A ‘Knead’ To Bake
Tue, 04/05/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, at one of her matzah-making parties. Courtesy of Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, at one of her matzah-making parties. Courtesy of Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

Every spring, after she finishes scrubbing and scraping the kitchen for Passover, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder can’t help but rejoice. But for her, the celebration isn’t merely a private utterance of gratitude, but a full-blown party: an annual matzah-baking bash, which includes a dozen or so friends and their children kneading and rolling and pricking and baking — and a fair amount of nibbling too.

“While so much of Passover preparation is in the negative space of cleaning, matzah-baking captures an element of running out of Egypt,” says the rabbi, who has been hosting such gatherings since 2007. During her party, a timer goes off every 18 minutes, breaking the afternoon into short chunks of industrious activity. According to Jewish law, the entire process of creating matzah, from the moment the water touches the flour, to the moment the discs are removed from the oven must be completed within 18 minutes. After each batch, the group wipes down all of the equipment and counters.

“There’s an element of a race,” says the rabbi, who is a San Francisco resident, and works at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), A Global Jewish Community: Institute for Jewish & Community Research. It’s also fun: the rabbi blasts holiday tunes, imbibes schnapps, and sets up a tray of chametz snacks in another room far from the baking. In the kitchen, friends swap Passover stories. “Most modern American Jews are not cleaning and prepping for Passover in the way of the past,” says the rabbi. “Making matzah is a much more fundamental to the popular understanding of the holiday.”

Rabbi Abusch-Magder, who is Reform, first came across the idea of communal matzah baking as a scholar of domestic Jewish history, and then participated in an Iraqi Jewish friend’s matzah baking party in Israel; she is likely to be one of the few Jews in the United States with the interest, energy and confidence to plan such an event in her own home. Many Jews in Orthodox and traditional communities are wary of this practice because of the stringent guidelines regarding Passover food, and particularly matzah-making.

“The difficulty of making kosher matzah should not be underestimated,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, who has lectured and written on the topic of “How Matzah Became Square.” “It’s a great deal more difficult than learning how to make chicken soup or build a sukkah.”

Until the late 19th century, with advent of the manufactured product, however, many Jews were more intimately familiar with the process. Synagogues often owned matzah ovens, and many Jewish communities ran their own matzah bakeries. That practice now survives in fervently Orthodox neighborhoods, like Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where boxes of “shmura matzah” are carefully prepared each year from Chanukah until Passover at facilities that operate only for that.

Nison Deitsch, a 20-year-old student at Oholei Torah Beis Medrash-Talmudic Seminary in Crown Heights, recently worked a stint at the community’s matzah bakery with his fellow yeshiva students. The students prepared for the exercise by intensive review of the relevant Jewish laws, and readied themselves spiritually with prayer, and by immersing in the mikveh. Still, in order to keep the factory running smoothly and quickly, “everyone has to keep moving; it’s very tense,” says Deitsch. “Baking matzah at home is not a good idea.”

Apart from the fervently Orthodox residents of neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Borough Park, American Jews tend to know little about the process, except what they may have observed at a Chabad model matzah factory. Since 1974, when a Minneapolis rabbi opened the first model matzah factory to educate children, Chabad-Lubavitch has held thousands of such programs at schools, with many parents donning baker’s hats as well.

Still, perhaps influenced by the growing do-it-yourself food movement, in which urban dwellers have raised their own vegetables, canned their own preserves and fermented their own maple vinegar, Rabbi Abusch-Magder is not alone in pursuing her interest in matzah baking beyond the doors of a model Chabad factory.

“It blew me away on a spiritual plane,” says Rabbi Ethan Tucker of matzah-making. Rabbi Tucker, who co-heads Yeshivat Hadar, the egalitarian learning institution on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, will host the organization’s first matzah workshop on April 13 from 6-9 p.m. at Shaare Zedek on West 93rd Street. Rabbi Tucker baked matzah for the first time in 2003, while studying in northern Israel as a rabbinical student. “In the past I had either bought matzah off the shelf in a store, or went to a factory that was not in my community — which was like an anthropological experience,” says Rabbi Tucker. But after that first experience, “I haven’t been able to go back,” he says.

Last year, Rabbi Tucker conducted a matzah-baking program for students of Yeshivat Hadar. Before the event, a few students trekked out to a matzah factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to procure the special shmura flour, made from wheat that has been under surveillance since it was harvested. Then the group convened at an Upper West apartment to bake. The event was so successful, that this year Rabbi Tucker hopes to extend its reach, opening the program to the public.

"Something somewhat tragic has happened if we’ve become alienated from the process of baking matzah,” says Rabbi Tucker. “A certain degree of neurosis about this is appropriate. But instead of not trusting people to do something like this in their own communities, we should instead encourage people to clear a high bar of serious expectation.”

Another passionate proponent of matzah-baking, Elisheva Rogosa will be offering two free workshops on her farm in Colrain, Mass., on April 10 and 17. She will be using a new wood-burning oven, purchased for this use, and the event will be overseen by Rabbi Andrea Cohen Kiener, who is the director of the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.

Rogosa, an artisan baker, organic farmer and scholar of ancient Israeli cuisines and foodcrops, says, “If this yokel in Massachusetts can do it, any serious Jew anywhere can do it if we learn the halachot in depth.” She hopes that “people today begin to reclaim our traditions of baking matzah in our local communities, just as there is a burgeoning Jewish food movement of artisan Jewish challah bakers baking with locally grown organic grains.” Rogosa, whose website, www.growseed.org, explains more about her work, says she will arrange home hospitality for any New Yorker who travels to one of her workshops.

Rogosa offers more than just a chance to participate in a largely defunct practice, but also an opportunity to sample almost-extinct ancient grains. Rogosa, who calls herself a “seed saver,” and works with farmers in the Middle East, will be selling flour produced from emmer, a grain that grows wild in Israel today, and which she believes was used in the original matzah. She will also be selling flour produced from the grain einkorn, which she believes was eaten by Sarah and Abraham, and which she says produces a lighter, crispier matzah that is more tolerable to many people with wheat sensitivities. Participants may bring their own matzah flour as well.

“The process of baking matzah is done as one quick deed from mixing the flour and water to kneading to baking — without a moment’s hesitation,” says Rogosa. “When you bake matzah, time stands still.”