Sami Alkolombris, a Bulgarian Jewish baker from Jaffa, earned a small fortune and achieved a measure of fame in Israel by selling mouth-watering boreks, or bourekas, a flaky Middle Eastern/Balkan pastry made of phyllo dough and filled with stuffings ranging from salty cheese and spinach to potatoes and meat.
Sami initially sold his wares from a baby stroller, but as his popularity grew, he opened Sami Bourekas, a storefront on Jaffa’s main thoroughfare, Jerusalem Boulevard. At the beginning, his customers were mainly Bulgarian Jews, but eventually his pastries were bought by Israelis from diverse backgrounds.
With demand going through the roof, Sami sold franchises, purchased a baking facility in neighboring Bat Yam, mechanized the assembly line and diversified into frozen bourekas. By then, Sami’s two sons, Itzik and Nissim, and his son-in-law, Pepo, had joined the thriving business.
When the good times ended, the Sami Bourekas empire crumbled in a heap of recrimination, regret and flour dust.
Orit Ofir Ronell’s nostalgic and enjoyable movie, The King Of Borek, which documents the rise and fall of this legendary Israeli company, will be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 10.
Ronell, a member of the Alkolombris clan, is not exactly a detached observer. But she’s wise enough to keep a fair distance and allows Pepo, Itzik and Edna — Pepo’s chatty wife and Itzik’s sister — to do most of the talking. Sami and Nissim, who already had passed away when Ronell made this documentary, are seen in vintage photographs and archival film footage.
The film is held together by periodic scenes of a choir of aging women in colorful costumes singing plaintive Bulgarian folk songs.
Like the majority of Bulgarian Jews who left postwar Bulgaria, the Alkolombris family arrived in Israel in the late 1940s and settled in Jaffa, which had been inhabited mainly by Palestinian Arabs before the first Arab-Israeli war. Fine residential homes that had been abandoned by fleeing Arabs in 1948 were taken over by the 30,000 or so Jews from Bulgaria who had chosen to restart their lives in Jaffa.
Ronell leaves out a lot. She does not explain why Sami went into the boureka business. She does not provide meaningful biographical data about him. And she does not even tell us when he died. But Ronell is kind to Sami, who comes across as hardworking, modest and entrepreneurial.
Sami’s successors were devoted enough, but they did not get along. “We destroyed a strong brand with our own hands,” laments Edna.
Itzik, the chief executive officer, quarrelled with her husband, Pepo, the head of production. Itzik, a vain man who liked to party and enjoyed a life of conspicuous consumption, wanted to expand into Western Europe. The others, however, opposed his ambitious plans and resentments festered. The partners, too, were torn apart by mutual jealousy.
Due to their extravagant lifestyles, they spent more than they earned. Edna, for example, purchased an expensive mink coat, a luxury she didn’t need in Israel’s warm climate, while Itzik was drawn to costly Swedish cars. With their debts piling up, they closed their factory in Bat Yam and sold Sami Bourekas. “We lost our fortune,” says Itzik, now a tired old man who used to be rakishly handsome.
The King Of Borek recounts their fall from grace with sympathy and empathy.