As desire for challah rises, kosher bakery opens in Berlin

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BERLIN — The Chanukah candles were burning low, the meal was over and the challah was nearly gone when the jelly doughnuts came out. It was a quiet Sabbath in Berlin, the first night of the Festival of Lights, and five friends prepared to do their final taste test of the evening.

The challah was a big hit. The Chanukah doughnuts, or sufganiyot, were, they found, a bit low on the prune filling. Still, no one was complaining. After all, these were kosher baked goods.

In Berlin, that's quite unique. But word is spreading about Kaedtler's on Danziger Street.

"I am very happy," said Rabbi Yitzchak Ehrenberg, who gave the bakery his seal of approval just in time for Chanukah. "I searched for a long time."

It appears to be part of a mini-trend. Three months ago, a bakery in western Berlin started producing kosher challah for Chabad Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal.

In Frankfurt, a new kosher food emporium has opened that "is amazing," said Rabbi Josh Spinner, head of the Ronald S. Lauder Jewish School in Berlin.

"There won't be a better indicator of the development of active Jewish life than the proliferation of kosher food in Germany," said Spinner.

What makes Kaedtler's unusual is that it is owned and operated by a Protestant family.

"I am very proud of it," said master baker Stefan Kaedtler, 33, in a recent interview. "It means traditional food according to Jewish belief is possible again" in Germany. "It is not the easiest way but it is the best."

Now, in addition to his dairy cakes and cheese rolls, which are not kosher, Kaedtler sells pareve breads, rolls, croissants and challah, baked in a separate oven.

One recent Friday, Kaedtler delivered some 140 freshly baked challah, shiny brown and covered with poppy seeds, to the Israeli Embassy and two Jewish schools. By 10 a.m., he was back in the bakery, already having worked eight hours.

Kaedtler comes from a long line of bakers. His maternal grandfather and then his father operated this bakery before him. The small shop, located between a pharmacy and a newly renovated storefront on eastern Berlin's Danziger Street, has survived decades of communism, unification with the West and the proliferation of pre-mixed baked goods.

"Today you can get bread at the gas station or the supermarket and it's cheap and simple," Kaedtler said. "Business has dropped a lot. Of the 550 bakeries in East Berlin before reunification, only 20 percent have survived. And the numbers are sinking."

Kaedtler wanted to stand out from other bakeries. So he stuck to the old-fashioned way of baking that he learned from his grandfather. His insistence on pure ingredients and handmade products served him well, he said. This year he won a first prize in a consumer taste test.

But why challah? In Berlin, though, the Jewish population has tripled to 12,000 since the fall of communism, there is not a huge demand for kosher food. The community is still nothing like it was in 1933, when the Jewish population was about 175,000 in Berlin, and 500,000 in all Germany.

Ironically, non-kosher bagels and "Jewish-style" restaurants are ubiquitous here. On the other hand, there is only one restaurant — Arche Noah — under rabbinic supervision, and another, Beth Cafe, approved by the Berlin independent congregation Adass Jisroel. In addition, there are a few kosher food stores that carry everything from Sabbath candles to imported frozen meat.

Kaedtler saw a niche several years ago, when a local Jewish school reopened for the first time since World War II.

He got a contract baking challah for the school. He matched the recipe to their taste, and even made breads "round like the earth" for Rosh Hashanah, he said.

Word spread, but the challah still did not have a kosher stamp. As more observant Jews attended the school, the need for strictly kosher food increased, Spinner said.

Then the Israeli Embassy opened here in May 2001. The embassy staff often needed large quantities of kosher bread for events. A client base was building.

After he heard about Kaedtler, Ehrenberg inspected the bakery several times, sometimes accompanied by Spinner.

"Rabbi Ehrenberg came to us every 14 days for about four months, " Kaedtler said. "He asked questions about the ingredients, how we work, made tests of the goods."

Finally, about a week before Chanukah, Ehrenberg walked into the bakery with a kashrut certificate in his hand. He was followed by kosher slaughterer Yaacobov Reuven and Berlin kosher deli owner Morris El Maleh.

Kaedtler seemed uncharacteristically shy. His hands clasped behind his back, he watched as the three men in yarmulkes gave the mixing machines and ovens another once-over, peered under shelves and behind racks. Their faces were serious. They occasionally huddled and whispered.

Finally the moment of truth arrived. Standing in the room where the kosher goods are prepared, Rabbi Ehrenberg took out the contract and read aloud.

"I confirm that this bakery is under my supervision. All the following breads," he intoned a long list, "are absolutely kosher, without a doubt, and pareve."

Kaedtler, as a non-Jew, will not have to close down or divest himself of bread on Passover; he will not have to "take challah," or remove a portion of the dough as a symbolic sacrifice. But he must call Ehrenberg if the pilot light on his oven goes out, because a Jew must light the oven.

Last but not least, Kaedtler is not paying for the kosher certificate. "In big communities, they take a fee," Ehrenberg said. "But we don't want to make the prices rise.''

With his wife, Kerstin, watching from the hall, Kaedlter solemnly signed the document, leaning on the pastry table. Looking up, he finally broke into a grin.

Then, as a toast, Ehrenberg offered everyone a taste of the croissants he had ordered.

A few days later, the certificate was framed in a prominent place on the bakery wall. Kerstin sold the last of the officially kosher goods just before evening set in.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.