PEABODY – In August 1996, Moishe Zucker began schlepping challah in a 20-foot trailer across the Canadian border to Massachusetts for his wholesale grocery customers in time for Shabbat.
He recalls driving in a blinding snowstorm so “wicked,” custom officers escorted him to the first exit where he could get off the highway to rest.
“I would pray to God,” said Zucker. “‘God, please, I have four healthy kids at home, four little kids at home. I have a wife. Please let me get there to be safe.’ And then coming home I would say, ‘Please, I have a wife and children waiting for me.’”
Zucker owns and operates Zucker’s Bakery, a kosher-certified, nondairy bakery in West Peabody that employs six people. The family-owned business supplies its hand-braided challah and other kosher baked goods to customers up and down the Eastern seaboard.
“We’re a small bakery,” Zucker said on Zoom in June 2021 from his home in Montreal, uncertain when he would be able to make it to his bakery due to the pandemic. “We try to feed as many people as we can and make a living at it at the same time, but this past year was very hard, whether anybody wants to deny it or not, it was hard.”
Earlier this month, Zucker spoke about that challenge of navigating COVID-19 travel rules while sitting in the front of his bakery on Lake Street. It had gotten easier to go back and forth between the U.S. and Canada by then.
“The government on either side of the border was very helpful,” Zucker said. “I have an essential service and they understood the need that the bakery was to the community.”
Zucker, who is a permanent U.S. resident, joked that he was told by a customs officer: “The bakery is essential but I’m not essential to the bakery, because it worked whether I was there or not.”
During the pandemic, he was able to get 72-hour windows to travel to Peabody to bring in raw frozen product and then carry U.S.-made baked goods back to Canada.
He recalled making a delivery while coming back into Canada, and the rules were you had to self-quarantine for 14 days, he said. But, what if you were essential and you have to go back and forth every third or fourth day, he asked.
“We are in line and the person behind the counter said, ‘So, Moishe, how was the border?’ and I said. ‘Thank God I’m here.’ She looks at me: ‘You shouldn’t be here, you should be self-quarantining.’ And I just looked at her politely and said, ‘Madame, how do you think you’re getting your food?’ And she looked at me like, upset, and just walked away. I was just making the delivery and she was buying the stuff that she was waiting for.”
When the border was closed in mid-March 2020 due to the coronavirus, Zucker did not travel until June. He didn’t want to take any chances.
His bakery in West Peabody is unassuming and utilitarian. Inside, its front cases are full of half-moons, muffins, chocolate babka, poppy strudel, and whoopie pies. There are kosher-certified Montreal bagels he brings from Canada.
The last couple of years have not been easy. In addition to the pandemic, a truck crashed into the front of the bakery in September 2020. That damage has since been repaired.
When he is not driving to Peabody, Zucker lives in Côte Saint-Luc in Montreal. It’s a tight-knit, diverse community, home to 19,395 Jews, 62.1 percent of its overall population in 2011, according to The Berman Jewish Data Bank.
Zucker’s parents managed to escape the Holocaust, liberated by the British from Auschwitz; two of his brothers were born in displaced persons camps.
“The truth is, my parents never thought of themselves as survivors, they thought of themselves as witnesses,” Zucker said. “They were witness to the horror because they said, when they are gone, people will deny it. My father lived long enough to see some people in the world say that it never happened.” His father, Henry (Chil) Zucker, died in 2008 at age 84.
Unable to immigrate to the United States or Palestine, his parents came to Montreal after landing by boat in Halifax. His mother came from a small village in Poland and his father grew up in Warsaw. He was a religious man.
His parents told Zucker they survived out of sheer luck. And Zucker, who came from a family of five, grew up without grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Only his mother’s half-sister and his father’s uncle and cousin survived the Holocaust.
Zucker said his parents’ fellow survivors became his aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Two of his siblings, an older brother and younger sister, live in Charlotte, N.C., and his two older brothers live in Montreal.
Zucker grew up speaking Yiddish in Montreal, and he studied in a yeshiva.
He worked as a gemologist before he got into the food business 36 years ago. His wife works as an early childhood educator.
So, how did he wind up bringing challahs to the Bay State in 1996? At the time, he and his son, Jonathan, had operated a small bakery in Montreal.
“Some Americans stopped by our bakery one time and told us that we make the best challah, but you know, everything is subjective, and they said I’m wasting my time here in Montreal,” Zucker recalled.
They introduced Zucker to the Vermont Bread Company in Brattleboro and in turn, his challah started being offered by a nationwide grocery chain.
It was Todd Levine, owner of Larry Levine’s Meats and Deli on Lowell Street in Peabody, who found Zucker his bakery location in a small strip mall at 4 Lake St.
Levine’s carries Zucker’s challah, rolls, and frozen dough.
“I was his first customer when he crossed the border. He has the old-fashioned kosher Jewish bakery,” Levine said, adding Zucker’s baked goods taste like something your bubbe used to make.