How one new immigrant found relief in the art of baking

Much of Elana’s work is alternative customized baking, to suit clients who have allergies, food sensitivities and special diets, but enjoy treats such as homemade challa, yeasty chocolate babkas or lemon cranberry cupcakes.

Much of Elana’s work is alternative customized baking (photo credit: KEREN LAGZIELI)
Much of Elana’s work is alternative customized baking
(photo credit: KEREN LAGZIELI)
Elana was the only child of her Russian parents for her first 13 years, until her sister was born. The family lived in Moscow, where her father managed an auto repair shop. Her mother, a food technologist, checked the hygiene of restaurants on Moscow’s main streets.
When Elana was four and five, and the summer months came around, her parents sent her away to camp outside the city. Because both had to work, they had no other solution. The sleepaway camp, which should have been a happy experience, proved traumatic.
“I was physically abused by my caregivers for being Jewish,” she relates.
At nighttime, the kids were not allowed to go outside to use the outhouse toilets, so a big bucket was put in the middle of the room for that purpose. “But I wasn’t allowed to use the bucket. I had to go in my bed because I was Jewish.” When day dawned, those in charge would tell her callously, “You are a Jew. Go wash your underwear yourself.”
After her parents decided to leave Russia for Israel in 1991, her mother organized an ulpan for Hebrew studies in their home. Elana vividly remembers those months. As a small dedicated group of Jews gathered in their small apartment at night to learn Hebrew, excitement tingled in the air.
“I also remember that they wanted us to give up our Russian citizenship, and for this, we had to pay them money. When we came to Rehovot, I was six years old, and it just felt right,” she says.
The family stayed in Israel until 1998, when they left for economic reasons because “workwise, everything fell apart for them.” They left for Windsor in Canada, not far from Detroit in the US, while her father’s parents and their son remained in Ashdod.
Elana’s parents, who came of age under a repressive Communist regime, did not observe Jewish traditions in Moscow and had little knowledge of Judaism, but later on her mother would sometimes light Shabbat candles and switch over dishes for Passover.
Elana had a hard adjustment in Canada.
“I always had this childhood love of Israel, and felt like a fish out of water in Windsor,” she comments. “I told no one that I was Jewish, though they knew I was Russian. Antisemitism was still high. One day in 10th grade we were learning Shakespeare, and the teacher left the class briefly. A popular kid, Ali, then got up on the table and proclaimed out of the blue, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to teach my children to kill Jews.’ The other kids did not react, but I was stunned.”
Luckily, Elana discovered an escape route. “I often drifted over to the Jewish community center, and taught Hebrew at the Sunday school there from age 15 on.”
Similarly, in college, she became involved with Hillel and was president of the Jewish Student Association at Wayne State University in Warren, Michigan, where she studied for a BA in liberal arts and sciences. One subject, organic chemistry, served her well when she began her baking career.
She met her Israeli husband, Aharon, a welder, when he came to Canada to visit his aunt. The couple became religious around 2008, gradually adopting a moderately Orthodox lifestyle.
BECAUSE ELANA loved to bake, she took occasional courses in that, and gradually evolved into a pastry chef. This activity satisfied her artistic bent and relaxed her. At one point, she offered to bake cakes and cookies to raise money for a synagogue project that she thought important – purchasing a changing table for babies. When they reached this objective, congregants told her: “Why did you stop, Elana? Please keep going!”
After their three sons reached the ages of nine, five, and a year and a half, the Kagans made aliyah to Rehovot, and Aharon found work in Palmahim. Meanwhile, her home bakery continued operations.
“All three of my boys have special needs,” she explains. “They all have ADHD and various issues that accompany that. So I bake when they are asleep – to relax myself and satisfy my aesthetic needs. The older two are in regular schools, while the youngest, who needs a quieter environment, attends a special-needs kindergarten.”
Much of Elana’s work is alternative customized baking, to suit clients who have allergies, food sensitivities and special diets, but enjoy treats such as homemade challa, yeasty chocolate babkas or lemon cranberry cupcakes. Clients who cannot tolerate gluten, eggs or sugar are happy to find gluten-free donuts or hamentashen for the holidays.
“I bake parve and mehadrin goods at a place that has a hechsher [rabbinical certification], anything from a standard birthday cake to special desserts,” she explains. “I make one cake where I literally paint on it with a paintbrush. I also make dairy goods sometimes in my own kitchen.”
 

Elana also creates single-serving cakes for the photo opportunity that a one-year-old’s birthday party presents. She customizes these lovingly decorated “smash cakes” to accord with photo sets and parents’ preferences.
In addition, she produces her own marketing materials.
“I design my own logos, fliers and holiday menus. I devote all my time to my baking business, unless I’m with the kids,” she continues. “About a day per week is set aside for marketing, including social media.”
To sum up her feelings about living here, Elana confides, “I have a special connection to Israel, and have retained my childhood love of the land. Though I was 18 years in Canada, I feel like this is my home.”