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Cheskie’s Hasidic kosher bakery in Montreal unites foodies of all stripes

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The steaming Russian chocolate babka is one of the classic go-to delicacies at Cheskie’s in Outremont (Montreal) | Photo: Ezra Soiferman (www.EzraSoiferman.com)

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Seinfeld fans will fondly recall the classic episode where Jerry cheerfully munches on a black and white cookie, and cites it as the cure to end racial divides. “Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate,” he tells Elaine. “And yet, still somehow, racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.”

In the heart of Montreal’s Hasidic community, Jerry’s appeal is more than just a dream, thanks to a small kosher bakery that’s quickly gaining international repute. At Boulangerie Cheskie (Cheskie’s Bakery) in Outremont, the delectable black and white cookies are bridging cultural divides between Hasidim, and their predominantly Quebecois neighbours. So are the babkas, doughnuts, cheese crowns, checkered cakes, sweet rolls, and just about every other pastry in the shop.

The patisserie has been an overwhelming success since the day New Yorker Cheskie Lebowitz and his Montreal wife Malky first opened in 2002. The shop’s heavenly offerings, immaculate presentation, speedy service, extended hours, and quaint allure as a Hasidic-owned business all make for a winning combination. Yet the couple’s daughter, Esty Weisz, who works alongside them, credits her father as the main reason Cheskie’s is such a hit.

“My dad is super nice and treats everyone like family. He’s very friendly to customers and always makes conversation with people. He’s also very humble. When people come from out of town and say, ‘We’ve heard about you’, he’s always very taken by it.”

Long before COVID-19, the lineups outside Cheskie’s extended down the block. In order to accommodate their growing clientele, the bakery will soon relocate to a larger space down the street from their current Bernard location. 

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Outremont residents aren’t the only ones who return to Cheskie’s again and again. Montrealers and tourists flock from all sides – including acclaimed Hollywood actor, director, and talk show host Jerry O’Connell, who went gaga over the pastries on a visit with his best bud, Montreal filmmaker and photographer Ezra Soiferman.

“Jerry O’Connell is a close, old college friend,” said Soiferman, adding that the two studied film and television production together at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the early 1990s. When O’Connell was in Montreal in 2016 filming a Hallmark movie, Soiferman hosted him for an afternoon and took the actor to a few Montreal landmarks, including Cheskie’s.

Customers line up outside Cheskies on Bernard Ave in Outremont | Photo: Ezra Soiferman (www.EzraSoiferman.com)

“I introduced him to Mr. Cheskie as ‘my famous actor friend from Hollywood.’ Cheskie looked at me plainly and said, ‘I don’t care if someone is famous or not famous. All I care is if they are a good person.’ To this, I smiled and immediately replied, ‘Cheskie, Jerry is a true mensch.’”

The baker shook Jerry’s hand and then handed them a few shtikls of their transcendent Russian chocolate babka.

“My buddy Jerry nearly platzed when he tried the steaming babka in my car, on the way to the Westmount Lookout to see my beloved hometown from above. It was a heck of a winter’s afternoon, made infinitely sweeter by our stop at Cheskie’s,” noted Soiferman.

Four years after his visit, the thought of Cheskie’s danish still makes O’Connell’s mouth water.  “Growing up in New York City, I thought I knew all there is to know about kosher bakeries,” O’Connell told TheJ.ca. 

“Well, that changed when my good friend Ezra took me to Cheskie’s. The babka selection alone puts it in an elite category. Possibly the best rugelach in the world, too. Get ready to diet after visiting. Mazel Tov!”

Hollywood actor Jerry O’Connell (Stand By Me, Jerry Maguire), Cheskies owner Cheskie Lebowitz, and O’Connell’s old college classmate, filmmaker/photographer Ezra Soiferman, in 2016 | Photo: Ezra Soiferman (www.EzraSoiferman.com)

Lebowitz has found a place in the hearts of every man, woman and child who has tasted one of his mouthwatering rugelach. It were these very rugelach, in fact, which the Hasidim recently gifted their non-Jewish neighbours, in appreciation of their tolerance of the front porch minyans, which have gathered three times daily since the pandemic began.

In a community numbering more than 10,000 Jews, relationships between the Hasidim and their Francophone counterparts have not always been smooth. Past tensions were sparked around the group’s eruv, a borough bylaw preventing the daily Heimann’s Montreal-to-New-York bus, and a minibus shuttling children on Purim from driving on residential streets, and the community’s sponsorship of frosted windows at the local YMCA to shield ultra-Orthodox passerby from potential “indecencies.”

The community’s most recent gift of danish was very well received by the majority of neighbours, and likely helped to placate the few who find the daily services a nuisance.

“One of the main reasons we have such a diverse clientele is that people feel comfortable coming back,” said Weisz. “Neighbours who come to Cheskie’s all have something in common. It bridges the gap between both communities in some small way.”

Two customers from diverse backgrounds ready to place their orders at Cheskies | Photo: Ezra Soiferman (www.EzraSoiferman.com)

Indeed, Seinfeld was truly onto something. Cheskie’s may not be the solution to neighbourhood unity, but it sure is a delicious start.

“I bring Cheskie’s baked goods to nearly every house party I attend,” said Soiferman. “It’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. I take every out of towner there for a treat… Cheskie’s is a true Montreal institution. Standing in the sweet, dense and doughy air of that hallowed Brooklyn-style Kosher bakery, one can spot a true cacophony of cultures. Everyone from Hasidic bubbies to veteran police officers to skateboard kids will be ahead of you in line.

“It always leaves me thinking… ‘these shmendriks better not order the last three pieces of babka before I get to the front of the line.’”

Aviva Engel is an award-winning editor with over 20 years of experience as a freelance journalist. In 2005, Aviva launched Exceptional Family, Canada’s Resource Magazine for Parents of Exceptional Children. Under Aviva’s leadership, 23 issues of the quarterly magazine were produced, winning three consecutive Hygeia Awards from the Canadian Public Relations Society for excellence in Canadian healthcare communications.

 

Aviva is the director of communications at Hebrew Academy in Montreal and the lead editor and master storyteller at outsourcecopywriting.com

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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