Bringing New York-style bagels to the Negev

Pittsburgh-native Ariel Pollock Star has brought the famous New York-style bagel to Israel after the coronavirus lockdown made her realize how much she missed the nostalgic food.

 Ariel Pollock Star, founder of Yeroham's Lehem Zeh and owner of Little City Bagels (photo credit: Ariel Pollock Star)
Ariel Pollock Star, founder of Yeroham's Lehem Zeh and owner of Little City Bagels
(photo credit: Ariel Pollock Star)

On a Friday morning in late September, a group of strangers gathered together to learn how to make New York-style bagels. One might assume that this sort of bagel workshop took place in Ra’anana or Jerusalem, but the fact is that these excited Israelis were learning the art of bagel baking in the southern Negev town of Yeroham.

Led by Pittsburgh-native Ariel Pollock Star, the participants who hailed from Dimona, Beersheba, Yeroham, and even Hod Hasharon, found themselves each with a bag of six freshly baked bagels ranging from sesame to onion by the end of the workshop.

“It’s always exciting for people to see and eat the final product,” said Pollock Star, 34, who founded Lehem Zeh, a collaborative kitchen space, this past February. In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Pollock Star, who lives in Yeroham with her husband and four children, explained what made her bring the American bagel to Israel’s southern periphery.

Five years ago Ariel, her husband Michael, and their two kids made aliyah from Cincinnati, where Michael, a neurologist, had completed a fellowship. They moved to Beersheba through the Nefesh B’Nefesh Go South program, as Michael, a native of Indianapolis, had found a job at the Soroka-University Medical Center. “We had both spent time previously in Israel, but never in southern Israel,” said Pollock Star. After a few months in Beersheba, the young family decided that the city was not the right fit for them and looked for options close to Beersheba.

“We needed a warmer environment and a smaller community,” said Pollock Star. “The first time we visited Yeroham, we felt that there was something special in the air. People were very welcoming and we just felt at home.

“Yeroham was also great because we wanted to integrate faster into Israeli society and improve our Hebrew. In addition, we also have the comfort zone today of having other English-speaking families around us as well.”

 Bagels of all varieties (credit: Ariel Pollock Star) Bagels of all varieties (credit: Ariel Pollock Star)

FAST FORWARD a few years later, Ariel found herself in the midst of the corona pandemic. “I was working in a marketing and strategy position in Yeroham when the pandemic hit. I took a step back from my job as I had to stay home to be with the kids.

“I found myself missing my family in the US and feeling very far away from home. The beauty and challenge of moving somewhere that is totally different from where you grow up is that you have two places to call home, but then the challenge is that neither place feels entirely comfortable,” she explained.

During the coronavirus lockdown, Pollock Star and her family thought of the most American product that couldn’t really be purchased in Israel, and that’s when they thought of bagels. “I tend to express myself through food. So for my husband’s birthday, I made a batch of bagels. As we sat around the table, eating the bagels, I felt my eyes well up in tears.”

It was at that moment that Pollock Star decided that she would keep making bagels. “It was a therapeutic thing for me to do,” she said.

She started to pass them around to friends and local residents, who also included a considerable number of people with Anglo backgrounds. “They were really excited for the bagels. Like me, they experienced this nostalgia for a familiar food from their past.”

Soon, Pollock Star began selling her bagels, opening a small business called Little City Bagels, as a corona side project. “I did a few pop up shops and the bagels began reaching people who weren’t part of my immediate circles,” she recalled. “There were so many who asked me, what is this bread?”

Pollock Star was surprised at the number of people who didn’t know what bagels were. “Given our global world, I couldn’t believe that there were people who hadn’t yet heard of bagels.”

She realized quickly enough that bagels hadn’t reached Yeroham. Yet the experience of being able to share this type of bread with a new audience had taken on another meaning. “It was amazing to be able to share something of myself with this town that has given me so much,” she said.

And yet, Pollock Star also recalled that there were types of breads in Yeroham that she had not known back in the US. “When we first moved to Yeroham, we went to buy challot for Shabbat at the local bakery. We saw people buying this popular bread that we didn’t recognize and so we asked, what was it? Locals were astounded that we had never heard of this savory bread before – called frena. In Yeroham, frena is a Moroccan bread that is considered a Jewish bread in the same way that a bagel in the US is considered a Jewish bread,” she pointed out.

“Bread can be totally different across cultures but it has this power to serve as a fundamental connector between people and start a conversation.”

THIS WASN’T Pollock Star’s first foray into the world of business and food. She has a culinary certificate from a culinary school in Jerusalem and has always enjoyed cooking and baking. Previous ventures include running a pop-up supper club in Chicago and helping to start a combined restaurant and social venture there. “My background combines social issues, social business and food,” she said.

But learning the aspects of running a business in Israel was eye-opening for Pollock Star. “There are many small baking businesses operated from homes in Yeroham, run largely by women as a supplementary income,” she noted. “It’s a big challenge here to sustain a business with a storefront because Yeroham is off the beaten path. While tourism is growing and expanding to this area, there is still not enough foot traffic to justify the cost of running a storefront business. There are also not many available commercial spaces, and those that are tend to be very expensive.”

It was therefore a natural solution for Pollock Star to create a collaborative kitchen space, Lehem Zeh (Hebrew for “This Bread”) for other small baking businesses to use and share costs. She located a suitable space and outfitted the kitchen, bringing in the necessary equipment. While she put in the initial investment, the goal was that future baking partners who joined later would all play a role in sustaining the space financially.

Today, Lehem Zeh has four other partners from Yeroham including Yehudit Ben Hamu, who leads workshops on sourdough breads; Nurit Swead, who bakes and sells Tunisian breads; Rivka Lichtenstein, who leads challah-baking workshops; and Karin Iluz, who creates healthy snacks.  

“It’s important for me to emphasize that Lehem Zeh is a joint social enterprise and each of the partners work to contribute to its success,” said Pollock Star, who leads her bagel workshops in both Hebrew and English for locals as well as visiting groups from across the country. “I initially put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears. When we decided to move to Israel, we knew we wanted to contribute somehow to the periphery of the country. This is my way of doing so.” 

The writer made aliyah from Maine in 2004. She lives with her family in Yeroham and works as an English-language teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion.