After the unprecedented reaction to the challah that she was baking for herself and friends, Deborah Trapunsky decided to make the leap to starting her own bakery, the first Jewish bakery in Peru. Since starting out, Oh-jalá has gone from strength to strength, receiving strong support from the predominantly non‑Jewish population of Lima, where it is located.
Baking wasn’t something that Deborah Trapunsky planned as a career. In 2015, she finished her degree and in 2016 began working as a freelance architect and doing her thesis. She had planned on focusing full-time on her thesis so she could get accredited, avoiding any sort of full-time work that would distract her from her studies.
“But in December 2016, something special was born that I’ve held in my arms since then,” Deborah says.
One of Deborah’s friends approached her in the lead-up to Christmas 2016 to ask if Deborah could sell her a loaf of challah as a present for her boyfriend.
“I thought someone else could also be interested, so I posted it on Facebook,” Deborah says.
“During Christmas 2016, I offered my Jewish-original bread, and against all odds, Jewish and Catholics, atheists and agnostics—they all wanted to order. Four days and 91 loaves of challah later, I had no idea how much money I had earnt, and it wasn’t important.
“Profit wasn’t as gratifying as the infinite thanks and countless pictures of big and small tables full of people, joy, and smiles, which was the strongest validation I needed to be able to see a future for this.”
And so, the concept of ‘Oh-jalá: a different bakery’ was born. The name was Deborah’s dad’s idea, a pun based on the Spanish word ojala, which means ‘I hope’, and jalá, which means ‘challah’.
The business allows Deborah to go back to a passion for cooking that she has always had, via a medium that connects her to her Jewish roots as well as her non-Jewish friends and social circles.
“My first culinary encounter was challah bread, because I used to braid it every Friday at my Grandma’s house,” she says.
“Since 2012, it was tradition for me to show up to gatherings or birthday parties with my challah. Freshly baked, on occasion still hot, always homemade, and baked with tonnes of love and affection, even stuffed with Nutella or tomatoes! But above all, made to warm the heart beyond delighting or feeding.
“It was almost a maternal gesture.”
Initially, it existed simply as an order and delivery-only business, which Deborah conducted out of her parents’ apartment, but at the end of 2020, at the height of the COVID pandemic, Deborah made the move to her first bricks-and-mortar store in Lima.
And the reception since opening has been amazing, Deborah says. The organic, word-of-mouth promotion has done the work, and loyal fans of the business, who were there during the ordering-only days, have continued to visit.
Deborah says, “People who got to watch the business transform from an on-demand and delivery-only model were very happy and excited. I could almost feel that our customers felt what a parent feels when their child goes to college or moves out on their own—a generalised ‘proudness’ about the business growing and expanding.”
Oh-jalá sells 12 different flavours of challah; one of its best-selling products is the cinnamon challah, which Deborah describes as the perfect balance between challah and a cinnamon roll. The offerings of the bakery are also starting to change as demand changes, and it has expanded to offer hamantaschen, bagels, and a variety of other things.
“[We also do] nuditos, which can translate as ‘challah knots’. Those started existing after the first months in the bake shop; the walk-ins wanted something smaller, to grab a bit on the go, and the whole challah—a 1kg loaf—seemed too much,” says Deborah.
Deborah is also glad of the platform that she now has to educate people about Jewish culture, especially as it is not very prevalent in Peru.
“In Peru, there is a Jewish population of 1,800—very small and very uncommon—so not many people know the ‘Jewish basics’ as in other cities around the world where this is baking general cultural knowledge,” Deborah says.
“Jewish baking is my way to get to those people who crave knowledge along with their challah or hamantaschen.”
And this ambition to educate people about Jewish culture doesn’t stop in Peru. Deborah aims to be able to educate people around the world. She sees a worldwide expansion in the future for Oh-jalá.
“This will provide endless opportunities to connect Jewish communities with their cultural surroundings through food. Hopefully, that interaction, supported by information, will slowly (or maybe not so slowly) translate into more respect and tolerance,” she says.
Despite all of her success and the way the business has grown in the years since opening, Deborah’s favourite thing to bake is still a plain challah.
“It makes me feel like I’m back in my grandma’s kitchen. Also, it’s my favourite product!”