Veterans: Herby Dan

'Back in America, you were Jewish. But here you feel it, you live it.'

Herby Dan 88 224 (photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Herby Dan 88 224
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
From Memphis to Beit El, 1986 The bearded baker depicted on Herby Dan's floury apron appears a tad younger than the man who's wearing it while kneading rye bread dough. That's because Dan has been baking goodies since well before his aliya more than 20 years ago. Dan's daughter recently updated the logo originally drawn by a friend in his native Tennessee. He still uses the same recipes and still brings the same passion to his craft. The venue has changed to Beit El, yet even that has a familiar taste; his first bakery was located on Bethel Road in Memphis. "I was meant to be here," says Dan with a ready smile and a Southern accent as unchanged as his halla recipes. LIFE BEFORE ISRAEL Born and bred in Memphis, the 57-year-old Dan often spent Shabbat with a Knoxville family during his college years. He savored the homemade halla served there, and tried out the recipe on friends. By the summer of 1972, just before entering law school, he had started selling it and continued to do so while earning his degree. "I used to sell my halla to half the faculty while I was in law school," he says. For a short time, Dan worked as an attorney full time, but his dream of opening a bakery drew him to New York in May 1977 to learn more about the business. He returned to Memphis in January 1978. "Then, a friend said, 'You don't want to open a bakery yet. You haven't got a wife, and if you open a business you've got your wife already. Go find a wife first.' It sounded like good advice, so a friend drove down from New York to pick me up on June 18, 1978." Dan moved into an apartment on the eighth floor of a building on the Upper West Side. Debbie Klaff from Danville, Virginia, was living two floors below. And almost exactly one year later, on June 17, 1979, they were married and headed back to Memphis - and Dan picked up right where he left off. Using equipment procured by his mother-in-law, he was soon in business as a kosher baker. "I used to get up at 6 a.m and go to work in the bakery, and at 8 I would change clothes and go to court," he says. After five years of juggling court cases and cookie sheets, Dan and his family made aliya. He credits his wife as his prime motivator. Growing up with a strong involvement in the Zionist summer camp Moshava and the Orthodox Union youth group NCSY, Debbie Klaff went to Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University and spent her junior year at Hebrew University. "After four months, I said, 'This is the place to raise children,'" she says. Debbie formed a group within the North American Aliya Movement. Herby became its Southern regional vice president. "The more we got into it," he says, "the more it was the right thing to do." ARRIVAL In November 1986, the Dans - with three small children in tow - packed up Debbie's car and drove to New York. Dan's brother took them to the airport and kept the car. "None of our parents gave us guilt trips about going," says Debbie. "My mother always said America is better for the body but Israel is better for the soul." The family went straight to the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, where they lived for the better part of the next two years. SETTLING IN First came ulpan and then a string of jobs in various bakeries. Dan also helped a friend open Pizzeria Efrat. Working as an attorney was not in the picture. "My Hebrew wasn't good enough to practice law here," he says, "and I enjoy what I'm doing. I never made it financially but that doesn't make any difference." In February 1987, Dan began a six-month stint at Angel Bakeries. He recalls that the owners disliked his sweet honey halla but thought his rye bread was a winner. "They said, 'Let's get you some rye flour. How many tons do you want?' And I said, 'Tons? I'm not ready for that yet.' But I learned how to bake in larger quantities." In the summer of 1988, a friend found them a house in Beit El. Just before Rosh Hashana the following year, Dan opened the new incarnation of Herby's Bake Shop in a rented industrial space. About a year ago, he moved to new quarters previously occupied by a fruit-and-vegetable store. He also took over a nearby pizzeria that had been purchasing his dough. Since 2003, he has been a partner in Beit El Winery with his friend and co-worker Hillel Manne. Using three varieties of grapes, they produce about 7,000 to 10,000 bottles a year. In the meantime, his wife, a gerontologist, had formed a seniors club in Beit El. "For about 13 years I was the driver of my wife's club," Dan says. "I picked up everyone and took them home, at 8:30 and 12:30." Debbie's mother, recently deceased, moved into a two-family house with the family 17 years ago. She helped raise the Dan brood: Shoshana (Shana) born in 1982, Bina (1984), Meir (1986), Avi (1988), Eyal (1991) and Peninit (Penny), born in 1993. Shana and her husband and two children are temporarily living in Texas, while Bina and her husband have just become parents. DAILY LIFE Dan's routine centers on the bakery, which in turn centers on his customers' needs for Shabbat. He and two employees turn out several varieties of regular and whole-wheat cookies, cakes, brownies, cinnamon rolls, pies and breads. "I make three kinds of halla. I'll pick the honey halla any day," he says with a smile. The goods are sold in Jerusalem, Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and occasionally Mazkeret Batya and Herzliya. Herby's Bake Shop also supplies the hesder yeshiva in Beit Orot, where Dan's son Avi is a student. The shop does not have a local retail trade. OBSTACLES "No Sundays," he says. "That's a big problem. We have a lot of friends, but you think we ever get to see them? You don't see anybody unless you have a simha or a funeral. You can't go out Saturday night because you have to get up early the next morning. But I don't know what the answer is." BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "Being Jewish in a Jewish atmosphere. Back in America, you were Jewish. But here you feel it, you live it. You live the holidays in the bakery. We make hamentashen on Rosh Hodesh Adar. We make sufganiyot before Hanukka. We make gingerbread fruit bars for Tu Bishvat." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Don't give up. You know you can always go back if it doesn't work out. People do go back for financial reasons. I wouldn't do that. I didn't come to Israel for financial reasons and I wouldn't go back for financial reasons. Now take that thought and put it in the far, far back of your mind and don't think about it and go make it work." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]