TheJ.ca — 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 the residential borough Outremont, the delectable black and white cookies are bridging cultural divides between Hasidim, and their predominantly Quebecois neighbors. 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,” Weisz said.
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 Avenue location.
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.
“I introduced him to Mr. Cheskie as ‘my famous actor friend from Hollywood,’” Soiferman said. “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 the pair a bissel [bit] of his transcendent Russian chocolate babka.
“My buddy Jerry nearly platzed [collapsed] 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 a 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!”
Bakery owner 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 neighbors in appreciation of their tolerance of the front porch minyans, or prayer quorums, which have gathered three times daily since the pandemic began.
In a community numbering more than 10,000 Jews, relationships between the ultra-Orthodox Jews and their Francophone counterparts have not always been smooth. Past tensions were sparked around the group’s eruv, or Sabbath enclosure. A borough bylaw preventing the daily Heimann’s Montreal-to-New-York bus and a minibus shuttling children on the Purim holiday brought further friction, as did the community’s sponsorship of frosted windows at the local YMCA to shield ultra-Orthodox passerby from potential “indecencies.” Likewise, tempers flared in 2019 surrounding a compromise with the city which allowed for the building of a new synagogue in a location that was previously prohibited by a 2016 referendum.
All of this — and possibly the fact that the first known case of COVID-19 was an ultra-Orthodox Jew — has led to destructive vandalism in a Montreal suburb synagogue and some latent anti-Semitism on the city streets. According to an April 2020 Montreal Gazette report, “In Outremont, home to thousands of Montreal’s easily recognizable Hasidic Jewish community, there are reports of people being yelled at in the street, or of Jews not allowed into stores and being told to stick to their ‘Jewish stores.'”
The community’s most recent gift of danish was very well received by the majority of neighbors, 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. “Neighbors who come to Cheskie’s all have something in common. It bridges the gap between both communities in some small way.”
Indeed, Seinfeld was truly onto something. Cheskie’s may not be the solution to neighborhood 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,’” he said.
This article originally appeared in TheJ.ca, which covers Jewish news in Canada.