Shavuot is one of the three great pilgrimage holidays of Judaism and is associated with its own religious traditions and rituals.
But ask most Jews and they’ll tell you: What really stands out about Shavuot isn’t the association of the Jews in the desert, fresh out of Egypt, finally receiving the Torah from God. It isn’t the long prayer services, the reading of Megillat Ruth, or even the traditional staying up all night to study Torah.
No, what defines Shavuot the most to the average Jew is the holiday’s association with its signature dish: cheesecake.
The connection between Shavuot and cheesecake is unclear.
The holiday is known to have a strong connection with dairy foods, whether ice cream, cheese or just milk. This does make Shavuot stand out more; after all, most Jewish holidays are associated with meat. However, there has never been a universally agreed-upon reason why we eat dairy on Shavuot.
Explanations proposed by rabbis and scholars have ranged throughout the centuries. The reason most commonly cited was first put forth by the Hafetz Haim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan), who said that when the Jews received the Torah from God in the desert, they were forced to eat only dairy since they were unable to make use of their newly given laws of kashrut.
But either way, that would just explain the emphasis on dairy. Where did cheesecake come from?
While that may be lost to time, the fact remains that this dish has become an enduring part of the Shavuot tradition. And if you’re like many other Jews and wishing to come to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival, you might be wondering where to go to get the goods.
Luckily, this reporter went around the city sampling some of the finest bakery cheesecakes Jerusalem has to offer. Such is the heavy burden of journalism, the sacrifices we are forced to make.
Yehuda/Gagou de Paris
THE FIRST dairy dessert destination on the list was Yehuda/Gagou de Paris, a fantastic French-themed bakery on King George Avenue.
The bakery in question is known for being a bit on the pricey side, but that comes with a reputation for high-quality goods. And this reputation is something it is well aware of.
“Every year, when The Jerusalem Post comes for Hanukkah, they always say we have some of the best sufganiyot in the city!” one of the bakery workers, David, said proudly. He was confident his bakery’s cheesecakes would live up to the hype.
And they certainly weren’t disappointing.
Two varieties of cheesecake were available for this reporter to try, one with cappuccino and one with dulce de leche. Both were similar in shape and texture, were airy and soft, but felt substantial, and both cost the same (NIS 35).
The cappuccino one was decent, the coffee giving a notable aftertaste compared to the cheesecake itself, but is not for everyone – especially if you’re someone who isn’t a fan of coffee to begin with.
But the dulce de leche cheesecake was absolutely phenomenal. Its flavoring expertly complimented the overall cake, its texture was pleasing, and its appearance – with the dulce de leche coating the top of the cake – was very aesthetically pleasing.
It’s so good that after eating it, you’ll be tempted to go back for another slice – in fact, that is what this reporter ended up doing.
The next stop on the list was English Cake. This chain of bakeries can be seen throughout Israel and, as such, its products tend to seem less fancy.
We tried two of its cakes. One was a standard frozen traditional cheesecake with crumble on top (NIS 48), while the other was of a smaller, parfait-like variety (NIS 24). Unlike the confectionery delight from Gagou de Paris, these definitely fell short of expectations. The presentation was below par, and the taste was bland for both. Overall, you could do better.
After that, it was time for a trip to Sweet Nation.
This bakery, located on Agrippas Street right across from the Mahaneh Yehuda market, came with a large variety of cheesecakes, the workers ready for the pre-Shavuot rush.
While they don’t sell individual slices like Gagou de Paris, one can still buy a variety of cheesecakes there.
For this article, we sampled two: a New York-style cheesecake (NIS 69) and a seasonal special, the Snickers-themed cheesecake (NIS 69).
The New York-style cheesecake was very plain looking, but that seemed very much like something to its credit. Its simplicity seemed to radiate a sort of authenticity, as if saying “I don’t need any gimmicks, I’m the real deal.”
And its taste matched up, being a good, if a bit typical, cheesecake, with the right amount of airiness and texture in each bite. If you’re in the mood for something safe and reliable, which everyone can agree on, then you can’t go wrong with this one.
The Snickers-themed cheesecake, on the other hand, was a different story.
The base was similar to the previous one, but this particular cake was filled with peanuts, caramel, peanut butter and chocolate, a coating of which adorned the top of the cake.
We took a bite, and the results were divisive. Certainly, the cake is incredible with just the right amount of sweetness – if you happen to be a big peanut fan. Otherwise, it might seem too much, or unappealing.
However, if you are a big fan of peanuts and want to combine your love of said legume with the holiday of Shavuot, then this could be the cake for you.
One of Jerusalem’s most highly regarded bakeries is Kadosh. Located closer to city hall, this iconic establishment, like Gagou de Paris, is famous for being on the pricier side, as well as for its high-quality goods. In fact, this bakery is really more like a café in that respect, selling a wide variety of pastries.
However, while its pastries are highly regarded – so much so that the Post ranks its Hanukkah sufganiyot among the best in the city – cheesecakes are not their forte.
They only had one cheesecake available (NIS 46), and to call it a cheesecake might be a bit of a misnomer, with a large cake-sized Danish perhaps being a more apt label. As a cake, it was sorely lacking; but as a Danish, it was very enjoyable.
The next stop on this sugary safari was Marzipan. Located at the end of the shuk, this is easily one of Jerusalem’s most iconic bakeries, beloved by both veteran Jerusalemites and fresh yeshiva or seminary students alike.
It is famous most of all for its rogelach, easily boasting some of the best examples of the Jewish dessert staple ever sold. But that does not mean it is limited to just that.
As expected of such a well-known bakery, Marzipan is host to a variety of cheesecakes in its freezers. For this article, we were able to sample some of the Oreo-themed cheesecake (NIS 36).
Unfortunately, it was a bit lacking. The flavor was off, the Oreo crumble’s flavoring being somewhat overwhelmed by the cake. Appearance-wise, it also lagged behind some of the other items. Its texture, however, was rather pleasant, but there are other, better options out there.
But what Marzipan also had were blintzes. Another Shavuot staple, albeit less so than cheesecake, these small crepe-like pastries are found in the freezer, filled with any of a variety of different sweet fillings.
For this article, we partook of the most recommended option, the Ferrero Rocher-filled blintzes (NIS 25), and they did not disappoint. Fantastically flavored, beautifully textured and aesthetically pleasing to look at, they would make the perfect small dessert snack to share with friends and family for Shavuot.
Our last stop in our joyous journey was Yolo Bakery. By far the newest bakery we sampled, this younger establishment has the benefit of its location.
It is found right next to Davidka Square on the outside of the infamous Clal Building. This means it’s right by the light rail in a very central location that is easy to reach.
While this bakery has cheesecakes one can order, it also sells individual slices.
Right away, what stood out about this slice was its appearance, which was quite lackluster. Since it is a newer business, in operation for only seven months at the time of writing, one might forgive Yolo Bakery for a lack of emphasis on this front.
But appearance was its only flaw. Surprisingly, the newest bakery’s cheesecake was perhaps the best one yet, rivaled only by Gagou de Paris’s dulce de leche cake. The texture was phenomenal, the cake itself perfectly balanced in terms of airiness and softness, the cheesy flavor absolutely perfect. And in price (NIS 25), it was perhaps the cheapest one as well.
JERUSALEM IS a big city, and there are no doubt many other bakeries available with their own cheesecakes, or maybe you prefer to make their own. But for Shavuot in the center of Jerusalem, you can’t go wrong with some of these dairy delights.
Cheesecake might not have any concrete religious connection to a holiday commemorating receiving the Torah, but some of these cakes certainly taste divine. ❖