The Legend of Schulmann the Baker

A movement of aggrieved small-business owners has grown in Israel over the last year. But the origins of the Jerusalem baker it highlights as its chief example are shrouded in mystery.

Bakers in Jerusalem make hamantaschen for Purim in 2009. Miriam Alster/Flash90.
March 17 2021
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An “urban legend” in Hebrew is aggadah urbanit, which is a direct translation from English, but our urban legend of the week is 100-percent Made In Israel. It’s the legend of Schulmann the baker.

You’ve never heard of him? Neither had I until recently. You may also never have heard of the “I am Schulmann” movement that has spread in Israel in the course of the past year. Started in October 2019 by two Jerusalemites—Abir Kara, a horse trainer, and his friend Itzik Benin, a restaurateur—it arose as a WhatsApp protest group of Israeli entrepreneurs, shop owners, and small businessmen against government overregulation and excessive taxation. After getting off to a good start, the Schulmannites, as they are known, mushroomed to over 200,000 declared supporters under the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which left many businesses ruined or crippled, with insufficient government aid to put them back on their feet. Kara himself has now gone into politics and joined the right-wing Yamina Party as number seven on its list of candidates in next week’s Israeli elections—a high enough place to assure him a seat in the incoming Knesset.

When I first came across mention of the “I am Schulmann” movement, I assumed that its name came from the expression, known to every Israeli, Schulmann y’shalem, “Schulmann will pay.” Dating to the 1960s or even 50s, this originated with a Tel Aviv hoodlum named Mordecai Schulmann whose habit it was to invite friends, and sometimes even strangers, to dine out with him and to get up at the end of the meal, grandly announce “Schulmann will pay,” and walk out with the bill left on the table.

Schulmann was a violent type. His victims thought twice before challenging a man who, according to a 1970 newspaper report that I tracked down, was once arrested for physically attacking a guest in a nightclub, then driving while drunk, then breaking down a maternity-ward door when denied access to his girlfriend and her newborn baby, and finally, biting the proprietress of another nightclub. Yet the expression Schulmann y’shalem, as used by Israelis, is not a threat of “You’d better take my word that I’ll pay later or else.” Rather, construing the figure of Schulmann as a metaphor for getting something for nothing, it means, “Someone will pick up the tab in the end, and if no one does, it’s no skin off my back, so why worry?”

Thus, hearing of the “I am Schulmann” protest, I thought the name conveyed: “Yes, someone will pick up the tab—and that someone is me and my fellow businessmen who are being soaked by a free-spending government.” It didn’t occur to me that there was a second Schulmann lurking in the wings.

But instead of telling you this second Schulmann’s story myself, I’ll tell it in the words of Marcelle Musari, an Israeli journalist with a talk show on the popular radio station 103fm. Back in the “I am Schulmann” movement’s early days, Musari told of entering its WhatsApp pages and reading there about “a Jerusalem baker named Schulmann, who was known throughout the city. There was no one who hadn’t eaten his wonderful cakes. People came to Jerusalem from afar just to taste them.”

So successful was Schulmann that he decided to expand his business. He took loans, rented a larger space, and set about equipping it. Little by little, Musari informed her listeners, his dream began to take shape. From the beginning, of course, he encountered obstacles: city taxes, bureaucracy, kashrut inspectors from the Rabbinate, and so on. But he refused to give up. Even when his oven needed to be approved, first by a certified electrician, then by the fire department, then by the ministry of health, and then by the department of environmental affairs, none of which neglected to charge him for their services, he remained resolute. He installed a fire alarm as he was told to do. His spirits didn’t falter even when he was made to pay a hefty sum for the right to hang out a sign that said, “Schulmann’s Cakes and Pastries.”

Schulmann persevered. “And then one day,” said Musari, “just as he was about to open and bake his first cake, into which he had put so much work and money, a closure order arrived from the municipality. He ran to its offices. ‘What have I done?’ he asked a nice young office worker. She studied the documents he had brought and said in the end, ‘It looks like you fell between the cracks.’ And so Schulmann never got to taste the cake. He went back to his new bakery and turned out the lights—and with them, the lights on his dream.”

So went the story of Schulmann the baker, which gave its name to the ‘”I am Schulmann” movement. And since I sympathized with the Schulmannites and didn’t like paying taxes any more than they did, I tried to give Schulmann the baker the benefit of the doubt. If my wife and I had lived in Jerusalem for four years back in the 1970s and had never heard of him, this must have been because it was well before his time—and if the friends we visited in the years afterward had never served us one of his cakes, well, they did their own baking and didn’t frequent bakeries. Schulmann the baker didn’t have a first name? His bakery was never assigned an address or even a neighborhood? No dates were given for when it had existed or ceased to exist? Closure orders didn’t come without explanations and office workers didn’t dismiss plaintiffs by telling them they had “fallen between the cracks”? Surely, I was being picayune.

Nevertheless, I decided to call one of our Jerusalem friends. “A baker named Schulmann?” she said to me. “I’ve never heard of such a person, and I’ve lived in this city for over 50 years. But maybe someone else has. I’ll ask around.”

She asked around. No one she knew had heard of Schulmann the baker, either. I contacted another friend. The results were the same. The man whose cakes were known to every Jerusalemite was an urban legend.

When and how did this legend get started? I found an interview with Abir Kara in which he spoke of his movement’s beginnings. He had been talking, he said, with his friend Itzik Benin, who was complaining of the bureaucracy involved in opening a restaurant. “They even insisted he put in an elevator,” Kara told the interviewer. “So I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute! The problem isn’t just me. It isn’t just the two of us. It’s systemic. We have to do something to solve it.’ And so we started a WhatsApp group called ‘Smashing the Dishes’ [shovrim et ha-kelim, an idiom meaning “burning the bridges”]. Four hours later, we had 257 people. In three weeks, we had 5,000.”

But “Smashing the Dishes,” Kara went on, turned out to be a bad choice. “We may have felt like smashing the whole country, but I wanted to change the system, and you don’t do that by smashing everything in sight.” It was then, he said, that he came across the story of Schulmann the baker, who baked cakes for one and all and had nothing for himself. “I read it and said: That’s me! I’m Schulmann. That’s when I decided that that would be our name.”

Just where Abir Kara came across the story of Schulmann the baker, he didn’t say. Was he told it by someone? Did he make it up himself, with his friend’s elevator cast in the role of the baker’s oven? Was the original Schulmann of “I am Schulmann” the Schulmann of “Schulmann will pay,” and did Kara then realize that a different Schulmann was needed because you don’t name movements after hoodlums?

We’ll probably never know. One generally doesn’t with urban legends. Once they take on a life of their own, who gave birth to them no longer matters.

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