WATCH: The Tunisian Jew Behind the Pretzel Challah Craze

In 2013, pastry chef Dominique Ansel invented the cronut (a donut and croissant hybrid). Little did he know, he was inspiring a pastry revolution, which would spawn a legion of hybrid spin-offs; i.e. the dookie (donut + cookie), the cruffin (croissant + muffin), the cragel (croissant + bagel). And then came the pretzel challah. There’s no fancy moniker (challetzel doesn’t really work). It’s no nonsense, straightforward and to the point.

Pretzel challah is the brainchild of Alain Cohen, owner of Got Kosher?, a Pico-Robertson establishment that serves Sephardic cuisine (including kosher charcuterie) in what is a primarily Ashkenazi juggernaut. Born in Tunisia and raised in Paris (where his father owned a popular kosher restaurant), he moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to pursue a movie career, but, in his own words, “life happened” and he landed, as fate would have it, back in the food industry. Cohen got the idea for pretzel challah when he was working at La Brea Bakery with chef Nancy Silverton. At the bakery, Silverton baked a pretzel baguette. “I was impressed by the idea of turning something very simple and making it different by mixing two traditions,” said Cohen.

The key ingredient that transforms a plain jane loaf of challah into a pretzel challah is lye. After the challah dough is braided, it is soaked in a lye bath (lye is a chemical solution that’s used to make soap) before being baked.

Pretzel challah has proved to be a pioneer in Los Angeles Jewish cuisine. Got Kosher’s? pretzel challah can be found at Trader Joe’s, Pavilions, Whole Foods, Gelson’s, Bristol Farms, and, of course, at its flagship store: Got Kosher?

To Cohen, the success of his challah “is amazing, it’s a gift from God.”

Two arrested for anti-Semitic incidents near Marseille

French police arrested two men in connection with recent anti-Semitic attacks near Marseille.

One of the suspects in the attacks in Aix en Provence, a Tunisian national without a visa, was placed in a detention center, according to a Feb. 14 statement by SPCJ, the security affiliate of France’s Jewish communities, SPCJ.

The first of the two incidents was on Jan. 28, when a group of 15 men assembled outside a synagogue in the town.

One of the men hurled a rock at the synagogue and shouted “Allahu Akbar” and political slogans about “Palestine” “in a threatening way,” SPCJ said in its report of the incident.

The suspects were arrested shortly after the second incident on Feb 2., when two men approached the synagogue during an event attended by the Israeli consul.

They shouted: “dirty Jew” at an SPCJ guard and profanities in Arabic and ran away when guards approached. The suspects were arrested after SPCJ informed police about the incident.

In a third incident, not believed to be connected with the suspects, two vagabonds on Jan. 29 urinated on a Jewish school adjacent to a synagogue. Interrupted by the guard, they said, “There’s no one here but Jews, it smells like Jews here” and ran away, SPCJ reported.

On Feb. 4, a group of men robbed a Jewish 20-year-old and beat him near Marseille’s main railway station after noticing he was wearing a Star of David. Police defined the incident as anti-Semitic.

For Tunisia’s Jews, hope and fears post-revolt

In the Jewish quarters on the Tunisian island of Djerba, only menoras or Hebrew letters painted in blue against the whitewashed walls distinguish a Jewish home from the Muslim family living next door.

Mainly Muslim Tunisia is home to one of North Africa’s largest Jewish communities. Though they now number less than 1,800 people, Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times.

The El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, home to most of Tunisia’s Jews, is built on the site of a Jewish temple that is believed to date back almost 1,900 years and attracts pilgrims each year.

But more than a year after Tunisia’s revolution ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked uprisings around the region, uncertainty over the democratic transition and threats by some Salafi Islamists have begun to raise fears that decades of peaceful co-existence could begin to erode.

Sitting in his jewelry shop in Djerba’s covered souk, David Bitan said life for Tunisia’s Jews was changing, much as it has for all Tunisians since the revolt. Business had yet to recover and the instability that dogs Tunisia affected them too.

“We are not afraid of Salafis who talk too much. We’re afraid of those who say nothing, then do something,” said Bitan.

“Things have changed since the revolution. Before, people were afraid of the police. Now, we are under pressure. The police is weak, so racism is increasing. People are not afraid.”

