Perhaps its perverse but a moment before we bid bread goodbye for the Passover week let’s take a look at one of Israel’s oldest bakeries, Berman, whose history is intertwined with that of the Jewish State.
The story starts in 1875 when Rabbi Todros Levi Berman and his wife Krisha came from Russian to live in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Family lore has it that it was Krisha who noticed that the Christian pilgrims from Russia did not eat the local pita bread or other kinds of pastry and decided to open a shop selling Russian-style bread. The enterprise was a success and her 15 year-old son, Yehoshua, soon joined the family business as manager although, according to historian Moshe Hananel as quoted in Wikipedia, Krisha continued to keep a watchful eye on the bakery, “checking that the daily cash intake was done properly, the number of loaves of bread baked per day versus the number of sacks of flour consumed.”
In 1880 Yehoshua opened a bakery outside the Jaffa Gate and in 1886 purchased a disused flour mill located in the Arab Quarter. This was moved in around 1890 outside the walls to the Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Jurat el Anav (today the Hutzot Hayotzer artists colony) and operated on this site until the War of Independence in 1948. The original millstone still stands at Hutzot Hayotzer today.
In 1890, “Reb Shia” (as Yehoshua was nicknamed) founded the company’s largest bakery, located southwest of the Mea Shearim neighborhood, which operated on this site until the Sixties.
Yehoshua built homes for his immediate and extended family on nearby Rehov HaNevi’im. He also formed a partnership with his brother Eliahu (for one-third of the profits and without bearing losses) and the official name of the company was changed to “Berman Brothers”. According to company history, this was the largest bakery in Israel and the Middle East overall. The bakery has also introduced a newfangled invention: generators that provided electricity to both the bakery and the family home.
With the end of the First World War in 1917, Yehoshua traveled to Austria to procure army surplus carriages which were used for bread delivery. Embedded in the carriage doors was an anchor logo and this became the Berman logo. The company kept both a stable of horses and chicken coops to provide eggs for Sabbath challah bread.
In 1927, the Angel Bakery was founded in Jerusalem and a long-standing rivalry between the two companies — and the two families — began.
Despite the competition, Berman flourished and in 1933, the family built two houses on Chancellor Street (later renamed Straus Street) that housed the first and only private tennis courts in Jerusalem at the time.
During the British Mandate, Berman was awarded the contract to supply the British Army with bread. During the 1948 Siege of Jerusalem, both the Berman and rival Angel bakeries were categorized as essential plants and were given special protection by the forces defending Jerusalem.
In the 1960s, under the management of fourth-generation Yitzhak Berman, the bakery was moved to a new facility in the Givat Shaul industrial zone where it stands today… down the street from the Angel plant. In 2001, Berman acquired two retail bakery chains, giving it a foothold in cakes and pastries, and specialty breads, and making Berman the second largest bakery chain after Angel.
In the spirit of its tradition of innovation, Berman just launched brand new packaging and a clever viral video campaign, too.
This comical chain reaction machine — also known as a Rube Goldberg in the US or a Heath Robinson in the UK — was created by artist Joseph Herscher whose eccentric machines have been featured at art festivals, films, TV and online video. He describes the Berman machine’s ingredients as “eggs, flour, steel balls, three weeks of prep and a bucketload of patience”.
It is interesting to speculate on what Herscher could do with a box of matza… maybe next year. Meanwhile, enjoy his “Bread Goldberg Machine” and have a happy Passover!