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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

Chabad's good works not diminished by fringe group's flyer

BY ROBERT A. COHN

This article is in response to the commentary piece by Rabbi Bruce Warshal, publisher emeritus of the Jewish Journal of South Florida, which appeared on page 7 of the March 21 edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light. It pains me to express my strong disagreement with the content and tone of Rabbi Warshal's piece which was headlined, "Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe the Messiah?"

I consider Rabbi Warshal to be a respected colleague in Jewish journalism, and I have often expressed my admiration for his writing, especially his thoughtful recent piece stating why Jews must be involved in efforts to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. On the other hand, I strongly disagreed with Rabbi Warshal's lengthy, two-part defense of the current book by former President Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. At the same time, I respect Rabbi Warshal's right to his views, and feel that his comments on the Carter book were based on a careful reading of its contents.

Regrettably, in Rabbi Warshal's piece on his experience of receiving a flyer while taking a walk a few months ago in Times Square from "two Chabadniks handing out literature," jumps to the harmful and I believe incorrect conclusion that the entire worldwide Chabad movement deserves to be accused of bizarre beliefs based on a flyer that he "assumes" is "official Chabad doctrine" based on the fact that the flyer contained the address "770 Eastern Parkway" in Brooklyn, which was the headquarters and home of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe or spiritual leader of the Chabad movement. Journalists, like our physician colleagues, have a solemn obligation to "first do no harm," and we are obligated not to "assume" facts without doing some simple fact-checking.

According to Rabbi Yosef Landa, Director of Chabad of St. Louis, the flyer from which Rabbi Warshal quotes "is the work of unknown individuals, and has no official connection with Chabad whatsoever." Rabbi Landa also asserts that the outlandish views expressed in the flyer do not reflect the official views of the worldwide Chabad movement, and that Chabad officials have "tried, in some cases successfully, to legally challenge the unauthorized uses of the name Chabad." He adds, however that "consequently, some of these mavericks have resorted to simply using the address of '770 Eastern Parkway' on their flyers in order to mislead the public," adding that "unfortunately, an address cannot be legally protected."

Despite the above, easily obtainable facts, Rabbi Warshal, in his piece writes, "The pamphlet says it comes directly from 770 Eastern Parkway, so I assume that it is official Chabad doctrine." To base a harshly critical and potentially harmful column against an entire worldwide Jewish movement on an "assumption" is deeply disappointing.

Over the years, I have received countless flyers from people on the street, some of them purporting to be Jews or of Jewish origin, who support Hare Krishna, Rev. Moon's Unification Church, the Hineni Ministries (Jews for Jesus) and other movements. If one of these flyers contained the address of a mainstream Jewish organization, I would not "assume" that it was authentic without firm verification.

I do not believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the Moshiach, or Messiah, but it is clear that the Rebbe was, in the words of Rabbi Norman Lamm, a leading Orthodox rabbi, "an indomitable leader, a preeminent scholar and a truly creative visionary of organization." Rabbi Sholom Riskin, a leading Israeli rabbi, in a New York Jewish Week article, said that Rabbi Schneerson was "truly the great leader of this past generation."

Because of Rabbi Schneerson's towering intellect, powerful charisma and personal magnetism, there is a group of his followers who have asserted that he was or is indeed the Messiah, but this was never "official Chabad doctrine." Rabbi Landa in St. Louis says that "it should come as no surprise that we occasionally attract some 'strange birds'" but that "there's very little that the official Chabad authorities can do to stop this." In any event, the worldwide and St. Louis Chabad movements have never advocated the outlandish views quoted by Rabbi Warshal in the pamplet he received on Times Square.

It is highly regrettable that an entire worldwide and local movement, which is a strong force for good in the Jewish community, has been tarred with the brush of a strange and unofficial faction. Even more regrettable and inaccurate is the lumping together of Chabad with Jews for Jesus, to which it bears absolutely no similarity. Rabbi Landa has described the comparision as "obscene."

I was also taken aback by Rabbi Warshal's criticism not only of Chabad, but of Chasidism in general, and the exalted position of its rabbis. "No one stands between a Jew and his or her God," writes Rabbi Warshal, adding, "That's the distortion that Chasidism introduced into Judaism, whether a particular Chasidic rabbi believes that the Rebbe is the Messiah or not." At the Torah class at my home congregation, which is Reform, the wise words of Chasidic rabbis are often quoted with respect. In the class at Shaare Emeth, the commentaries of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad Rebbe, are sometimes among the rabbinic sages quoted in the handouts. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber, who had backgrounds in traditional and liberal Judaism wrote and spoke respectfully of Chasidism. Far from being a "distortion," Chasidism's great rabbinic sages have helped us gain greater clarity on the meaning of our sacred texts. Surely our great rabbis, including Rabbi Schneerson, are deserving of the greatest respect.

Here in St. Louis, Chabad now has four centers: The Lazaroff Chabad Center in University City; Chabad of Chesterfield; The Source Unlimited; and Chabad on Campus, directed with great skill by Rabbi Hershey Novack and his wife Chana, which works in close cooperation with Hillel at Washington University. Just yesterday, at the Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center, I saw scores of Jewish families taking part in Chabad's annual "Matzo Baking Workshop."

Worldwide, there are over 3,200 Chabad centers and educational programs. Back in 1978, in Morocco, a North African Arab country, I was with a group of Jewish journalists who visited a Chabad Jewish day school, whose students ranked at or near the top academically in nearly every subject nationwide. In the former Soviet Union, Chabad did truly heroic work in helping rescue victims of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, making sure children who had been born with serious birth defects from the nuclear meltdown, received medical care either in Russia or Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Landa is respected by his rabbinic colleagues from all streams of Judaism, and he serves as chairman of the St. Louis Rabbinical Council, the rabbinical organization of all Orthodox and Traditional rabbis in St. Louis. Rabbi Landa is active in communitywide programs, including participation in last summer's rallies in support of Israel during the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Our tradition teaches us that we can disagree with our colleagues without being disagreeable or engaging in ad hominem attacks. The great Sages and Rabbis Hillel and Shammai 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel, often disagreed with one another on biblical or other text legal interpretations, but always with great mutual respect and even with personal affection and friendship. I have affection and respect for both Rabbi Yosef Landa, a leader in our community, and for Rabbi Bruce Warshal, a respected Jewish journalistic colleague. It is my hope that this article helps set the record straight to asssure that the many good works and official views of the Chabad movement can be clarified and appreciated. It is written to foster shalom bayit, peace in our household of the Jewish community. It is my hope that it will foster mutual respect among all Jews in our community, locally and nationally.

Robert A. Cohn is editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.