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Eat, Drink + Think

Why this Pittsburgh native is making American bagels in a remote Israeli city

Ariel Pollock Star started a cooperative space to help local business expand during the pandemic, bringing the town's diverse population together through bread and baking

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

On a hot Friday morning, a stream of customers enters the tiny, unassuming storefront nestled between a hairdresser and a toy shop in the southern desert city of Yeruham. The colorfully painted sign above their heads reads: “Lehem Zeh” [“This Bread”]: A Cooperative Desert Kitchen.”

It’s a mixed crowd: some of the customers are locals on their weekly rounds of pre-Shabbat shopping, while others are tourists from the Tel Aviv or Jerusalem areas, kicking off a weekend of hiking or relaxing by strolling through the neighborhood.

Once inside, the tourists pause to survey the range of baked goods in front of them. Ariel Pollock Star, her hair swathed in a cloth headband, greets each customer with a smile and an explanation, detailing the variety of homemade bread, cakes and cookies for sale.

Others stride in deliberately, knowing exactly what they are looking for – and it is clear what the main attraction is.

Against a wall, two baskets are piled with warm, homemade, American-style bagels. Pollock Star, 34, keeps busy refilling the basket with freshly made ones. To do so, she periodically steps back to tend to a large pot on a stove where the bagels are boiling. When they are done, she places them on a baking sheet that slides into a large oven.

When she moves away from the counter, Yehudit Ben Hamu, who bakes the sourdough loaves also on sale, takes over.

Midmorning, a new crowd shows up. “Ooh, it smells like Shabbat in here!” exclaims Hindy Leitner, 29, as she leads 15 young Birthright Israel tour participants to picnic tables in the back of the bakery, where they begin a challah-baking workshop with Rivka Lichtenstein. She is Lehem Zeh’s challah expert and responsible for the braided loaves for sale at the counter.

The social entrepreneurial project, which offers “workshops, stories and goods centered on traditional breads from diverse cultures,” was born two years ago – and all because of a bout of homesickness during the coronavirus pandemic. Pollock Star was stuck at home with her four young children, after taking time off from her job as a business strategist when school was suspended – and with no prospects of hopping on a plane and visiting the family Stateside. So, the Pittsburgh native decided to make her doctor husband a treat for his birthday: a bagel brunch.

While bagels are hardly a rarity in enclaves of U.S. immigrants in central Israel, they are far more difficult to obtain on the country’s periphery. In Yeruham, a desert city a half-hour drive south of Be’er Sheva, finding a bagel was inconceivable – in fact, many of the city’s 10,000 residents had never even heard of them, let alone tasted one.

The city was founded as an immigrant transit camp in the 1950s, where Romanians and later a massive population of Moroccans were brought to settle. About a quarter of the city’s population came from the former Soviet bloc in the ’90s and the city is also home to Jews from India and Ethiopia.

Its size and diversity were factors when Pollock Star, husband Michael and their children immigrated from Cincinnati five years ago, and Michael began working in neurology at Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Medical Center. After a year living near the hospital, where “everyone stayed in their bubbles,” they felt enveloped by the community of English-speaking immigrants – “We wanted to be part of an Israeli community” – and so moved to Yeruham.

By early 2020, the family was settled and happy in the community – but then the pandemic hit. Once again, Pollock Star – like many others – felt isolated, even in the warm community, and the idea that she wasn’t able to board a plane to see her family if they needed her was stressful and upsetting. During that bagel-baking birthday adventure, she remembers, “there were tears in my eyes.”

Baking therapy

As Pollock Star began getting caught up in the hobby of making bagels, she found that not only was baking therapeutic (not a unique revelation in COVID-19 times), but that the product helped alleviate her loneliness.

At first, she distributed her wares to friends. Then, as interest and demand grew, the family opened a home business in June 2020 – Little City Bagels – where their neighbors could order and buy bagels. When pandemic rules permitted, they also held bagel-baking workshops.

Pollock Star says she was surprised initially by the popularity of her product beyond the small enclave of English-speaking immigrants in Yeruham.

“It was like we discovered ‘secret Americans,’” she laughs. “People who we thought of as completely Israeli who said, ‘Oh, I was on a sabbatical year in the States and I loved the bagels.’ Or ‘My mom was American and she always used to bring back bagels.’ Or even people who tasted them when they went on a trip.”

Whenever a neighbor would ask her curiously what a bagel was, and she explained what they were and how they were made – how they were different from Jerusalem-style “beigeles” and why American Jews were so attached to the doughy circles – it brought her back to her first days after moving to Yeruham.

“It was our first Shabbat here and we walked into the local grocery store and saw two separate sections of bread shelves,” Pollock Star recalls. “One was full of the challah we knew, and then there were other shelves stacked with bread we didn’t recognize. The second shelves were mobbed. I asked a worker what the foreign bread was and she looked shocked. ‘It’s frena! How in the world have you never had frena before?’ she asked me.”

Pollock Star soon learned that, like bagels, frena isn’t just bread to Moroccan Jews, but a cultural touchstone – a reminder of the villages in their former homes, where the frena would be baked in communal ovens. It made her consider how bread and baking could be a tool to bring the diverse population of her city together, each group – Indians, Russians, Ukrainians and Ethiopians – with their own traditions, plus a growing community of American immigrants.

Yeruham was already home to a communal catering business for Moroccan home cooks. But Pollock Star began to conceive of a different project, centered around a community bakery that would bring together women who were already baking and selling from their homes. She began looking for kitchen space.

“The goal was to make a cooperative space that would help local businesses expand, but also to create a place for people to connect over bread,” she explains.

Unlikely tourist destination

For most of its first year, Lehem Zeh was purely a communal kitchen – it was up to the individual bakers to sell their wares – and a place to hold special events and workshops for people to learn about breads and baking from other cultures.

As the coronavirus waned and stores began to fill up again – and, crucially, tourism to the Negev began to pick up – Pollock Star decided to experiment by opening a pop-up store on Fridays once a month, to see if it had a possible customer base. It did. And so, beginning in May, she began opening for business every Friday morning. In addition to the breads, the store now offers homemade cream cheese and vegan spreads, and a selection of local olive oil and wine.

The Friday pop-up store is benefiting from the continued expansion of Yeruham as a tourist attraction. While as recently as 10 years ago it suffered from a negative image as a downtrodden “development town,” and hardly the kind of place Israelis could imagine as a leisure destination, it now has a hotel and over 70 bed-and-breakfasts, taking advantage of its location close to Machtesh Hagadol (aka The Big Crater).

Lehem Zeh continues to offer workshops for Israelis, foreign tourists and educational tour groups like Birthright. This summer, it is also running a “baking day camp” for local youth.

In addition to pursuing their passion for baking that attracted them to Pollock Star’s vision, all of the women involved work full-time elsewhere. Sourdough baker Ben Hamu is a teacher, while challah specialist Lichtenstein is a drama therapist. Pollock Star is herself pursuing a doctorate in public health at Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“This is Israel. Everyone does a lot of things,” she laughs.

She sees her bagel-baking and Lehem Zeh not only as a way of fulfilling her belief in social entrepreneurship and launching a business, but as a way to give back to the city she has grown to love.

“When we first moved here, a street cleaner asked where I was from and he couldn’t believe anyone from America would choose to move to Yeruham. It turned out he was one of the city’s first residents – he came here in the ’50s – and he was so pleased and excited that we had decided to come here. Yeruham is just full of good people who are devoted to their community. When you start doing something new like I have, at first they might not understand what it is and be a little suspicious. But once it’s clear you’re trying to make a contribution to the city, they really connect to it – and to you.”

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