Challah, strudel help ex-Bay Area baker catch two bears

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

You could call 84-year-old baker Ernie Feld the anti-Goldilocks.

Three bears have visited him since late September.

But unlike some bears we’re all familiar with, these furries weren’t after porridge, honey or a “pick-a-nick” basket.

The munchies of choice for these ursine gourmets were apple strudel and raisin challah — specialties of Ernie’s Inter-national Pastries in Incline Village, Nev.

“I think the bears are Jewish,” Feld joked, noting that there was a visit at the same time last year. “They always seem to come around Rosh Hashanah.”

Feld, a Bay Area resident for 19 years who worked at David’s Delicatessen in San Francisco in the late 1950s and took over Oakland’s Grand Bakery in the ’60s, was baking for the High Holy Days last month when this year’s first bear showed up.

One morning, it just wandered into his bakery. Feld heard a noise and thought it was his wife working in her rose garden.

Feld came out from the back of the store and, stunned, beheld the creature — not far from the walnut-stuffed bear claws, actually. After getting his, uh, bearings, Feld mustered up his courage and shooed it away.

Since that was his second up-close-and-personal experience with a bear within a year, Feld decided to take preemptive measures to avoid any more surprise visits. So earlier this month, with the help of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, he set up a huge, cylindrical trap filled with the goodies they like — raisin challah, cake and apple strudel.

Two bears were lured in — and the story of the capture (one bear was released into the wild, one had to be killed) was written up in the Reno Gazette-Journal and a smaller local newspaper.

“Now I’ve got people coming in from the South Shore, asking for the bear apple strudel,” says Feld, a Jewish World War II refugee (born Ernest Ehrenfeld) who learned to bake as a child while working in his mother’s restaurant in the former Czechoslovakia.

These weren’t Feld’s first experiences with sojourners who left their home in bear country for sweeter treats, if not greener pastures.

Last year, after loading up his car with raisin challah and strudel to deliver to a longtime loyal customer in Orinda, Feld found his car raided, with all his baked goods gone.

“I called the sheriff,” Feld recalled, “and asked, ‘What do I do?’ The sheriff said, ‘Next time, don’t make the strudel so good.’

“But I don’t think it’s my baking,” he said modestly. Feld credits the apples and sweet ingredients for the bears’ attraction to the pastry rather than his baking skills, although the latter helped him after he was captured by the Germans in Hungary in 1943.

“The Nazis found out they had a baker, and they wanted a steady supply of kugel,” Feld recalled. “They appointed an SS guy to keep an eye on me.”

With rolling pins scarce, he had to roll out the dough using champagne bottles. It took a lot of time, and the Germans were as hungry for his pastry as Lake Tahoe bears are. To speed things up, he was able to enlist 50 other Jewish prisoners to work with him in the relative safety of the officers’ club kitchen.

In 1945, toward the end of the war, Feld’s camp was liberated by Russian soldiers. When he finally made his way back to Czechoslovakia, he found that none of his relatives, around 100 people, had survived. Feld joined a Zionist organization and in 1947, intending to move to pre-state Israel, was on the immigration ship the Theodore Herzl when it was turned away by the British. It docked instead in Cyprus, where Feld opened a bakery and remained until he could immigrate to Israel in 1949.

Feld came to the United States from Israel in 1957 and, speaking no English, landed a job as pastry chef at David’s Delicatessen in San Francisco, since he could communicate with the owner in Hebrew. Along with Hebrew and heavily accented English, Feld speaks Czech, Hungarian, German, Polish and Russian.

In 1961, Feld opened Ernie’s International Bakery in Berkeley, and then took over the Grand Bakery, where he remained until he sold it in 1976. He then moved to North Lake Tahoe and opened Ernie’s International Pastries.

Shortly after Feld, an observant Jew, settled in Incline Village, Nev., he became one of the founders and the first president of the North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation; he also helped obtain a Torah that had been in a Czech synagogue destroyed by the Nazis.

After close to 33 years in the Tahoe area, Feld and his wife have decided they want to move to Las Vegas, so they’re trying to sell the bakery. However, since there haven’t been any nibbles — from two-legged creatures, that is — for now he realizes he may just have to grin and bear it.