of knowledge.

We learn here, for example, about the "showbread" (Exodus 25:30) in the Temple, the "bread of poverty," and the afikoman at the Passover seder and its connection to the holy bread of the Easter celebration - and these are only some of the topics. At long last, I really understood now what the bread of sacrifice is in Christianity and why it is given to believers who have purified themselves and have been sanctified for the Mass. I understood the essential difference between the breads used in the Catholic Church, which are matzah-like wafers, and those used in the Orthodox Church, which are made from a ye ast dough.

No less fascinating are the stories of the first bakeries that were established locally by the great "bread dynasties." Indeed, this catalog tells the story of the bakers in Israel and offers a concise history of its baking industry. Dalit Thon's article on this subject, entitled "Bakers' Craft: The Story of Israel's Bakeries," is especially interesting - perhaps because we, the modern bakers, discover while reading it that in fact we have not invented anything, that home-made rye breads were baked here 100 years ago, for instance. In the best case we have been renewing a tradition that has faded away over the years due to developments in the industry and the modernization of the production process.

We also learn that in the early years of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine), the work of baking was not perceived as a respectable living in a society that valued yeshiva students, and that bakers had the reputation of being angry and wrathful people (do we share that image today?). At that time there were neighborhood ovens where ready-to-bake, risen loaves were brought from homes; the baker's role was only to bake. During the time of the British Mandate there was a significant change in this realm, in the wake of which many neighborhood bakeries were established that provided homemade breads. The bakers were for the most part new immigrants from Russia, Germany and Poland, who brought their knowledge and equipment with them. At the bakeries brick ovens were built that were heated with wood and diesel fuel.

Other articles in the catalog deal with the significance of bread in Israeli culture and in the collage of religions represented here. The writers do not provide us with precise information related to the way in which "standard" bread is made: There isn't a single recipe in this book. You will not find tricks in it for the natural fermentation of flour and water, nor will you learn how exactly to tap on the bread's crust in the oven to know whether it is properly baked. Nevertheless, this is one of the best food books that has ever been published here.

Unsentimental book

This catalog gives great respect to bread. The photographs in it are not typical cookbook photos: You will not discover how to make a sandwich here, you will not see the various stages of bread preparation in a systematic way, but you will see Zoltan Kluger's photo of a farmer sowing seeds from 1935, a picture of baker Zisha Berlitz of the Landner Bakery braiding challah for the Sabbath, and photographs of brides at their weddings - the moment before they enter the room where they will spend their first moments alone with the groom, after the ceremony - and of a Hasidic rebbe distributing challah to his followers.

You will also read about an installation called "In My End Is My Beginning," by artists Dganit Baram, Varda Polak-Sahm, and Merav Ben-Or, who prepared dough and made a real pieta of it. Simply amazing!

At long last a book has come out here that relates to food as something that is far more than something that stimulates the taste buds, and which deals with its real significance. This is an unsentimental book that does not take us to the associative realms of "grandmotherly" cooking or baking. Although you will not remember your mother's challah and you will not drool at the sight of Alex Levac's wonderful photograph of the mythological Nehama Bakery in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, you will find stories here that you will remember the next time you break off a piece of challah.

On that subject, I learned from the catalog that during a traditional wedding, it is customary to dance with the koiletsch challah in front of the bride and the groom: When the couple are led away from the wedding canopy, or to the room where they are alone for the first time, an elderly aunt comes toward them and, to the music of the klezmers, she breaks into a Hasidic dance holding the koiletsch in front of her. And there are those who ask the groom "Was villstu?" (Yiddish for "which do you want?") - the bride or the bread?

Personally, although I know that in my profession it is not considered seemly to praise one's own dough, I have already made my choice. Hurry to Jerusalem and to the museum, buy the catalog and devour it. Carefully. And many thanks to Noam Ben-Yossef, the curator of the exhibition and the editor of the catalog.

Erez Komarovsky is a chef and a baker.