Ch’aliyah: Immigrating because the bread is better

Moshe Sharabi of Pe'er Bakery (photo credit: The Jerusalem Post)
Ever since making aliyah, we’ve joked that we could never leave Israel, and certainly never move out of Jerusalem…because of the challah. All that changed two weeks ago when the bakery that has been the source of perhaps the best kosher sweet whole wheat challah in the world closed down. After 43 years in business, the main branch of Pe’er Bakery in Jerusalem’s German Colony shut its doors.
The reason, explains owner Shoshana Sharabi, who has been at the cash register while her husband Moshe has tended to the ovens all these years is simple enough: “Di!” she exclaims, using the Hebrew expression for “enough already.” Her husband Moshe is turning 70; Shoshana is not far behind.
“I’m tired. I’ve been asking him to close for three years. Only now has he agreed. We want to travel, see the world,” she tells me. After 43 years, who am I to take that away from this 13th generation Jerusalemite who wants to spend her remaining years generating experiences that don’t all have to do with the proper allotment of poppy seeds and raisins.
It hasn’t always been easy for Pe’er’s proprietors, either. Most recently, the Sharabi’s went up against the Israeli Rabbinate, which temporarily revoked their kashrut license when Shoshana refused to pay. “They were sending a mashgiach [a kosher inspector] once a month for an hour. If I’m going to pay, he should come more often. He should do his job.” The Rabbinate fined Pe’er and Shoshana flirted with moving over to city councilperson Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz’s Hashgaha Pratit private community kashrut organization, but it never took and closing shop loomed larger.
“Where will you go now?” I ask Shoshana as I wait for Moshe to pull the final challahs out of the oven. “India is on the top of the list,” she says, and I feel the same tinge of excitement I do for young Israelis heading east after their army service. “Do you like Indian food?” I ask. “We can’t actually eat anything there, we keep kosher you know,” she scolds me. I tell her about the plethora of strictly vegetarian restaurants that are everywhere in India. Her eyes light up. Despite her role baking a very traditional Jewish food, Shoshana is, surprisingly, a recently converted vegan.
And yet, for a few days after I heard the news, I was devastated. Every Friday, for nearly 20 years, I have run the pre-Shabbat errands for our family, which include buying a copy of The Jerusalem Post, stopping at Marzipan for their gooey half-baked chocolate rugelach, and schmoozing with Shoshana while picking up my challot. Every once in a while, I’d try to mix things up and get a challah from somewhere else. The kids would always put me in my place and the following week, I’d be back at Pe’er.
Challah became even more important in the last five years when our family instituted a new Friday night ritual. After realizing we were always full after eating just the challah, dips and chicken soup, and that no one had room for an entire meal afterward (though we’d eat it anyway and then complain), we dumped the meat, potatoes and salad and only serve soup, bread and dessert.
Before moving to Israel, getting our weekly challah was much more of a pain. Living in Berkeley, California in the late 1980s, there was no kosher challah nearby; we’d have to drive 20 minutes to the Grand Bakery in neighboring Oakland. Later, when Noah’s Bagels opened its first store in Berkeley and began baking kosher challah, it was easier, but we’d still have to order in advance and there was always the possibility our bag would be given to someone else by mistake, leaving us Shabbat challah-less. At Pe’er, the supply of braided bread on Friday seemed endless.
As I lamented a post-a-Pe’er-calyptic world, Jody reminded me that I’m “grasping,” one of the essential sins against mindfulness that I’d just spent so much time working on during our recent 6-day silent meditation retreat (see This Normal Life, April 17, 2015). Much of our suffering, I know, comes from frantically trying to hold on to what’s good, or its converse: resisting the unpleasant. Both will pass – sooner than you think; it’s the nature of the universe. Moreover, grasping and resistance are ultimately about the fear of death. If I can’t get past my attachment to a particular bakery, how will I ever deal with the truly inevitable?
Pe’er isn’t vanishing from the scene entirely. A satellite branch in Mahane Yehuda, run by the Sharabi’s son, is staying open, with the same recipe (for now at least). It’s not as convenient, but if we invite Shabbat guests who are regular shuk shoppers, maybe they can give us an occasional blast from the past.
“Why didn’t you offer your son to take over the German Colony bakery?” I ask Shoshana. She has other plans for the building, which she and Moshe own. They plan to turn it into apartments for rent. The thought of the venerable Pe’er building, where I’ve spent so many fleeting moments, becoming another luxury ghost village, rattles me, but again, megiah lah – after 43 years, the Sharabi’s have earned it. They don’t owe us anything. It’s business. And surviving nearly half a century in a city where restaurants are lucky to last half a year is commendable.
The truth is, there are plenty of alternatives to Pe’er in the neighborhood already: a new bread shop on Emek Refaim Street and another on Bethlehem Road in Baka have opened up recently. French patisserie Ness bakes up a doughy challah, though it’s not sweet enough for me. The Coney Island Knish shop sells a pretty tasty whole wheat loaf. And there’s always the reliable Herby from Beit El. Maybe I’ll even take up baking – homemade always trumps store-bought.
Clearly, we don’t have to make yeridah – that is, to leave Israel – just yet.