The Making of A Modern Kosher Baker

An African-American woman converts to Judaism and opens the only kosher bakery in town.

On December 1st, baker Brandie Itman moved her small home business into the kitchen of  Beth El Synagogue adding a kosher option to the Minnesota landscape.  Team Be’chol Lashon caught up with the busy mother of two to talk about cake, keeping kosher, and being an entrepreneur.

BL: Tell us about how you got started in the bakery business.

Itman: My oldest daughter was born four years ago, and two weeks later my husband got laid off. It was the height of the recession. I started baking to keep busy and keep up morale.

BL: Have you always been a baker?

Itman: I have always wanted to own my own business but did not have a particular set of skills. I’m entirely self taught. No formal training, I worked in restaurants as a kid as a server in the front of the house, never in the kitchen. I’ve taught myself the baking and the decorating. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube.

BL: How did you decide you wanted to open a bakery?

Itman: I really started the bakery to take some of the financial pressure off of my husband being the sole provider and to create a legacy to leave our children. I want my girls to know they don’t have to depend on anyone else for a job.

BL: How did you decide that you wanted to run a kosher bakery?

Itman: I decided to make my business kosher, because I wanted to give back to the Jewish community. The Jewish community has been so welcoming and accepting. As a Black person, I always have that fear that someone would judge me on how I look or how I speak. But in the Jewish community, people have been so warm. They always want to meet me and include me. There are not lots of kosher options in Minnesota, so I wanted to provide one.

BL: Have you always been Jewish?

Itman: No, I converted last May with my girls. From the time of my childhood I would always connect with Jews as friends or as boyfriends. When I met my husband we clicked right away, and then I learned he was Jewish and it just felt like home.

My husband’s family has been great. They never put pressure on me to convert, they accepted me for who I am. They are the nicest people I have ever met. That goes back to Jewish side of them. Jews are more giving and helping. They work for everyone to succeed. It is more of a community, a village.

BL: Were there any challenges in the process of becoming Jewish?

Itman: Not really. It took me a few years of being married before I was ready to commit to that, because I was worried about loosing myself as a person. In the space of a few years, I got married and moved in with my husband and became a mom. But ultimately it was what I knew I wanted to do.

My girls were really excited. The youngest did not understand, but the older one had already started going to a Jewish preschool, and we would celebrate Shabbat at home. She had been learning about baby Moses at school. And she thought that when she came out of the water she would become baby Moses. Boy, was she was disappointed when she looked in the mirror after the mikvah and she was not baby Moses! (Immersion in the mikvah is the last step in the conversion process. Women who convert to Judaism often have their children convert as well, even if the father is Jewish, because traditional Jewish law follows matrilineal descent. )

BL: After your business went kosher, the local paper ran a piece about you. What has the response been like?

Itman: The response has been fantastic. I’m still in shock. Sometimes I believe I’m dreaming. The orders are pouring in and I’ve gone from working part time to working full time and looking into hiring some bakers.

Since it was published I’ve also heard from people around the United States who are Black and are considering converting. I’ve had people say your story is the story of my family. My dad was Jewish and my mom converted. Lots of people seem to take comfort from my sharing my story.

BL: What is your best seller?

Itman: My specialty cakes are particularly popular but my best seller is my cheesecake. That was my original product. We go to my mother-in-law’s every week for Shabbat, and I always bring something. One week I brought a cheesecake, and everyone said, you should sell this! That’s how it all began.

BL: Any words of advice to others?

Itman: Let yourself dream. If you are not born into wealth or privilege, you are told this is your place and that you can’t do other things. If you express your dream to other people, it will help you make it come true. When I finally told people about my dream, I found people who helped me accomplish my dream.

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