It's Not Easy Being Grain

Brothers Eli and Avi Cohen, the owners of Jaffa's popular Leon Bourekas pastry shop, are closing their doors this week and celebrating their own Passover tradition.

Academics have their sabbatical years, school kids get summer vacation, and oil rig workers take one month off for every month spent away. And those in the Israel bourekas industry? They have Passover, of course. Their own special double-holiday of freedom.

"OK, we take Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah too, but do you call that a real vacation?" asks Avi Cohen.

Avi, left, and Eli Cohen inherited Bourekas Leon from their father Leon.
Daniel Bar-On

"Of course not," chimes in Eli, his younger brother and partner in Leon Bourekas, the hole-in-the-wall Jaffa institution that serves up an award-winning selection of the thin, flakey phyllo dough pastries so popular in Israel.

"Pesach is it."

With last Friday's seder followed by a week of chametz-less dining, in remembrance of the Jews leaving Egypt before their bread had time to rise, bourekas-makers around the country have closed shop. So have their counterparts in other grain-related jobs, from brewery workers to the neighborhood bagel man.

Not everyone in Israel keeps kosher for Passover. In almost any city these days, including the holy city of Jerusalem, one can find cafes serving butter croissants and falafel joints defiantly pulling out the pitas. Clearly they are not angling for observant Jewish clientele or concerned with being deprived of a kashrut certificate.

But with Jewish law threatening divine punishment of "kareth," or spiritual excision, and with so many kosher-for-Passover options - not to mention that eternal pull on the heartstrings, and taste buds, of tradition - it is estimated that close to 70 percent of Jews here eschew the fettuccini and reach for the matza during the holiday season.

As such, it's as good a time as any for the Cohens and their ilk to head to the Kinneret.

The entire staff of Leon Bourekas - including Najwa the waitress and Nidal the baker, neither of whom are Jewish - get the week off.

"There is no demand for our product, we want our [kashrut] certificate, and beyond all that, as a Jew, I really would not feel comfortable staying open," says Eli, who nevertheless hints that he may be among the 30 percent who like sneaking in a Kit-Kat or two during the holiday.

Passed on through the generations

The story of Leon Bourekas is almost as old as the exodus story itself, jokes Avi, setting his cappuccino down on one of the red and white checkered tablecloths which adorn the half-dozen tables, and watching his brother wolf down a salty cheese and peppers bourekas, together with a brown hard-boiled egg and some tehina.

It all started with Grandma Julia. Shortly after leaving Bulgaria in 1948, she was resettled by the government in Jaffa, amongst Jewish Turks and Arabs. With children to feed and no other job prospects, she started a small business making phyllo at home, using a recipe her uncle had given her. She walked around selling it to the neighbors, who knew good phyllo when they tasted it.

"Those were the days when everyone from Bulgaria, and a lot of Turks too, ate bourekas on all occasions. A child was born - bourekas. Someone died - bourekas. A wedding - bourekas. Shabbat morning - bourekas. Life was going from bourekas event to the next," explains Avi. "Even the Ashkenazim soon got into it."

Julia's son Leon, 3 at the time, tagged along with her everywhere she went, and he grew up to be "Leon, King of the Jaffa bourekas scene." He expanded the business, stopped selling just the dough, and set up shop on Olei Zion 17, offering phyllo stuffed with cheeses and everything from olive to eggplant to tuna to honey.

And that is exactly where Leon Bourekas, inherited by his sons Eli and Avi, remains today. (A third brother, Yoni, broke away from the bourekas business and went into cardboard marketing. ) A hop and a skip from the trendy new boutiques that have sprung up around the old Jaffa flea market, it is a proud holdout in an area marked by gentrification.

The doors are open early every day - excluding Saturday - at 6 A.M. so the early risers can get a quick and cheap meal packed with taste - as well as enough calories to get them through the day, and then some.

'Almost healthy'

When it comes to calories, the Cohens have one word: oil.

"We use no margarine here," Eli and Avi repeat like a mantra, touting the wonders of soya and canola, their answer to the trans fats and cholesterol often associated with the puff pastry variety of bourekas. Signs announcing the same are to be found on every tray: "These mushroom bourekas are without margarine;" and "These sweet potato bourekas are without margarine." So read the signs one after the next. "Phyllo dough - almost healthy" is one of the establishment's mottos.

"In Grandma Julia's days, no one was into quinoa salad. No one was thinking about diets. It was a time when people were hungry," explains Eli. "But nonetheless, she instinctively knew that what was healthier was also tastier. And today, that has allowed us to survive and thrive."

That emphasis on tradition not only steers the way the Cohens run Leon Bourekas - but also the way they close it down. Leon passed away several years ago, and his sons keep up the daily running of the business, as well as the yearly tradition of closing shop for Passover.

The brothers say they best remember Passovers past as a time when the family came together, away from work and anything bourekas-related. It is the one time of year they can remember their father relaxing.

When they were little, Eli and Avi used to go to Luna Park during the Passover break. Later, when Leon started making more money, opening a factory in Rishon Letzion and getting a foothold in the frozen bourekas business, they started the yearly pilgrimage to the Galilee.

"It's our time to re-set," they agree. "Always has been. We don't do anything. No phone calls from the cheese men. No problems with the potatoes. No thoughts about phyllo. We are like kings. Free."