Beit Shemesh's baker on the long journey from White Plains to Israel

Altman grew up in a food-oriented environment. Recalling her family dinners as a child, she says, “My mother was a French gourmet chef. The main courses were pot roast, chicken, steak or lamb."

Devorah Altman, from New York to Beit Shemesh (photo credit: Courtesy)
Devorah Altman, from New York to Beit Shemesh
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I always loved baking. I have been baking for fun my whole life,” says Devorah Altman, owner of Kosher Cakery, the Beit Shemesh-based baking concern that prepares custom-designed cakes, cookies and cupcakes.
A fragrant aroma permeates throughout Altman’s spacious apartment, where her culinary creations come to life. The scents of vanilla, chocolate, mocha and peanut butter hover in a pleasant haze.
Born in London and raised in White Plains, New York, Altman grew up in a food-oriented environment. Recalling her family dinners as a child, she says, “My mother was a French gourmet chef. The main courses were pot roast, chicken, steak or lamb, with potatoes or rice and a vegetable. We had French bread and cheese, salad and wine. We had dessert – pies and cakes – every night of the week.”
Though her parents belonged to a Reconstructionist synagogue in White Plains, her family was not religiously observant. Her father, originally from London, was a surgeon who painted in his spare time, and her mother, a part-time social worker, was a sixth-generation American. Devorah traveled extensively in her childhood – spending a summer in France, and visiting England, Switzerland, Mexico and the Caribbean Virgin Islands – but Israel was not on the family’s radar.
As a child, Altman loved to bake, and was inspired not only by her mother’s cooking, but by the staff in her home. “We had different au pairs, and an au pair would come from Germany or Switzerland and would teach me a new recipe and I would make it. It was a lot of fun.”
Another favorite childhood pastime of Altman’s was figure skating. She began her skating career at age four on a frozen pond outside the family’s White Plains home and became an expert figure skater.
While attending George Washington University, Altman became interested in Judaism, and took courses with Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, who taught at the school. After she graduated in 1984, she decided to visit Israel, and spent six weeks touring the country.
“I completely fell in love,” she says, “and thought this is my home where I belong.”
Altman says that she would have never left, if not for a family obligation to attend a celebration honoring the 200th anniversary of the arrival of her mother’s family to the US. Altman returned to New York and began attending Lincoln Square Synagogue.
In 1989, Altman, by then married and living in Israel, shared an oven and a cake decorating book with a friend. Inspired by the book, she began baking and decorating cakes each year for her children’s birthdays.
After returning to the States, she taught in Jewish schools for 25 years, “everything from Mommy and Me, two-year-olds, three-year olds, kindergarten, first grade, and third grade,” but she never stopped thinking about making aliyah.
Despite her avid interest in baking, it was a skating injury that helped her pivot to a full-time, professional baking career. Altman, who had stopped ice-skating after she went to college, resumed after her divorce and began performing jumps and spins once again. Sidelined after she injured her knee while skating, she decided to take a cake decorating class.
“I didn’t realize that cake decorating had become a ‘thing’ that people do,” she says.
Altman would frequently bring decorated cakes to friends’ homes for Shabbat meals.
After visiting Israel as part of an educational training program in science and math, she decided to make aliyah as soon as her youngest daughter graduated from high school. Recalling a conversation with a friend, she says, “My friend said, ‘You want to make aliyah, and you don’t know what you want to do for a living, because you don’t want to teach. This is what is needed in Israel. We send our kids for a year to seminary or yeshiva, and there is no one that makes cakes to send them a birthday cake.’”
Altman concurred with her friend’s analysis but decided that she first needed to make the transition from amateur to professional. She studied at the Brooklyn Culinary Institute, took courses at the Wilton School, and studied with a professional baker.
She was still working as a teacher and had three jobs. “All the classes that I took were at night, and we would set up photo shoots for the cakes in my apartment, in order to get prepared.”
IN AUGUST 2012, armed with a few pans and a KitchenAid mixer she had received as an aliyah gift, she moved to her apartment in Beit Shemesh. Her lift arrived that week, her website went up, and she received 20 orders immediately.
“It was unbelievable,” she says.
Today, Altman has two ovens, three refrigerators, a freezer, an industrial-size mixer, an assistant, and bakes cakes, cookies, and cupcakes for all types of events, ranging from birthdays, graduations, bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings. She has baked cakes in the shape of a car, sneakers, and even prepared a three-tiered cake covered in board game decorations.
When Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the United Nations visited Israel in January, Altman was contacted by the United States Embassy in Jerusalem and was asked to prepare a birthday cake for Haley. Altman baked a cake based on the themes provided by the embassy.
“It was a lot of fun,” she reports.
An average day for Altman begins when she checks her website each morning for the day’s orders. Cakes are baked on one day and decorated the following day before shipping. Most days are spent baking and decorating cakes and dealing with suppliers.
The vast majority of her customers are in the United States, who order cakes for relatives and family living here in Israel. She writes follow-up notes to all customers, to make sure that they are satisfied.
Altman is happy with her move to Israel. “I love that I can learn Tanach and then actually go on a tiyul [trip] to that place,” she says.
Though it was difficult for Altman to leave her friends, her move was eased by the fact that her sons were already living in Israel. Today, her sons live in Jerusalem, and she has four grandchildren in Israel. Her daughter is currently living in New York, and she hopes that she will someday move to Israel.
Altman’s biggest difficulty is speaking Hebrew. She studied in ulpan and with a private tutor, but still has difficulties.
“My entire world is mostly English,” she confesses. “It would be easier if I spoke the language.”
Nevertheless, says Altman, new immigrants need to recognize that Israel is not America. “Don’t think you are moving to America, but it happens to be in Israel. Don’t expect this to be a little America. It’s a different country.”
All the things that brought Altman to her life in Israel – her love for baking, the culinary environment of her childhood home, and her skating injury – are summed up in the post-it note that she keeps near her door. “Thank Hashem,” it reads. “You have to thank God for everything,” she says.
Though Altman hasn’t gone ice-skating since she arrived in Israel, she smiles and says, “I have my skates. I’m ready.”