The inhabitants of Bnei Brak are mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews. The challah bakery I visited is the area's largest, serving most of the needs of its Sabbath-observing neighbors. The bakery is open 24/6, operating at full capacity all days of the week except for Saturday. While you'll definitely find a variety of baked goods rolling through the shop's industrial oven—rolls, focaccia, bourekas, pastries, yeast cakes, even sugar-free and whole wheat pastries—the bakery's specialty is clearly the challah.
Challah is a special braided bread eaten every week on the Sabbath, and on Jewish holidays. Orthodox Jews begin the Sabbath meal with two loaves of challah, a reminder of the double portion of manna given to the Israelites on the sixth day of every week when they walked the desert for 40 years (because they couldn't collect manna on the Sabbath). Traditional challah dough—made with flour, sugar, salt, eggs, dried yeast, margarine or vegetable oil, and water—is rolled into long pieces, braided together, and then brushed with oil or an egg before going into the oven. The Bnei Brak bakery also makes specialty challah: for example, a large round challah for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to symbolize the cycle of the year, or a smaller, round challah with holes cut out for a wine bottle or some other gift.
All the bread gets prepared upstairs on the second floor. Huge tubs of margarine and sacks of flour sit in a corner, next to the industrial-size mixer, which is always running and kneading new batches of dough. Once the dough is ready, big buckets of it move to various parts of the room, where small groups of men work to roll, shape, and transfer the dough to trays. Six men standing around a table in the center of the room are responsible for braiding the challah, which they do with incredible speed and dexterity. Nearby a small machine drops bun-sized shapes of dough on a conveyer belt, which are then quickly picked up by two men and transfered to a metal tray.
The bakery oven is located on the ground floor, right behind the shop where customers peruse full shelves of baked goods and breads. Tall metal carts holding trays of unbaked loaves and buns hide the oven from view, and it's only after you've walked through them that you see one man, flushed from the heat, running the rotation. He slides the rolling garage oven door open, pulls out a few trays of (now) freshly baked bread, and quickly replaces them with the trays holding the dough. Out and in. Out and in. Once the loaves have cooled, they're moved into the customer area, and the whole process starts over. It was a fascinating look at the making of a such a traditional food!
Related: Recipe: No-Knead Challah (Images: Cambria Bold)