The pilgrimage to Djerba, which attracted a peak number of 10,000 pilgrims in 2000, was cancelled last year because visitors were reluctant to wade into the charged political environment of the Arab Spring. Less than 100 made the journey.

Ahead of this year’s event around May 9 – the anniversary of the death of a second century Jewish scholar – Tunisia’s new Islamist-led government has been at pains to assure Jews that they are welcome.

But news of occasional unrest, such as a day of clashes between police and protesters on April 9, still spooks visitors thinking of making the pilgrimage, mainly from Germany and France.

Tunisia’s Jewish community once numbered 100,000 people. But fear, poverty and discrimination prompted several waves of emigration after the creation of Israel in 1948. Many left after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Most went to France or Israel.

Leaning against the wall in the internal courtyard of his traditional home, Perez Trabelsi, president of El Ghriba synagogue and spokesman for the Jewish community in Djerba’s Hara Sghira, or small quarter in Arabic, hopes the pilgrims will return.

“It could be 2,000, 3,000, 4,000. It is too early to say… We had 400 people planning to come, but then April 9 happened and they changed their minds. It scares foreigners, but we are not scared,” said Trabelsi, adjusting his white skull cap.

“Whatever number of pilgrims come, the important thing is we hold the pilgrimage.”


In February 2011, only weeks after Ben Ali fled Tunisia, a synagogue in the city of Ghabes was set alight. No one was hurt and the incident appeared to be isolated, but it revived memories of an al Qaeda truck bombing that killed 21 people, most of them German visitors, at El Ghriba in 2002.

Officials of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party met with Jewish leaders after they won Tunisia’s first post-revolution elections in October to assure them their lives would not change.

But more conservative Salafi Islamists have been less tolerant. At a rally calling for an Islamic state, which took place in the capital in March, one Salafi speaker was heard inciting violence against Jews. The president, the speaker of parliament and the head of Ennahda condemned the comments.

But they followed a similar incident in January, when some of the Islamists who welcomed Ismail Haniyeh, a head of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, at the airport chanted “kill the Jews—it’s a religious duty.”

Again, the government and politicians from across Tunisia’s political spectrum condemned the chants.

Chatting with friends outside a shop selling brik or fried pasties, Haim, who gave only his first name, said Tunisian Jews had the same concerns as all Tunisians.

“We are Tunisians … Ask me what my priority is as a Tunisian and I will tell you that it is creating jobs for the desperate young people in Djerba, Medenine, Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid so another revolution is not sparked,” he said.

“The Jews of Djerba are an inseparable part of this country and we are not asking for any special protection… There is no cause to fear extremist Islamists… Just as it is their country, it is our country too. Tunisia is for all.”


Concrete balustrades block the road into El Ghriba, whitewashed and decorated on the inside with blue ceramic tiles. Visitors must go through security checks before entry.

Inside, a few men in skull caps sit on benches praying. Outside, workers paint the walls to get ready for the pilgrimage.

In April, President Moncef al-Marzouki attended a ceremony marking a decade since the al Qaeda bombing. The number of pilgrims, which plummeted after the attack, had recovered to some 5,000 annually before last year’s uprising, according to Trabelsi.

The pilgrimage is a boon for both Muslim- and Jewish-owned businesses that rely on tourism on this holiday island.

“It was good that the president came. The tourists will consider it a good gesture,” said Youssef Gamoun, who has run a shop selling silver jewelry in Djerba for 40 years. “Lots of people come to visit El Ghriba and I think they will come this year.

“We are neighbours with the Muslims. The lack of security is a problem for everyone, not just for us.”

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

Nation & World Briefs

Israel Upholds Contested Immigration Law

Israeli Arabs are upset after Israel’s top court upheld a controversial law that prevents Palestinians married to Israeli Arabs from living in Israel.

By a vote of 6-5, the High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected petitions filed against the Citizenship and Entry Law.

While acknowledging that the law violates the human rights of the thousands of Israeli Arabs married to Palestinians, the High Court said national security must take precedence.

At least one of the Palestinian suicide bombers to have struck since 2000 was a resident of Israel through marriage, and Israeli Jews are all the more suspicious of Palestinians since they voted in a Hamas government earlier this year.

“The Palestinian Authority is an enemy government, a government that wants to destroy the country and is unwilling to recognize Israel,” Justice Mishael Cheshin wrote.

But Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, voiced their opposition to the decision.

