Bread of independence

We appreciate our bread this holiday – but it wasn’t so long ago that the situation was starkly different

Hamburger (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
As we lead up to Independence Day, let’s take a glimpse at how many Israelis will be celebrating that day: Taking part in a family affair featuring the mangal – the traditional Israeli barbecue – accompanied by the ubiquitous pita, hot-dog rolls and hamburger buns.
In Israel today there is an abundance and variety of bread that is unparalleled in Jewish history. During our 2,000 years in the Diaspora, we adopted myriad types of breads from cultures the world over which have coalesced in the proverbial melting pot of our modern state. Nowhere in the world is there such a wide spectrum of breads concentrated into a tiny space of 20,000 square kilometers.
Add to this the ongoing impact of scientific advancement and new bread-eating trends, such as low-calorie breads, whole grain, organic, gluten-free, etc.
Only by comparing our humble beginnings to our present reality in the short period of 69 years can one develop a true appreciation for the miracle of the rebirth of our nation. On that note I would like to recount the story of Israeli bread during a less auspicious period, the siege of Jerusalem prior to and during the War of Independence.
Prior to the war, there were two major bakeries supplying bread in Jerusalem, the older Berman Bakery and the relative newcomer, Angel Bakery. There were only three choices of bread – white bread, dark bread (lehem shahor) and halla for Shabbat.
From the day after the November 29, 1947, United Nations vote on partitioning Palestine and up until the British Mandate ended and statehood was declared on May 14, 1948, there was rioting by Arab irregulars in Jerusalem. Normal daily life in the city ground to a halt.
The Jewish Agency began stockpiling food, and to maintain normalcy, a constant supply from outside Jerusalem was facilitated along a narrow and dangerous corridor winding past Latrun, Sha’ar Hagai and Castel, on what is now the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. Convoys were frequently attacked and thwarted en route. By March 1948 the number of truckloads reaching the city had dropped from the required 50 a week to 30.
Rationing was instituted in the form of coupons that limited the use of water, food and fuel. At the beginning of the siege, bread was limited to 200 grams per person per day. As the situation became dire, this dropped to 130 grams, approximately a fifth of a loaf of bread. Bread was the main food source; anything else was a luxury. Resources were prioritized, with central food producers like the bakeries getting the majority.
Following the declaration of the state on May 14, 1948, Arab armies invaded from all sides and the supply route to Jerusalem was cut off. Berman Bakery was a strategic target and came under Jordanian Legion artillery fire.
As supplies dwindled, the bakeries began to sweep the floors and reuse any flour that had dropped during sifting and baking.
When flour ran out, they started making bread out of semolina. Eventually the bread ran out and the residents of Jerusalem resorted to eating mallow leaves that were growing around the city, for sustenance.
Leah Elron, a kindergarten teacher in Jerusalem at the time, charged with looking after children who had been evacuated from the Katamon area, recalls that she lived near a bakery and the smell of bread was at the same time heavenly and torturing, as one was perpetually hungry. Elron was constantly on a mission to obtain clothes and food for her children. The bakery store owner, hearing that the bread was for the children, gave her more than the normal ration. The children smelled the bread and tore it from her hands and gulped it down plain, without butter or jam. That is how every day she brought the children bread.
Stashing arms and training far from British eyes before they relinquished their mandate was not an easy task. The Irgun Zva’i Leumi hid arms in synagogues during the week, but on Shabbat another solution was required. The father of Irgun commander Shlomo Shwebel owned a bakery, so all the weapons were moved into the bakery before Shabbat. While they were training they heard a knock at the door and hurriedly hid the weapons and themselves among the sacks of flour, only to discover a group of women at the door who had come to collect their cholent from the baker’s oven for their Shabbat meal.
After earlier attempts at recapturing Latrun failed, Israeli troops carved a new route to Jerusalem on what became known as the Burma Road. At the outset, motorized movement was difficult and was alternated with donkeys and porters lugging sacks of flour on their backs. Later the road was widened and convoys were delivering 100 tons of supplies each night, thus alleviating the siege, until the main road was liberated several weeks later.
Heartened by these and countless other tales of courage, endurance and sacrifice, our enjoyment of Independence Day and indeed of our daily bread year round, takes on a deeper significance, and the advances we have made since then in all spheres of our renewed existence in our ancestral homeland take on a new perspective as we remember what was and pay our respects to the founders of our fledgling nation.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children.
He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.
HAMBURGER/HOT-DOG BUN RECIPE (Makes 12 hamburger buns or 15 hot-dog rolls) 7 cups flour 2½ cups water 5 tsp. salt 5 tsp. instant dry yeast 4 Tbsp. sugar ¹⁄3 cup oil Mix all ingredients and knead for 10 minutes. Leave to rise for 30 minutes. Divide into 12 equal portions (hamburger buns) or 15 portions (hot-dog rolls). Shape into round balls and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand (hamburger buns), or into cylinder shapes (hot dog rolls). Leave to rise on baking tray for 90 minutes. For hamburger buns, spray lightly with water and sprinkle sesame seeds. Bake at 180º for 20 minutes.