Yaakov Kermaier
Yaakov Kermaier
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In search of quintessential Israel and a gluten-free chocolate éclair

How many eminent politicians do you know who are so unpretentious that they'll chat with a random young soldier and mop the floor of their daughter’s bakery?
Chocolate eclairs. (iStock)
Chocolate eclairs. (iStock)

She studied the culinary arts at Paris’s renowned Le Cordon Bleu, and the chic pâtisserie that Amit Barkat recently opened in Jerusalem’s industrial Talpiot neighborhood seems like a transplant from Montmartre or the Marais. This past Friday (Purim), my IDF soldier son, Binyamin, who has adopted a gluten-free diet, and I went hunting for some holiday sweets that he could eat. We found them at Amit’s place, where all of the handcrafted desserts are sans gluten. While there, we also partook of a treat even more satisfying than the alluring pastries; we experienced one of those unforgettable “only in Israel” moments.

It was close to pre-Shabbat closing time when Binyamin, who was home from base for the weekend, and I entered the bakery. We were the only customers. To our great surprise, we immediately recognized the man behind the counter — it was Nir Barkat, the former Jerusalem mayor, current Knesset member and, some political pundits contend, a credible candidate for prime minister in the coming years. According to Forbes, past success as a high-tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist has positioned the 61-year-old as Israel’s wealthiest politician. Nir Barkat surely does not need to supplement his income by selling pastries. Well, it turns out that Nir is the proud father of pâtissière Amit, and he had come to assist her in her new project.

I met then Mayor Nir Barkat in his office a few years ago to discuss a community project. I have also broken bread with him at a dinner celebrating a Torah dedication hosted by our mutual friends, Ira and Inge Rennert. I reminded Nir of these past meetings. He and I chatted briefly, and then Nir turned his attention to Binyamin.

A very typical conversation between Israeli strangers ensued.

Nir: In which IDF unit are you serving?

Binyamin: Tzanchanim (paratroopers).

Nir: I also served in Tzanchanim. Do you already have your wings (a lapel pin awarded after a series of successful parachute jumps)?

Binyamin: Yes, I have my wings.

Nir: Which battalion are you in?

Binyamin: 890.

Nir: No way — so was I! Where are you based?

Binyamin: Lebanese border.

Nir proceeded to tell Binyamin about his own experience fighting in the 1982 Lebanon War, during which his commander was killed and Nir was struck by gunfire as he charged a terrorist.

I was a silent spectator to this quintessentially Israeli exchange. Two individuals, of different generations, with very different upbringings, at very different stages of life, spoke a common language and shared a deep sense of pride in being members of IDF Paratroopers Brigade 890.

As the two soldiers spoke, two women joined us from the kitchen — Amit, the chef/owner, and her mother, Beverly, Nir’s wife of nearly 35 years. Beverly is a South African immigrant who, in her youth, lived in the same Jerusalem neighborhood as Nir’s family. When she heard that her neighbor was injured in Lebanon, she visited him in the hospital, and, says Nir, she “stole my heart.” They’ve been together ever since.

By Nir’s telling, it is from Beverly, an accomplished artist, that Amit inherited the creativity and aesthetic sensibility evident in her sweet confections. And it was Beverly’s personal struggle with celiac disease that inspired her daughter to open a gluten-free pâtisserie.

When Nir took his leave of us and headed into the kitchen, I asked Amit, “How cool is it that your father came to help you in your bakery?” She responded, “He’s amazing! My dad came here to do the spongeh (Israeli slang for the unpopular task of mopping the floor)!”

Amit Barkat, with her father, Nir. (courtesy)

During these grey COVID-19 times, we discovered during our visit to Amit Barkat Pâtisserie a vibrant, colorful display of what makes Israel special — valor, sacrifice, brotherhood, creativity, aliyah, tight-knit family, and the unpretentious attitude that would have an eminent political and business leader schmoozing with a young soldier and volunteering to do the spongeh at his daughter’s shop.

By the way, Binyamin adopted a “why choose?” approach to the desserts on display. He savored three pastries; all were delicious, but the chocolate éclair was absolutely delectable.

About the Author
Yaakov Kermaier is the founder of Yakir: Diversity, Unity, Community (www.yakir.org), Rabbi Emeritus of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue Synagogue and past President of the New York Board of Rabbis. Since making aliyah in 2015, Rabbi Kermaier has lived with his family in Jerusalem. For a taste of Yakir's trailblazing work with Israel's loyal minority communities, please go to: https://youtu.be/sM2EdmlZ2qM
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