by Elisa Mala
March 28, 2010, The New York Times
There was the flour, the water, and the intention of turning them into unleavened bread to be consumed during Passover. But what made this matzo-making operation different from all others?
With specialized varieties of matzo fetching more than $60 a pound, and an increased longing for spiritual connection, a process that was once confined to factories in Orthodox enclaves of Brooklyn and Israel had found a new and unlikely home: an apartment on the Upper West Side.
On Friday morning, as Passover (which starts Monday at sundown) approached, a handful of students at Hadar, a Jewish institution that rents space from West End Synagogue on Amsterdam Avenue that fosters religious learning and empowerment, met at the home of one of them, Rachel Druck, on West 97th Street.
Hadar also provided the funds for the baking session.
Preparing holiday-specific delicacies is a time-honored Jewish tradition. Hanukkah offers eight days for frying latkes; Purim inspires exotic flavors for hamantashen, triangular cookies that are often filled with fruit preserves, poppy seeds or chocolate. There’s even a blessing that that can be recited while baking challah for Sabbath.
But while those recipes offer a certain degree of creative control — raspberry or chocolate filling? Raisins or poppy seeds on the challah? — the matzo-making process is almost defined by its rigidity.
That’s the case even before it becomes dough. While ordinary flour can be used, most observant Jews prefer to use shmura flour, which undergoes weeks of observation to ensure that is free from chametz, food that might be kosher the rest of the year but that cannot be consumed on Passover.
To obtain it, two students, Avram Sand, 22, and Daniel Shibley, 23, ventured into Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to buy the flour directly from a matzo factory. “We couldn’t find the entrance,” said Mr. Sand, who is also an administrator at Hadar. “We just went by the smell.”
Supervised by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, 34, the students learned the minutiae of the process. Water must be added to the flour, never the other way around. “If it’s too soupy, you’re done,” Mr. Shibley said. The dough is flattened until it is paper thin. Using forks, bakers poke holes into it to prevent bubbles from forming while the matzo is baking, a potential problem from a religious standpoint.
The moment one’s hands leave the dough, there is an 18-minute window for it to become matzo, or the product becomes unkosher for Passover. But that is not generally a problem: Placed on a pizza stone in a 550-degree oven, the matzo is ready in about four minutes.
Some of the participants said that following the rules provided a sense of the freedom, and even glee, that biblical Jews felt while escaping from the Egyptians who had enslaved them.
“This is the essence of Pesach,” said Ms. Druck, 25, using the Hebrew word for Passover. “It’s a nicer spiritual experience.”