A long-closed Jewish bakery in Cincinnati played an important role for immigrants through the Great Depression and World War II
The Bake Shop, a Jewish bakery started in 1929 by the United Jewish Social Agencies, provided sustainable work for women in need. The shop was an institution in the Avondale and Walnut Hills communities for about 40 years.
In the research space of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, a thick folder contains hundreds of recipe cards caked with smudges of flour and baking bits. Some date back to the 1930s and still smell sweet. Others have handwritten notes in the margin, where someone decided a recipe needed less sugar or more eggs.
The recipe cards were collected from The Bake Shop, a Jewish bakery started in 1929 by the United Jewish Social Agencies to provide sustainable work for women in need. The shop was an institution in the Avondale and Walnut Hills communities for about 40 years.
Rabbi Jordy Callman specializes in analyzing the intersection of food and Jewish identity and researched The Bake Shop for her rabbinic thesis.
"So, it was almost kind of a social experiment at that time, and starting as they were - heading into the Great Depression and offering some kind of work and opportunities for these women - was really the starting point, with confidence that the community would back that up, that they would be a part of this effort," she said.
The Bake Shop combined core Jewish elements and values including the centrality of food to Jewish culture and tikkun olam — the belief that acts of kindness contribute to repairing the world.
"One of the interesting things that we know based on some of the records that are available and looking at inflation is that they were selling premium products at that time. The baked goods they were selling were expensive for those days," Callman said. "And and so it really involves some kind of buy-in from community members to say 'I support this project and so I'm going to pay more for this item than I would if I maybe made it myself or I bought it from somewhere else.' "
By 1932, The Bake Shop employed 30 people and had additional volunteers. Its mission expanded around the time of World War II when immigrants from Europe flooded into the United States.
"When you immigrate to another country, especially under any kind of duress, you can only bring so much with you," Callman said. "But one of the things that doesn't take any room in a suitcase is a recipe and flavors — your food. It doesn't take any room when you're immigrating."
She says The Bake Shop began to serve two purposes.
One, it preserved classic Jewish recipes. And two, it helped immigrants assimilate by blending Jewish and American culture. For instance, there's a recipe card for Easter cookies. The shop was open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, but closed on Sundays, a Christian practice.
Rabbi Callman says the need to assimilate stemmed from the anti-Semitism and discrimination Jewish people faced in the 1930s and 40s.
Documents from the mid-1960s show the shop began to have financial troubles and the city, for unrelated reasons, planned to demolish the building. Paperwork also shows people were generally unable to receive the kind of job training they needed to move on to other kinds of more long term, sustainable employment.
The Bake Shop merged with Jewish Vocational Services in 1966. The shop’s board of directors said the merger made sense. But over time, other local Jewish bakeries also closed and there are no traditional, stand alone ones left.
Within the past few years, though, Callman says, a new generation of Jewish people have shown a spark in preserving and embracing Jewish food as part of their cultural identity. A version of The Bake Shop today, she says, would be more unapologetically Jewish.
"I think where we are now, if someone were to revitalize The Bake Shop tomorrow, I don't think it would sell Easter cookies," she said. "I don't think that's what it will be."
Recipe card courtesy of the American Jewish Archives.