Fresh-Baked Matzah and the Spirit of Capitalism
Every spring, as Passover approached, my late father-in-law would reminiscence wistfully about what it was like in the old days, outside the Galician town where he grew up, when he helped his family bake their own matzah. His parents, like most of the other Jews in the shtetl, lived from hand to mouth, and often had difficulty obtaining enough to eat. But Passover was different, he said. After months of saving, his parents and siblings would bring their flour to a spot just outside town where they would join their neighbors and, in a carnival-like atmosphere, bake all the matzah they would need during the coming week. My father-in-law’s own father even had the prestigious job of shoveling the dough into the oven.
As I summon up a picture of the old days that I never experienced, I don’t regret having missed out on the hunger pangs, but I do feel the loss of the sense of community and am sorry that the technology of plenty has deprived us of the shtetl residents’ physical, tactile, and emotional closeness to Passover matzah, or for that matter to most of the other food we eat. The capitalist economy and our urban and suburban lifestyles have distanced us from the raw materials that go into everything we eat, from home-made vegetable soup to the mysterious concoctions with which flight attendants supply us, and in advance of Passover most of us simply buy our matzah. We might go for a box of perfectly square Manischewitz straight from a supermarket shelf, or, if we are feeling particularly pious, order the super-kosher handmade matzah at some $20 a pound (which lends new meaning to the biblical reference to matzah as the “bread of poverty”). But even shmurah matzah comes in a neat cardboard box!
In our post-industrial economy, religious products have become commodities, with major supermarkets treating matzah as a loss leader and Eucharist wafers—in the minds of some the very body of Christ—offered for purchase on the Internet (overnight shipping available). In the 21st century, even the heartfelt celebration of our national freedom, the miraculous Exodus and the commencement of our service of the God who redeemed us, ends up conflating profit with prophet.
But there has been something of an effort to turn back the clock, at least in Israel, where some individuals and communities, including my own, have set up small-scale matzah bakeries. It takes about 20 minutes to transform our synagogue social hall into a matzah bakery, and little in the way of supplies: a folding table for the flour, a sheet of solid stainless steel to use as a work surface, wooden broomsticks to roll the still-soft dough into the metal and brick oven, and lots of throw-away plastic tablecloths to cover everything. In the weeks leading up to Passover, the majority of the more than 200 families in our synagogue community in Beit Shemesh show up for three-hour baking sessions. Several volunteers handle logistics, while a handful of us, deputized by the rabbi, serve as supervisors. Our job is to make sure that the dough is prepared within the prescribed 18 minutes, that all the surfaces are perfectly clean between batches, and that the final product has been fully baked. We have all been doing this for some 10 years, without anyone losing the taste for it.
My own family now feels closer than ever to the mitzvah of baking matzah. The experience has helped to solidify our community, since it takes 15 or 20 relatives, neighbors, friends (and occasional strangers) working together to do the job right. I enjoy helping to supervise the usual gang as they spar in friendly competition over who makes how much and how quickly, but I have also had the pleasure of helping to guide distant relatives and foreign students who gather once a year for the hands-on experience, and even a group of developmentally disabled teens and their counselors.
Please do not think of this practice as being in any way related to the smug and perhaps counterproductive local-food movement that allows Westerners with huge carbon footprints to assuage their guilt by paying too much for organic Brussels sprouts at a farmers’ market. Even here, we don't succeed in dropping off the capitalist or technological grid entirely, or make any real effort to do so. We use top-quality stainless steel, and each of the solid metal rolling pins costs in the $100 range. Money changes hands, with synagogue members and non-members both paying a fee to use the facilities, and the project serves as an important synagogue fundraiser. Our rabbi loves his laser thermometer, which from a distance of several yards can tell the exact temperature of each spot in the oven at any given moment. We just want to have a bonding experience with our kids and friends while making Passover more fun, more meaningful, more personal, and maybe just a bit tastier.
By the time this practice started, my father-in-law was too frail to take over his own father’s job of operating the oven. But I do hope, as he stood rolling the specially designed matzah-dough-hole-puncher, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, that he felt something had come full circle. Ma’aseh avot siman labanim, “The deeds of the fathers are a sign for the sons.” He was imitating his own parents by building family and community around active, hands-on participation in a mitzvah.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.
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