Shtisel’s Cheesecake: Part 1
New to Israel and anxious to learn about various aspects of culture, I began to watch the Netflix series, “Shtisel.” This series follows the lives of an Ultra-Orthodox family set in the heart of Jerusalem. The endearing main characters of Akiva and Shulem completely captured my attention and piqued my curiosity about this sect of Jewish society.
In one episode, Shulem, an aged widower, attempts to call on a potential match by offering to share a Brizel’s cheesecake with her. Shulem talked about the virtues of this cheesecake so much that I had to know if there actually were a bakery by this name. Great Gideon’s ghost! It exists!
My husband, unaware of any of this, walked innocently into the room to see what I was doing. I looked him in the eye and said, “We’re going to Jerusalem for cheesecake!”
He laughed and said, “No, really.” I didn’t laugh and said, “No. Really.”
I knew that we had plans to travel to Jerusalem from our home in the north anyway, so why not? He shrugged and agreed. We would find Shtisel’s cheesecake!
I had booked a room near the Old City and plotted the walking route to Brizel’s. “Look,” I said to my husband, “it’s not far away at all and it’s open until evening!” He laughed at my excitement and mumbled something to the effect, “Um…it’s just cheesecake.”
No, my dear man. It is not. IT IS AN ADVENTURE.
I guess this would be a good time to disclose a few facts about us. We are Americans. We are not Jewish. We don’t know Hebrew or Yiddish. My husband is working on a PhD in Education and has many meetings. This means he’s occupied for many hours and I have time to explore. Every once in a while, he gets to join.
The map app began spouting directions and we obeyed. People of every sort were in the bustling streets attempting to catch a bus or pick up some food for dinner. Taxis honked. Kids cried. Commuters yelled.
The map voice continued leading us past the train tracks into a neighborhood that began to resemble that of Akiva and Shulem’s. I smiled at a woman wearing a black beret pushing a pram. She didn’t have time to notice as her toddlers walking alongside demanded her attention.
A packed city bus stopped at the same corner in which we had arrived. Scores of boys wearing kippas and payot* piled out and began running down the sidewalk. The adults filed out, filling the streets with a sea of black tall hats. I realized that this was not the day to have a red raincoat and yellow umbrella, but it was too late now.
We garnered a few stares, but at the end of the day, few had the energy to go beyond basic curiosity.
Now almost dark, we arrived at the door of the infamous Brizel’s Bakery. I pulled on the door. Locked! What? I pulled on it again. No go.
My husband said, “I guess they went home early. Maybe next time.”
“Next time?!” I said incredulously. We are here! We made it! The Shtisel cheesecake is within view. In fact, I can see it in the case!
Thinking that somehow I was mistaken the first two times, I pulled on the door again. Still locked.
A handwritten sign (in Hebrew) had a phone number with it. I looked at my husband and said, “I’m going to call the number.” He shook his head and said that we don’t know what the sign says or what the number is for.
Undaunted, I dialed the number. I hadn’t really thought this through. Remember, I don’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish. A nice man answers and can only begin asking me what I think to be a series of questions about why I’m calling. The only thing I can think to say is, “I WANT CHEESECAKE.” My husband rolls his eyes and is now checking the cracks in the sidewalk.
The man on the phone says more things that I don’t understand to which I respond, “I JUST WANT TO BUY A CHEESECAKE. You know, like Shtisel!” Hearing my own words, now I’m embarrassed.
We each finally stop trying and let the phone call come to its demise.I stare at the door. “Maybe they just went on an errand,” I mutter.
Just as I was about to give up hope, a young boy of about 12 came to the door. He was pushing a dolly full of baking supplies.
Yes! This is my chance! I knew it!He takes a key from his pocket and places it in the lock. He then promptly puts the supplies immediately inside the door and proceeds to relock it.
“Do you work here?” I ask in English.
He stares at me like an Ultra-Orthodox deer in the headlights.I try again, but this time with very enthusiastic gestures. “DO YOU WORK HERE?”
By this time, a couple of Ultra-Orthodox men have joined the scene and are inquiring as to what we need. My husband is now officially mortified and is trying his best to blend in with the sidewalk.
I begin pointing to the bakery saying, “I JUST WANT TO BUY A CHEESECAKE.”
They began muttering to themselves and then collectively shaking their head no.I pointed some more. They shrugged and went on. The boy was still frozen in place.
“Another time,” my husband said. I sighed, took one last look inside, and whispered to the cheesecake, “I’ll be back, Cheesecake. I’ll…be…back.”
*kippa: Hebrew word for “yamulke” or head covering that Jewish men wear.
payot: The sidecurls of Ultra-Orthodox men