Mati Lendner. Grew up above the bakery, which has been producing challahs since 1893. Dan Peretz

The Baker and Oven Maker Behind Jerusalem's Perfect Challah

The Sephardim love a soft one, the Ashkenazim like it hard and the Hungarians prefer it blackened. Mysteries of the Shabbat bread are unraveled at the venerable Lendner bakery in Jerusalem.



Mati Lendner refuses to speculate on what will happen to the bakery that bears the family name when he passes away. His two sons aren’t planning to take over. “I’ll live forever,” says Lendner, with a mischievous smile and self-deprecating laugh. “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.”

This legendary Jerusalem bakery was opened by his grandfather in 1893. Moshe Dov Lendner Street, which is perpendicular to the entrance of the bakery in Beit Yisrael, is named after the man who was one of the first to settle in the neighborhood, adjacent to Mea She’arim.

Even in Czernowitz, Romania (now part of Ukraine), Moshe Dov Lendner was the owner of a bakery whose challahs were famous. His 86-year-old grandson, who was born in 1930 in the apartment above the Jerusalem family bakery, doesn’t know for how many generations the men of his family were members of the bakers’ guild – only that Moshe Dov had acquired his craft from his father.

“When Moshe Dov decided to immigrate to Palestine, they told him, ‘You’re crazy – people go to Palestine to die,’” Mati recalls. “‘Anyone who wants to go to the country to die, let him die,’ said Grandfather. ‘I want to go in order to build the Land of Israel.’

“When he arrived, there was nothing here. He built a house for himself and a little oven in order to bake bread for his own use. And slowly but surely, other people began to come around asking for bread,” adds Mati.

Moshe Dov Lendner had three girls and two boys. Zalman Lendner, Mati’s father, who also followed in the family tradition, had nine children, all of whom were born and raised in the apartment above the bakery – in a room where the bakery’s chimney ran through the walls.

“In winter it was warm and pleasant; in summer it was hell, and all-year-long we were surrounded by the smell of fresh bread,” recounts Mati. “We grew up in the bakery from infancy, and all the family members learned to braid challahs when they were still toddlers.”

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The bakery used to be open every day and, in addition to challah they would bake rye bread and other types of bread. In the past decade, as his body slowed and some of his brothers died, the bakery started opening only on Thursdays and Fridays. Now only challahs are baked in the huge oven – but that still offers some room for variety.

“We make all the different types of challah. One-meter-long challahs for the bridegroom and special challahs for the bride, which is a Jerusalem custom. For the ‘pidyon haben’ (a ceremony for a firstborn son), we bake a 2-meter challah, and for the holidays we bake round challahs, in order to remind us that the world is round.

“For Purim we bake ‘Haman’s eye’ challahs; for Hoshanah Rabbah [during Sukkot] they are in the shape of a ladder. And my father, who was a good friend of the British high commissioner, once made him a present of a Hanukkah challah braided in the shape of a menorah – and since then that has also become a tradition,” says Mati, demonstrating the complicated braiding of a Hanukkah challah, with eight twisted candleholders.

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.

Courtesy

“It’s the oven that gives our challahs their unique taste,” explains Mati. “Grandfather Moshe kept on enlarging the little oven he built in the late 19th century – due to demand – until in the mid-20th century they called in the expert oven maker Moshe Rogovsky, who had a workshop in Jaffa. I still remember Rogovsky, who slept and ate with us while he took apart the old oven and built the big one: five meters long and four meters wide. He came with a very small assistant, who was the only one capable of crawling into the maw of the oven in order to assemble the special construction, and to embed the bricks into the top arch, which was narrower.”

The oven Rogovsky built is still the focal point of activity surrounding the Jerusalem bakery. The name of its builder is etched in large letters on the iron doors of the oven.

The Lithuanian giant

Dan Peretz

Rogovsky literally left his mark on the series of unusual ovens he built in the country between the 1930s and 1950s, yet his name has almost been forgotten. Only in the 21st century did chefs, professional bakers and gourmets start to truly appreciate these ovens, which are built by a craftsman and lend their own special taste to bread and baked goods.

Moshe Rogovsky was born in the town of Meretch (Merkine), Lithuania, in 1904. “He was a Lithuanian giant, a man with presence who was 1.95 meters tall,” says his oldest granddaughter, Dina Lidor Rosenblum, who lives in Herzliya. Dina and her siblings don’t know how many generations back the men of the family belonged to the guild of oven builders. “[Moshe’s] father, Shmuel Rogovsky, built ovens for the Russian army and was considered the richest man in town. He had seven children by his first wife and seven by the second,” says Dina.

“Grandfather Moshe was the only one of the siblings who immigrated to Palestine, in 1925. He left the town out of a feeling that there was no future in Europe, as did another sister, who immigrated to America. Those who remained in Meretch were killed during World War II,” recalls Dina.

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Moshe Rogovsky paved roads for a while and then ended up at Kibbutz Tel Yosef. However, “because he was never much of a socialist,” according to his descendants, he soon found his way to Tel Aviv.

The Rogovskys first lived in a small hut on Geula Street, south Tel Aviv, and Moshe, like his forefathers, began building ovens. “He had two workers – one tall and the other a very short man who could crawl into the belly of the oven, lie on his back and build the complex construction of thousands of fired bricks that composed the ceiling,” explains Dina, herself a construction engineer. “It’s not easy work, and you have to know the proper angle for each and every stone, so that the heat distribution in the oven will be uniform.”

The huge ovens are fired up several hours before the start of baking, and the heat remains stored in the maw of the oven for many hours.

Rogovsky’s grandchildren know that their grandfather built ovens for the British army, and can point for certain to a number of his creations: the Lendner Bakery in Jerusalem; at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar (featured in Haaretz last November) and Kibbutz Givat Brenner; in the bakery on Hahagana Street in Givatayim; and at a bakery that operated for many years in Eilat.

The sesame secret

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Thursday, 7 A.M., the Lendner Bakery. The doors open to the public and will close again only on Friday afternoon, prior to Shabbat. Oded Tzadok, a second-generation bakery worker, arrived at midnight last night in order to prepare and bake the first batch of challahs. He will return home only after two days of continuous baking (“There’s no rest for the righteous,” he laughs. “I leave my house on Wednesday afternoon, return on Friday afternoon and then dive into bed for a good sleep”).

There’s considerable magic surrounding the entire process of preparation and baking – the sacks of flour, the heavy and outdated German equipment, the manual braiding of the challahs. The Sisyphean task – 48 hours of skilled and monotonous movements – attracts a fascinated audience day and night at the end of every week. The pièce de résistance is the firing up of the Rogovsky oven, 50 minutes of tongues of fire aimed at various corners of the huge oven, and removing the fresh challahs from the maw of the searing inferno.

The fresh challahs, a delight to the eyes and palate, are placed on iron trays in the entrance hall, and each customer chooses the challah he likes.

“The Sephardim [Jews of Spanish descent] like the challahs soft,” explain the bakers. “The Ashkenazim [Jews of Eastern European origin] like them harder, and the Hungarians like them burnt to charcoal.”

There are also challahs with extra sesame seeds, kept on the side for those in the know – the legacy of a baker who had a fondness for drink. “The customers would bring him a beer and in return he would put on extra sesame,” the bakers say. “He left, but there are regular customers who got used to it.”

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