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Bakery’s Expiration Date Leaves Community at a Loss

January 14, 2014 By:
Michael Elkin and Bryan Schwartzman
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Hesh's Eclair Bake Shoppe in Northeast Philadelphia. Photo by Bruce Wartell

The sudden shuttering of Hesh’s kosher bakery in the Northeast over the weekend has prompted an outpouring of grief and reminiscences about the Castor Avenue institution that served loyal patrons for more than half a century.

Soon after a sign announc-ing the demise of the landmark bakery was posted in the store’s windows on Jan. 11, and phone calls went unanswered, a Facebook group devoted to “Growing Up Jewish in Northeast Philly” saw an unusual surge of postings.

“Many people are unable to accept the fact of its closing,” said Harris Bookfor, who founded the site. He cited the numerous postings as an online equivalent of a funeral, but with those grieving unwilling to stage a shiva just yet. Some postings, he said, expressed hope that the owners would reconsider; others that a new owner would re-open the shop.

The reason for the sudden closure is a mystery. Calls to the home of Bill and Sharon Krod­thoff, who reportedly have owned the bakery for the past two decades, went unanswered. 

Even Rabbi Dov Lerner, who has provided kosher supervision for the bakery for the past 12 years, said he was shocked by the suddenness of the closing. 

But he attributed the reason to economics. “It was a financial loss. He just couldn’t keep going anymore,” Lerner, a Conservative rabbi, said of Bill Krod­thoff. (The owners are not Jewish. The bakery was originally opened by the Braverman family in 1959.)

Lerner noted that the Jewish population of the Northeast has been decreasing for some time, which has meant a dwindling customer base for businesses like Hesh’s. While there is still a vibrant Orthodox community and a number of shuls to serve it, there are very few non-Orthodox congregations left. He also said that Hesh’s, like other small kosher establishments, has been hurt by the addition of kosher products to the ShopRite on Roosevelt Boule­vard.

For years, Lerner had provided kosher supervision for the dairy bakery under the auspices of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. When that group stopped providing kash­rut services locally about two years ago, Lerner started his own company, Traditional Ko­sher Supervision, Inc.

He noted that, by and large, the Orthodox population in the Northeast didn’t frequent Hesh’s because it was under Conservative supervision. The shop was also open on Shabbat, which would turn off most Orthodox Jews.

But he stressed that the owners complied with all kosher regulations. “He went above and beyond in terms of letter and spirit. He wanted to make it work; it just didn’t.”

Rabbi Robyn Frisch, who serves as religious leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai, said her Conservative synagogue in the Northeast sometimes would get Hesh’s famous chocolate chip cake for its onegs. “I had dinner with friends last night,” she said, “and we were all lamenting the closing.”

They are not the only ones. Bookfor said that in the six years he has run the North­east Philly Facebook page, he has never seen such a communal uproar. It shows, he said, the “close association between food and its role in the community life of the Northeast.”

People are posting photos of their wedding cakes that they bought at Hesh’s, added Bookfor, whose own wedding cake came from there. One saddened customer tried to put it in perspective, albeit tongue in cheek:

“I can no longer live in or support a country whose citizens do not support Hesh’s Bakery,” posted Jeff Albert. “My late father’s nickname was Hesh, which adds even greater personal injury to my fragile psyche.” He went on to suggest that he would fly to North Korea to join Dennis Rodman.

“I already have assurances from the government of Kim Jong Un that they will be opening a new and improved Hesh’s Eclair Bakery in the capital city of Pyongang. All those who wish to join me please contact me through my new organization ‘Ex Pats for Hesh’s.’ ”

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