'We have to come here every year, it's our tradition!'

Heavenly Purim treats at this Iraqi Jewish confectionery are a window into a bygone era

Customers line up in Petah Tikva for an ancient nougat named for manna and a trip back in time, as they fear 70-year-old Konditorei David may too soon be a thing of the past

Owner and proprietor Tzvi David makes baba qadrasi at Konditorei David, March 2024. (Courtesy)
Owner and proprietor Tzvi David makes baba qadrasi at Konditorei David, March 2024. (Courtesy)

Five days a week, 78-year-old Tzvi (Sabah) David rises at 4:35 a.m. and dons an all-white baker’s outfit before heading out to open up Konditorei David, the last-of-its-kind Iraqi pastry shop in Petah Tikva that was opened by his father David Tsalah. Three days before the Purim holiday, David is getting ready for one of the busiest times of the year as multiple generations of Iraqi customers will soon stop by to purchase sweets that have been synonymous with Purim for Iraqi Jews for centuries, if not millennia.

“I love the work. It is a very tiring and difficult job and I am not 18 anymore, but I feel young in the morning when I get up,” David tells The Times of Israel on a recent visit to the small shop, which doubles as a window into the pre-modern world of Middle-Eastern pastries.

His first item of business today is making a fresh batch of baba qadrasi, also known in Arabic as “mann el-sama” or “manna from heaven,” named after the legendary food that God miraculously delivered from the sky to feed the Israelites in the Exodus story. If not truly the biblical food itself, an early recipe for baba qadrasi was found in a 10th-century Abbasid cookbook.

David’s grandson Maor, has helped for six years at the family-run shop during busy periods before the Jewish holidays. “From 7 to 10 a.m., he mixes for three hours by hand” the ingredients of baba qadrasi — flour, egg whites, sugar, pistachios, cardamom — in a large bowl with a wooden stick, “then he lets it cool for a few hours, cuts it up into pieces and rests it on the floor to cool,” explains Maor.

“You cannot write the instructions for this recipe on the internet; he is the only one in Israel who prepares this,” says Maor, who was first inaugurated into the family craft by his father at age 10, of his grandfather’s unique skills.

Once completed, the baba qadrasi is soft and fluffy with a sweet and salty flavor that makes it clear how it earned its reputation as having descended from heaven.

Baba qadrasi cools on the floor at Konditorei David, an Iraqi-Jewish bakery in Petah Tikva, March 2024. (Courtesy)

Baba qadrasi is only one of nine traditional Iraqi pastries that were made in the weeks before Purim — known as “eid el-mejjala,” or “holiday of the scroll [of Esther]” in the Iraqi-Jewish dialect. These painstakingly crafted confections were delivered to Jewish neighbors on the holiday with love as part of the “mishloach manot,” or festive care packages customarily given on Purim by Jews around the world.

Traditional Iraqi-Jewish sweets for the Purim holiday on display at the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel. (Lily Shor/ Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center)

While it is too much work even for David to make all nine, an example of a classical Iraqi mishloach manot plate can be found in the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center’s permanent collection, which features a Purim display. The center is located near Ben Gurion Airport in Or Yehuda.

Isaac Amit, who was born in Baghdad in 1953, emigrated to Israel in 1971, and now leads tours at the Heritage Center in English, Hebrew and Arabic, says that traditional celebrations included an effigy of the Purim story’s villain.

Owner and proprietor Tzvi David makes baba qadrasi at Konditorei David, an Iraqi-Jewish bakery in Petah Tikva that is among the last of its kind. (Courtesy)

“As kids, we would make a doll that represents Haman and we would hang it before burning it,” says Amit. “Then our parents would give us meǧalla-money, about NIS 100 [$28] today, and we would play two traditional card games of chance for two days.”

In Baghdad, Basra and other Iraqi cities, Purim was celebrated for two days due to a stipulation that cities that were walled in antiquity — such as Jerusalem — celebrate the holiday on “Shushan Purim,” one day later than unwalled cities.

Some of the Iraqi Purim customs — especially the pastries and card games — have remained popular in Israel, surviving the community’s sudden and traumatic uprooting from Babylon after 2,000 years of residency there, as well as the challenges Iraqis experienced as new immigrants in Israel.

“I can tell you that my grandfather, with whom I had a very close relationship, always told me that even 40 years later living in Israel, he still missed Baghdad and the life he had there because they lived a very nice life,” says Tzvi David’s son Shlomo, the grandson of David Tsalah.

In Petah Tikva, a steady line of customers — most born in Iraq or with Iraqi roots — fills the shop, as people wait patiently not only for the sweet flavors but also for the memories of loved ones that the sweets represent.

“I have been a customer here since they opened in 1951,” says Nissim, who is 94 years old and still does his own shopping. “My favorite dish is khalkun [Turkish delight]. We eat it all year, but on Purim more — I am buying it for a friend who asked for it.”

Another customer standing in line named Nissim Yehezkel describes himself as a “third-generation customer.”

Customers line up for Purim treats at Konditorei David, an Iraqi-Jewish bakery in Petah Tikva that is among the last of its kind, March 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman)

“I’ve known Tzvi since I was a 5-year-old kid, and we have to come every Purim to get the special sweets that Iraqis serve for Purim, this is our tradition. I’m waiting for baba qadrasi — only he can prepare it,” says Yehezkel.

Many of the customers interact jovially with David and the family members who come to help in the shop.

“I know all of my customers. Many of them are old and died, but I know their kids and some of their grandchildren who come,” says David.

When it comes time to pay, only cash is accepted and the amount of sweets purchased is calculated using an Ottoman-era bronze scale that uses weights to accurately measure the products sold.

A customer’s order is weighed on the Ottoman-era scale used at Konditorei David in Petah Tikva, March 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman)

Waiting in line, one customer who preferred not to be named says somberly, “My grandmother used to prepare all of these dishes, but she passed away this year.”

“Do you make baba al’tamar [date cookies]?” she asks Shlomo, who is working the till.

“Yes, but it’s finished,” he replies.

“My grandmother told me I should come a month before!”

“No need, we’ll make more later today, you just need to come back later.”

Owner and proprietor Tzvi David prepares Purim confections at Konditorei David in Petah Tikva, March 2024. (Courtesy)

After paying, she greets David, who has stepped away from the kitchen to rest and eat lunch. “Happy holiday, and protect the bakery and tradition because this is Purim,” she says.

“Of course, as much as possible,” Shlomo replies. “And come back for Passover — we make the best silan [date syrup] in the country!”

When the son and grandson are asked about the continuity of Konditorei David and the potential loss of an ancient Baghdadi-Jewish artisanal pastry tradition, there are no ready answers.

“We don’t want to think about what will happen. We just continue, that is the Iraqi-Jewish way. It’s a tradition, people have been coming here for 60 years,” says grandson Maor.

Shlomo, with whom the question most ultimately rests, must pause before answering.

“I have been struggling with this question for a long time. To keep the business open or, you know, to have it closed when my father is physically unable to walk anymore,” he says. “And I still don’t know, I haven’t found the answer yet.”

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