Challah biz rises in Far Rockaway


Father of four makes bread out of lemons

By Mayer Fertig

Issue of October 30 2009/ 12 Cheshvan 5770

The first and most important thing you need to know about Laizer Solash's challah is that it really is as good as his friends and customers say it is: doughy and satisfying in a way that means if you indulge too many times in the urge for just one more slice, you might not have room for the rest of the meal.

Solash, 36, of Far Rockaway, began baking challah for sh’lom bayit purposes, you might say.

After he was laid off from his job with a local electrician early this year, "My wife said we could longer afford to buy challah," and that they would have to bake their own, he explained.

"I went to the grocery and bought all the ingredients and came home and she said, 'Now make it.' And I said, 'It's not supposed to work like that. You're supposed to do it.'"

She insisted and, "I did it and I got rave reviews," he said with a smile.

Blimy Solash, Laizer’s wife, picked up the story.

"We had a lot of extra [challah] so he brought some to his old boss," who lives nearby, the one who had just laid him off.

The Solash's have a sick child and the boss had always paid him — even while he was away while their son Ephraim, 4, underwent surgery. The Solash's are also the proud parents of Basya, 9, Yehuda, 6 1/2, and Avromey, 20 months.

"He didn't want his boss to think he was angry at him for laying him off," she explained. "That's his personality, he loves every person."

Neighbors and friends who tasted the challah loved it and began encouraging Laizer to take orders. Meanwhile, medical bills for Ephraim's care were beginning to pile up.

"People were starting to like the challah — and starting to call. Word of mouth spread and we had about 30 people ordering challah," Blimy said. Soon, he was baking 200 loaves a week in his own kitchen and a friend's, mostly for people in the Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv community, but word was continuing to spread.

"My friend, Yoni Kutner, said to me one day, 'Mike, you've just got to taste the most unbelievable challah in the world,'" said Michael Austein. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' and he said, 'I can't get enough of them — just buy one.'"

Austein soon had a similar conversation with his father, Eric. He loved the challah too, but he was also very taken by the challah baker.

"This whole story is about a young couple who's trying to make it in a down economy, and they're taking the high road, finding a way to survive and doing it with a smile on their face. It's inspirational. Very," said Eric Austein. So much so that, "They were my inspiration before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur — just to see people who appreciate and have hakaras hatov [gratitude]. You can just step back and have a reality check."

The elder Austein placed an order for 76 challahs to give as gifts before Rosh Hashana and paid $5 a piece instead of the $4 the couple requested.

"Right then and there our prices were raised," Blimy said with an appreciative laugh.

But Austein decided to do more. His wife, Joyce, and family friend Sue Rosenberg now take orders and organize pickups and deliveries. He was able to arrange for the Solash's to have access to a kosher commissary in the Long Island-area. Last Thursday they baked there for the first time. With game five of the Yankees-Angels playoffs series blaring in the background, Michael Austein and several friends kneaded and braided challahs through the night, while a visiting reporter looked on.

"We're the only challah making operation that has a lawyer weighing the dough for each challah — not an ounce under two pounds," Yitzy Halpern said cheerfully, as he separated a ball of dough into three, rolled out the pieces and braided a challah. His younger brother, Naftali, a civil litigator, carefully weighed each ball of dough on a scale.

Periodically, Laizer would take a batch of challahs out of the oven, slip one at random from its tin and tap the bottom, listening for a particular resonance that told him it was just right.

Shortly after midnight the crew took a break. A warm, fresh challah was shredded and quickly consumed, with chopped liver and other dips on the side.

In a community where so many accomplished bakers make their own challah each week is there a secret recipe that makes Laizer's challah stand out?

Yes. And no.

"I wish I could say it was a family recipe," Laizer said with a characteristic smile. "It was just something I picked out of a cookbook and I worked with it to the point where people were saying 'This is the best thing I ever tasted and you should start selling it' — and I did."

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