Thursday, April 05, 2007

Bringing home the matzoh

Valley rabbi shows his devotion by making the symbolic bread.

By Michael Duck Of The Morning Call

As flames leapt up the sides of a Brooklyn bakery's wood-fired oven, Rabbi Yaakov Halperin of South Whitehall Township thrust a floppy circle of dough toward a brown-paper-lined table surrounded by fellow Jews.

Halperin's young cousins scampered underfoot while workers, following centuries-old, minutely detailed instructions, flung the dough over long wooden rods and plunged it into the 2,000-degree oven. In less than 25 seconds, the dough emerged as matzoh -- the special bread eaten by Jews around the world at Passover, which begins today at sundown.

To non-Jews, matzoh looks and tastes like a bland, slightly burned cracker made only with wheat and water. But to Halperin and other Lehigh Valley Jews, eating matzoh is a sacred link with their ancestors' escape from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

''It's one of the commandments of the Torah,'' or Jewish scriptures, to eat matzoh during the weeklong celebration of Passover, Halperin explained. ''When we do any of the commandments from God, we like to do it with our heart and passion. ... We want to do it the best way.''

That's why Halperin left his home at 5:15 a.m. on March 22, skipping breakfast and braving a 21/2 hour trek through New York City rush-hour traffic to make matzoh with his family, which belongs to the Lubavitch sect of Orthodox Jews.

Halperin, founder of the outreach organization Chabad Lubavitch of the Lehigh Valley, is one of just a few local rabbis who travel to Brooklyn for matzoh every year before Passover, though he may be the only one who personally helps make it.

Halperin's family, like several others in the Lubavitch sect, takes over the Lubavitch Matzoh Bakery in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood for one morning every year, said Yossi Spalter, Halperin's uncle. The family has come to this matzoh-only bakery for at least 30 years, said the uncle, who lives in Brooklyn.

From the street, the bakery looks more like an abandoned storefront with its graffiti, its broken windows and its house number scrawled in marker on a flimsy wooden door. But inside, the cramped rooms hum with Jews speaking Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian and following matzoh-making rules even stricter than those applied to kosher food eaten during the rest of the year.

Every year between late fall and mid-April, bakery workers make ton after ton of Passover matzoh by hand. Roughly 3,500 Crown Heights families buy matzoh for up to $20 per pound from the bakery, and last week its rickety shelves were stacked to the ceiling with matzoh to be shipped as far away as Russia.

Between 8 a.m. and noon March 22, about 25 members of Halperin's family helped prepare 267 pounds of Passover matzoh, he said.

More than 100 of those pounds came back to the Lehigh Valley, where Halperin gave away about 25 pounds and used the rest to fill dozens of orders from local Jews -- including Ronald Stein of South Whitehall, who bought about a pound of matzoh from Halperin this year.

''That special matzoh [is] about as close as we feel we can get to the way it was likely prepared � thousands of years ago,'' said Stein, a member of Allentown's Congregation Sons of Israel who also worships with Halperin.

At most meals during his family's eight-day Passover celebration, Stein said he and his family eat machine-made matzoh -- the square kind available in supermarkets. But during the Passover Seder, tonight's ritual meal of matzoh and other foods that opens the holiday, his family always uses round, handmade matzoh.

''The idea is for all of us at the Seder to put ourselves back at that place and time and see ourselves as being liberated,'' Stein said.

The ancient Jewish people fleeing their Egyptian slavedrivers had no time to let bread rise, Halperin said. According to Book of Exodus in the Torah, God commanded the Jews to dress for traveling, and then quickly eat roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That night, the Torah says, God killed the firstborns in all Egyptian homes but passed over the homes of the Jews, who escaped in the following chaos.

God, through Moses and the Torah, commanded the Jews to commemorate their freedom every year by eating matzoh (sometimes spelled matzo or matzah), which means unleavened bread.

The Torah also condemns Jews who eat any leavened bread during Passover or even have any leavening in their homes during the holiday, saying their souls would be cut off from the community.

Even though flour for matzoh contains no yeast, it can still rise if it remains wet for 18 minutes, Halperin said. As a result, makers of the highest quality matzoh -- known as ''shmurah matzoh,'' meaning watched matzoh -- use strictly detailed rules to prevent even the minutest bit of leavening.

At the Lubavitch Matzoh Bakery, the water and flour are kept in separate, tiny rooms that resemble a closet only with a pass-through window.

All work surfaces are lined with brown paper that gets cleaned or changed every 18 minutes. Hundreds of holes are punched throughout the uncooked matzohs to prevent any bubbles from forming during baking. The short wooden rods used as rolling pins are even fed through a belt sander after each use to obliterate even the smallest specks of wet, leftover dough.

Machines also can be used to make shmurah matzoh, but a machine can't duplicate a baker's piety and devotion, said Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, who heads Congregation Sons of Israel.

Besides, he said, handmade matzoh just tastes better.

''In terms of the taste and the texture of it � this is really the best one that I've found,'' said Torczyner, who also travels to Brooklyn every year to buy handmade matzoh from another bakery.

Most of Halperin's relatives have certain jobs they do every year at the Lubavitch Matzoh Bakery, but Halperin flitted throughout the building to pitch in wherever he could.

He inspected the wooden rods alongside uncle Yossi Spalter. He packed finished matzoh with father-in-law Rabbi Sholom Spalter of Morristown, N.J. He even helped sister-in-law Mushka Spalter, 15, of Morristown clean the metal mixing bowls with ice-cold water. (Warm water is forbidden, because it could help the dough rise).

''It's freezing!'' Halperin exclaimed as he scrubbed the bowl under the water.

''Guess what -- we do it every year!'' Mushka shot back with a grin.

Around the grown-ups' ankles scrambled young nephews and cousins like 5-year-old Eli Spalter of Montville, N.J., who was so excited before the trip that he couldn't sleep at night.

As the morning wore on, Jewish elementary students on field trips filed through the factory.

Exposing Jewish children to the matzoh-making process is an important and fun way to teach them about their heritage, said Halperin, who sometimes brings his three children to the matzoh bakery.

Most Jews, including Torczyner, don't personally bake their own matzoh, and Halperin said he's sure the bakery makes excellent matzoh regardless of whether his family is there. But to him, the annual excursion to Brooklyn is both a family reunion and a way of showing devotion.

''If we have the ability [to help make the matzohs], why not?'' he said. ''When you do something, do something right. � Do it with passion, with your whole soul and mind.''
Copyright © 2007, The Morning Call

1 comment:

Alex said...


Please consider writing news pieces or an op-ed for Jewrusalem: Israeli Uncensored News. We strive to present different views and opinions while rejecting political correctness. Ideally, we try to make the news "smart and funny." Thus, your input is very welcome.