At Israeli Kibbutz, a Return to the Community Oven of Yore

For more than 30 years, the bakery at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar stood deserted, until two local residents decided to get the historic brick oven working again as a community forno.

Dan Peretz

Mention Salim the baker, and anyone born on Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar between the 1950s and the 1980s will invariably get a nostalgic look in their eye. “His heart was as big as his paunch,” says the kibbutz-born editor and poet Shiri Brock. “He looked like an old-time baker, with a hefty paunch, an apron and chef’s toque, and his breads and cookies had a special flavor. Not just because taste and smell are always enhanced in our memory, but because we ate all the baked goods fresh from the oven.

“He was warm and welcoming to old and young alike, but he had an especially warm relationship with the children, and I remember us lining up at the bakery to get Salim’s cookies. They were simple rectangular cookies with jagged edges that had a wonderful lemony flavor. He would give each child three cookies: a daddy cookie, mommy cookie and little kid cookie.”

Tova Brock, Shiri’s mother, compiled and wrote the book “Ayelet Mevashelet” (“Ayelet Cooks”), a collection of recipes published this year in honor of the centennial of the northern kibbutz. The chapter devoted to breads and pastries (with the lovely title “When the World Still Smelled Like Fresh Bread”) tells the story of the kibbutz bakery, which was launched in 1923 in a flimsy tin shack next to the temporary dining hall. In the 1930s, it was moved to the site of the permanent dining hall, about 50 meters from its current location, but it wasn’t easy to find regular workers. (“Everything that is tilled from the earth eventually makes its way to the baker’s workroom,” a kibbutz journal records, “but nonetheless over the years it has been hard to find people who want to learn this important profession, and only the proximity of the kitchen, which affords numerous possibilities to obtain an ‘illegal’ portion, sometimes brings volunteers into this field.”)

Haim Rothschild, who came to the kibbutz in 1937, worked at the bakery for more than a decade. A physician by training and a cellist, he gave up his place in the newly founded Philharmonic so that another musician trapped in Europe could come here. He was known as “the barefoot baker” due to his custom of baking at night without shoes on.

Salim Hayat, after immigrating to Israel from Baghdad and coming to the kibbutz in 1950, donned the baker’s apron and soon won the hearts of his fellow kibbutzniks. Two years before that, right after the War of Independence, the bakery moved to its present site in the shade of the water tower that was built in the 1920s. Against one of the walls of the tower, a huge oven was installed. It was built by Moshe Rogovsky, a renowned metalsmith from Jaffa, who had installed a similar oven in Jerusalem’s Lendner Bakery in 1894. The artisan’s name is etched into the sooty doors of the two great ovens, the one in Jerusalem, now only used for making challah; and its northern counterpart. The great maw of the brick oven, which is three and a half meters deep and can maintain a very high heat for more than 24 hours, is stoked with flames for several hours before baking commences.

Dan Peretz

“These ovens, professional brick ovens that project heat from the sides, first came to this country in the late 19th century,” says food researcher Shmil Holland. “The world was divided geographically into areas where they baked flat bread and areas where they baked raised bread, and this area was traditionally part of the flat bread world. Various kinds of flat breads, like the Middle Eastern pita or the Central Asian lavash, are baked in a wood taboun or on a saj, ovens that require very little fuel and deliver a quick, direct heat while the raised breads are baked in ovens in which a very high heat accumulates over a long period of time.

“The Templers were the first to bring such ovens here in the pre-industrial era, and they were joined by professional Jewish bakers who came from Europe. The Berman family bakery in Jerusalem, for instance, was first successful when it supplied European-style bread to the many Russian pilgrims who came to the city. Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe were also looking for the kind of breads they knew from home, and so more and more of these ovens were built all over the country: in the new neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City, in new towns and in kibbutzim like Gesher, Ayelet Hashahar, Shefayim and Mefalsim, which made their own bread.”

The neighborhood bakery

The Ayelet Hashahar bakery stood deserted after the death of the beloved baker Salim in 1980. Big cracks opened in the walls; the chimney from which the intoxicating aroma of fresh-baked bread once wafted was clogged; rolling pins and mixing bowls disappeared. Like neighborhood bakeries in other places, the Ayelet Hashahar bakery had once been a center of communal life. When the flames in the old brick oven died down for the last time, so did the life that had grown up around it, leaving only nostalgia for that bygone time.

In the days before mass-produced bread was available in every store and supermarket, people flocked to public ovens, known as fornos. In the pre-modern age, even after the Industrial Revolution, in crowded big cities private home ovens were still something of a rarity (though more common in rural areas). The high cost of fuel was also a factor. Bread would be baked two or three times a week, with the doughs prepared at home and then sent to the public neighborhood bakery. Patrons paid a small sum for the service, or left some of the baked goods for the baker in return for use of the oven.

“In Jewish tradition, public bakeries and ovens have additional importance,” says Holland. “On Fridays, when they finished baking the challahs for Shabbat, they would put out the fires and place the pots of cholent into the still-hot oven, where they would bake until Saturday morning from the heat stored in the oven walls. This tradition gave rise to a lively social life that revolved around the communal bakeries, and in some places it also spurred artistic expression – pendant-like seals designed with family symbols that were tied around the identical clay pots to differentiate between them. I remember when I was a kid in the 1960s and ‘70s in Bnei Brak, when the tradition of communal bakeries had nearly disappeared, walking to the neighborhood bakery carrying a pot for Shabbat sealed with aluminum foil.” On kibbutzim that had large communal ovens, cakes and other home-baked goods – just about the only outlet for anyone who wished to do some cooking in the age of the kibbutz dining hall – took the place of the Shabbat casseroles.

That old communal spirit

Two young kibbutzniks, Nadav Yisraeli, manager of the Hula Valley Bird Watching Center, and Mosh Harel, who guides entrepreneurial ventures and also revived the kibbutz shoemaking center, are now rebuilding the kibbutz oven with the hope of recapturing that old communal spirit. The new-old bakery is called Café Salim, after the legendary baker who warmed the hearts and bellies of the locals; the two plan to operate the oven as a nonprofit social-communal project.

The old oven, which is still operated in the same way as before, will be in use once a week, on Fridays, and as in days gone by, people from the area will be able to bring their bread and other dishes for baking in return for a token fee to help keep the place running. While awaiting the final bureaucratic approvals, the old oven has already been used for several special events (to bake rolls for the kibbutz centennial celebration, to make pizzas for a movie night, and to make giant challahs in celebration of the fourth-graders’ beginning Torah studies). Baking in the splendid brick oven enhances even the simplest of baked goods, and everyone involved is wreathed in smiles, just like in the days of Salim, the last of the country bakers.

Café Salim, Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, Upper Galilee, 052-386-9444