So what exactly is a challah fairy? It sounds wonderful — but what is it?
Actually, the better question is, Who is the challah fairy? That one’s easy. It’s Chanalee Fischer Schlisser of Pomona Heights, who went from being a stay-at-home mother, full of more energy than even toddlers could exhaust, to a baker, creating more at a time than her family could eat and therefore depositing the extra ones in friends’ mailboxes.
Of course, Chanalee’s story started before that, and continues beyond it. So let’s start at the beginning. (And let’s call her Chanalee, not Ms. Schlisser. She’s a first-name sort of person.)
Chanalee was born in Boro Park, Brooklyn, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a Holocaust refugee. Her mother’s parents, Morris and Rachel Rokowsky, lived in Switzerland. Morris “saved hundreds of people by helping to get them into Switzerland from Germany,” Chanalee said. “He set up bank accounts for them; as soon as they got into Switzerland, he closed the accounts and set them up again for the next people.” Switzerland stayed neutral during the war, so while the Jews there were not comfortable during those years, they stayed alive. “My grandmother was 10th-generation Swiss.”
“In 1939, the police told my grandparents that the Germans were close to getting them. ‘Get out of here,’ they said.” So her grandparents and their four children got on the last boat out; a fifth child was born in Brooklyn, where they settled. Mr. Rokowsky started in the raincoat business and then moved on to more profitable ventures in real estate, where he flourished.
“My father was not happy about the schools in Brooklyn, so he and another man started the Beis Yakov school in Boro Park,” Chanalee said. “My mother, Ruth, was the seventh student there. Hundreds of thousands of girls have gone through it. It’s still a fantastic school.” It also was her own school.
Chanalee’s father, Oscar Lehmann, came from Holland. Her great grandfather, “Marcus Lehmann, was a famous writer in the early 19th century,” she said. “He wrote stories for Jewish people that they could read in their homes. Even very Orthodox children were allowed to read these books.”
Her father’s parents did not leave Europe. People tried to persuade them, “but they said no, this is where we live. This is where we are staying,” Chanalee said. So her grandparents died in the camps. “My father was liberated from Bergen-Belsen with his two sisters when he was 11,” she added. They went to England, and then to Brooklyn, where eventually he became a civil engineer. He never showed any anger, his daughter said, but still, and of course, his experiences in the children’s barracks in the death camp marked him.
Her parents met at a shtiebel, a small shul in Brooklyn, and they had five children. “My parents raised us with good values,” Chanalee said. “They didn’t have everything that everyone else had, but they gave us the best life they could. They gave us fantastic life experiences, and they taught us to be good people by their example.”
Chanalee married an Australian, the child of survivors “whose parents wanted to get as far away from Europe as they could,” and the couple moved to Wesley Hills and had four children. Eventually they divorced; Chanalee now is married to Mickey Schlisser, an eighth-generation Israeli on his mother’s side. His father survived Auschwitz and moved to Israel; the family left for the United States “during the Eichmann trial, because he just couldn’t stay there then. It made him crazy.” The family moved to Monsey.
After her husband’s death, Chanalee’s mother-in-law, Esther Schlisser, moved back to Israel, where, Chanalee said, she became an extremely well-known tour guide in Jerusalem. “She was a superwoman,” Chanalee said. “Everyone knew her.”
But let’s get back to Chanalee, a stay-at-home mother, who is starting to bake. It was all very sorcerer’s apprentice. She baked more, and then more, and then more still. “I started using one food processor, and then two, and then four, and then I moved on to a commercial machine,” she said. She started baking for friends in 1989, but in 1992, she realized that she could sell challot, and she did. Her business grew entirely by word of mouth, and she was its main employee. She did most of the deliveries herself at first; eventually her husband helped. “First I delivered to Monsey, then to Teaneck and Englewood, then to the Upper West Side and the Upper East side — only to buildings with doormen — and then to Scarsdale and New Rochelle.
“I was delivering to people’s homes, and there was no email yet, and no GPS. My biggest challenge was if I wanted to bill someone, I had to put the bill into the brown bag.
“I sold challah to some of the richest Jews in America,” she added.
In 2003, Chanalee was divorced, and because she had to do all the deliveries herself, she had to cut back radically. But she didn’t want to stop — she had far too much energy and ambition to stop — so she looked for a place where she could bake. Soon, she found a tiny storefront that had been outfitted by another baker, and she was back in business.
She got herself rabbinic supervision, and she went entirely nut-free, which allowed her to sell challot to schools. She developed a relationship with the Reuben Gittelman School in New City (which since has closed) and supplied it with challah. “And then, when I had been there for nine months, the Rockland Journal News called.” The paper did a story on her, shot a video and ran it, and put it in the local Gannett paper as well.
That did it. Business exploded. “It was almost Rosh HaShanah, and there was a line around the block,” Chanalee said. “And the phone was ringing off the hook. People wanted challah. Everyone wanted challah. ‘What do you mean, you can’t deliver to my garden apartment in Westchester?’
“That was a Wednesday. On Sunday I stopped taking orders, I hired people, and we worked around the clock for five days. In that tiny little kitchen, with that tiny little oven, we baked 3,500 challah that year. It was crazy.”
During that time, Chanalee remarried. Four years after she opened the little bakery, “My husband said, ‘I will build you a bakery wherever you want, but with challah alone you won’t make it. You have to open a café.’
“So we took one of four vacancies in a strip mall in New City, and we opened a café.”
She also teaches baking classes in synagogues, schools, and anyplace else where she is invited, she said.
Chanalee loves her café. Talking to her is to be interrupted frequently as she talks to her customers; it is impossible to miss the zest in her voice in those conversations.
Her challah, she says, is “dense yet fluffy. It is light, it is sweet, and it consistently has the same delicious taste.” It’s consistent, too. “It’s not delicious one week, not so good the next week. And it stays fresh for a week.
“Be sure to tell your readers that you should never refrigerate challah,” she added parenthetically. “If you need to refrigerate a challah, just put it in the freezer. In the refrigerator, they just turn hard and lose their taste.”
Back to her challah — “it’s from Switzerland, she said. It’s so good! I like to tell people that it’s from love, but actually it’s from Switzerland. One of my sisters married a Swiss guy and the recipe comes from her. We just tweaked it a bit.”
Although she does not do her own baking anymore, Chanalee still loves to bake. She also loves to feed people and to make them happy. “After I was in the little place for a short time, a lady comes in and buys challah and a cake,” she said. “She is about to walk out, and then she comes back in and says to me, ‘Your cake and challah make Shabbat worth celebrating.’
“I love that,” Chanalee said. “I love making people’s Shabbeses special. That’s the reason I do it.”
Chanalee Fischer Schlisser’s café is on 170 North Main Street in New City.