Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are an intimidating and mysterious labyrinth to most secular visitors. This cityscape, bustling with life yet severely conservative – its walls plastered with signs demanding that women dress modestly and urging tourist groups to stay out – can also appear hostile to the stranger.
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One bite, however, changes all that. Jerusalem’s best-known Haredi neighborhood, Mea She'arim, is brimming with culinary treasures, among them, a number of wonderful bakeries.
In getting directions to one such establishment, a helpful stranger advised us to "Walk straight ahead until you reach a wall – then turn right." But in many cases, all you need to do is follow the aroma of fresh breads and pitas wafting out of alleyways.
First we arrive at the bakery of "Eliyahu AshTanur,” where elderly Eliyahu, born in Tunisia, bakes fragrant flatbread. This type of "taboon" bread is known as Lafah or Iraqi pita elsewhere in Israel. But Jerusalemites use the antiquated local term “ashtanur.”
Thursday night is the best time to simply follow your nose – that’s when bread is baked for the Sabbath. The best-known and possibly most aromatic bakery is Landener's. Tucked in an alleyway just north of Mea She'arim's center, it is the neighborhood's fabled source of challas – those traditional sweet braided breads eaten on the Sabbath. When I arrive here at 3:00 A.M., the bakers immediately refer me to Nechama, the old cat lounging around. "She's the real boss here,” they insist.
As long as you’re appropriately dressed, this nocturnal bakery is beyond hospitable to the stranger. "Even people from Gaza are welcome to eat here,” declares Bentzi, the man in charge. At first he jovially complains about his late hours, but he soon confesses to being fond of working nights, citing "the peace, the good air, seeing the sun rise each morning." Bakers at Landener's have been enjoying sunrises for 128 years, ever since the bakery was founded in 1884.
Not far away is a newer institution, a tiny bakery that produces only one dish: Jerusalem-style kugel, the famous noodle pie. Chaim, the kugel baker, is a former school teacher who sought solitude. He spends his nights stirring the noodles and measuring black pepper and caramel. Each kugel can feed a hundred mouths, he says, and Chaim can whip up no more than a dozen a night.
At this time of year, however, both kugels and challas are eclipsed at sunrise by sufganiyot, the ubiquitous jelly-filled doughnuts that are a harbinger of Hanukkah. Are they truly doughnuts? Opinions differ. Yaakov Uri, who fries them behind his pizza counter at Uri's Pizzeria, insists they are. But Vered, Bella and Matti of the nearby Brooklyn bakery vehemently object to mixing your sufganiyot and doughnuts.
And they should know. The Brooklyn bakery on Mea She'arim Street is a paradise for doughnut lovers. Every ingredient here is natural: the pink icing is made of real strawberries and the coffee flavor is derived from real coffee. But the bakeries most compelling claim to fame is not its doughnuts, but its brownies. The know-how, like the founder of the establishment, came from the Bronx. But the clientele features not only American expatriates but many native Israelis too. "The most pious of all shop here," Vered boasts.
Finally, it is Moishy Kuperstein of Moishy's Heimishe ("home-style") bakery, who resolves the doughnut-sufganiya quagmire.
"Sufganiya is made of airy dough," he explains, "There's nothing in it except water, sugar and flour. It’s also sweeter. The doughnut, such as at Dunkin Donuts, is not as sweet, and the dough is heavier – not risen. It's thrown directly into the oil as soon as it's mixed."
After immigrating to Israel from Montreal 12 years ago, Kuperstein worked briefly in one of the neighborhoods bakeries and then opened a small cafe in a mixed area near the central bus station. It was then that the revered Belzer rabbi, Yissachar Dov Rokeach, whom he follows, approached him.
"The Rabbi came to me at a funeral and asked if I would bring him a challah for Shabbat. I made very Israeli challahs at the time and didn't feel comfortable bringing one. The following week the rabbi asked me again,” recalls Kuperstein. The following week he brought him a “huge challah – the way they make them in the States.” The rabbi told him: Make them like that, and everybody in the city will come and buy them.
And so he experimented with dough before opening "Moishy's" six years ago at the foot of the Rav-Shefa, a modern shopping mall catering to the Haredi community. "We started making things for 'hutzniks' ('people from abroad')," he explains, citing donuts, New York-style cookies, strawberry shortcake, chocolate mousse cake, custard donuts, peanut chews and Boston cream pies as examples. Then the customers began asking for lox spread.
Kuperstein's business is slowly turning into a proper little New York deli in Jerusalem. He’s grateful for the Belzer rabbi’s advice but sees nothing mystical in it. The rabbi pointed the way, and the way led to a bakery.