Words & Photos Michael Harlan Turkell

Kibbutz to Lingerie to Candy: Why Maayan Zilberman Keeps Breaking the Rules

Jan 10, 2017

As I understand it, kibbutzniks, when given gifts, do not outright own them; they’re turned over to a shared treasury, and dispersed amongst the community. I can’t say whether this was true for candymaker and overall visionary Maayan Zilberman, born on a kibbutz in Israel, which she describes as a place once known for it’s agrarian-based communal life, but in her time behaved more like a hippie cul-de-sac. We don’t talk too much about her religious upbringing, but if I were to guess, Zilberman could be categorized as “New Age,” if only due to her ability to bestow a magical sense of momentary spirituality, such as after she tells me about the so-called “Magic Potion” days she shared with grandfather, whom she affectionately calls saba in Hebrew. He used to make batches of homemade yogurt with active culture, but what was so miraculous about this lactic to a young girl with wide eyes was the simple transformation of plain milk into something more (suspending the disbelief of science) was spellbinding. What’s more, Saba would dribble in a few drops of Technicolor through the wondrous addition of food coloring, and with a whir in the blender made the yogurt look unearthly! The thrill of something so alien fed into the playful escapism any child has when they feel like they don’t fit in—it’s a way of imagining a place that may not be known yet, but could exist someday.

After years of attending Judaic private schools in the grunge-laden teenage scene of Vancouver, her standardized uniform of thick felt, single pleated skirts, and white blouses just wasn’t loud enough. At the age of 15, Zilberman moved to New York City, her coming of age coinciding with the city’s 1990’s hip-hop era, where fashion and culture collided. It was in NYC that she finally saw color, her refreshed palette leading to a profession in garments, specifically in starting her own lingerie line, The Lake & Stars. Zilberman would eventually become disillusioned by the seriousness of brassieres, unable to remove them from their assumed role in the world of wardrobe, and thus began her bridge to bubblegum. Unhappy, if not disaffected by the production and pecking order of the fashion industry (the most common measure of success being “how far removed you are from the process,” unless you’re doing couture), she needed something more hands-on and reflective of her own sense of awe.

Zilberman tells me of an evocative dream where she had buried mixtapes in the ground that when unearthed, had turned into sugar fossils of themselves. When she awoke, she aimed to preserve this vision, carving a mold in shape of said cassette, and “candifying” the experience; a palpable envisage, shareable and savored, like being a kid forever. A serendipitous candy maker, Zilberman’s personal brand of Hubba Bubba was essentially a host gift made for friend’s parties that would eventually develop into an outfitted enterprise. She’s since moved beyond her bubblegum phase, and found the reflective nature of crystallized sugar in hard candies to be most expressive.

Her studio was a semi-industrial kitchen a few tenants ago; a bread baker had put in the oven that rarely gets used. Instead, six pots sit atop frying pans on each burner, which is how Zilberman has decided to best regulate heat distribution that melts the sugar (the rest of the process is proprietary). The finished candy gemstones are comprised of cane-sugar, syrup, and natural flavors like grapefruit, cinnamon, ginger, and Bing cherry, cast in ordinary forms like watches, eyeglasses, and dollar bill stacks; commonplace items that carry little meaning as is, but through the lens of Sweet Saba (named after her grandfather, of course), even realism is artistic.

Twice a year members of Mars, Nestle, Red Vine et al, meet at the Candy Technologists conference, a fountain of confectionary knowledge (and maybe eternal youth). Sugar panning, a technique of adding a shell to candies like dragées, gobstoppers, and jelly beans, started in France during the 17th century, initially for the production of Jordan Almonds to protect the interior while glossing up the pastel outer layer. There’s allegory in this alone: how we dress, how we live…but what doesn’t work for this particular parable is Zilberman’s oversight. Instead, she’s been told by other confectioners that the way she uses dyes is opposite industry practices, and the way she re-wets candy while painting them was absurd. Nevertheless, Zilberman has embraced her candies’ unique appearance as an expression of personal exploration, outwardly shared, and inwardly enjoyed.