“On this day, the High Court effectively approved the most racist legislation in the State of Israel: legislation which bars the unification of families on the basis of national belonging: Arab Palestinian,” Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, said in a statement.

Adalah likened the ruling, which means that many Israeli Arabs will either have to live apart from their Palestinian spouses or move to the West Bank or Gaza Strip, to South Africa under apartheid. Israeli officials have long rejected such comparisons as false, given the open conflict with the Palestinians and other constitutional rights generally enjoyed by Israeli Arabs.

First passed in 2002 at the height of the terrorist attacks, the Citizenship and Entry Law all but banned residency rights for the Palestinian spouses of Israelis.

An amended version in 2003, when the High Court petitions were first filed, loosened the law to allow eligibility for female candidates older than 25, and men older than 35 — ages at which Palestinians are statistically far less likely to take up arms.

Then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said national security justifies the law. But she also cited growing fear of an influx of Palestinians seeking the better life on offer in Israel, some of them through fictitious marriages with Israeli Arabs.

“There is nothing wrong with looking to safeguard Israel’s Jewish majority by law,” she said at the time.

Her successor, Haim Ramon, said Sunday that he would seek to enshrine the Citizenship and Entry Law in Israel’s Basic Laws.

“The High Court ruling appears to apply to a certain population sector, but I intend to make a law that will apply to everyone,” he told Army Radio. “Under the law, a citizen of a hostile country won’t be able to adopt Israeli citizenship, except under certain circumstances that the state will determine.” — Dan Baron, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

American Teen Dies of Bomb Wounds

An American teenager died of wounds sustained in last month’s Tel Aviv suicide bombing. Daniel Wultz, 16, succumbed Sunday in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, becoming the sole American fatality of the April 17 attack. Wultz, of Weston, Fla., was visiting downtown Tel Aviv with his father over Passover when they were hit by shrapnel from a Palestinian suicide bomber. Tuly Wultz, who suffered light injuries, went on to organize prayer campaigns for his son’s recovery. Daniel Wultz was the 11th fatality from the bombing, which was carried out by Islamic Jihad. Another casualty, 26-year-old Israeli Lior Enidzer, died last Friday. He had recently married.

Israel Gets Spot on U.N. Committee

Israel was appointed to a spot on the United Nations committee on nongovernmental organizations. The committee of the U.N. Economic and Social Council meets twice annually and reviews applications for special status with the commission. “Maybe our membership in the committee will help make Israeli NGOs more aware of this avenue and encourage them to seek a relationship with the economic and social council,” said Marco Sermoneta, a counselor at Israel’s mission to the United Nations. In addition, he said, membership would be a “good way to diversify our visibility in the United Nations.”

Poet Stanley Kunitz Dies at 100

Stanley Kunitz, a former U.S. poet laureate who made metaphoric use of the Talmud and other Jewish images in his poetry, died Sunday at 100. Kunitz, who was known for writing on themes ranging from life and death to gardens, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1959. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, he gave up his dream of earning a doctorate at Harvard after being told that non-Jewish students wouldn’t enjoy being taught English literature by a Jew. A pacifist, Kunitz was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and, later, U.S. military involvement in Central America and Iraq.

Abbas Criticizes Hamas

Mahmoud Abbas assailed Hamas for harming the Palestinians’ image abroad. In a speech broadcast Monday, the Palestinian Authority president called on the Islamic terrorist group to renounce violence and accept peacemaking with Israel now that it’s leading the P.A. government.

“We must not resign ourselves to fiery speeches and slogans that could bring about international isolation,” Abbas said.

He added that by continuing to call for the Jewish state’s destruction, Hamas justifies Israeli arguments that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. Abbas also appealed to Israel not to implement Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s “convergence plan,” under which it will withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank and annex others in the absence of peace talks.

Pilgrims Flock to Tunisian Synagogue

Thousands of people attended the annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba. The two-day celebration at the Ghriba Synagogue marks the end of a legendary plague 2,000 years ago. The synagogue was the site of a 2002 Al-Qaida terrorist attack that killed 21 people, mostly German tourists. The synagogue is the oldest Jewish house of worship in Africa and serves one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.

Holocaust-Era Archives to Open?

A commission of 11 nations is expected to vote to open Holocaust-era archives. Representatives of the countries that oversee the former Nazi files met Tuesday. Germany recently agreed to open up the archive, which contains 50 million files and is administered by the Red Cross.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency