Crown Heights

Old world vs. new school: Making matzo the Brooklyn way

April 15, 2019 Raanan Geberer
A worker at the Lubavitch Matzah Bakery in Crown Heights wraps a bundle of shmurah matzos. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Chaim Landa, Chabad Lubavitch

Passover is coming, and Jewish families in Brooklyn and beyond are stocking up on matzos, matzo ball soup and “Tam Tam” matzo crackers.

Even people who know comparatively little about Judaism know that during Passover, Jewish people eat matzo. They may or may not know that the matzo-eating commemorates the exodus from Egypt, when there was no time wait for bread dough to rise.

The unleavened bread is variously spelled “matzo,” “matzah” and “matzoh,” due to the fact that the word comes from Hebrew, which uses a different alphabet than ours.

In order to be eaten during the holiday season, matzos have to be not only kosher but “kosher for Passover,” a designation that restricts the type of grains that can be consumed. Even soda made with corn syrup isn’t kosher for Passover — hence Coca-Cola’s release of a special Passover soda made with cane sugar instead.

In most supermarkets, you’ll see the major brands — Manischewitz, Streit’s (which used to be manufactured in New York City until 2007) and several matzo brands that are imported from Israel.

While no major, nationally-known brand of matzo have been made in the city since Streit’s moved to Rockland County, small-batch matzo is definitely made in Brooklyn today.

The two types of matzo made here, in a sense, represent two ways of looking at Jewishness — one, a group of bakeries run by Orthodox Jewish people who believe in “going the extra mile” for kashrut, and the other, a new company that seeks to take matzo out of the realm of religion and take it into to the wider cultural sphere.

A Streit's employee loads up racks with fresh baked matzos at the the company's matzo factory in Orangetown, NY. AP Photo/Seth Wenig
A Streit’s employee loads up racks with fresh baked matzos at the the company’s matzo factory in Orangetown, NY. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Several bakeries in Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Borough Park manufacture “shmura (or shmira, depending on the dialect of Yiddish one speaks) matzo,” which is watched from the time the grain is harvested in the field to the time it’s packed to avoid contamination or to avoid contact with moisture before the flour is actually mixed with the water.

The shmura matzo bakeries are connected with different groups of Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish people — for example, the Lubavitch Matzah Bakery on Albany Avenue is connected to the Lubavitcher Hasidim.

According to Rabbi Chaim Landa, a spokesperson for the Chabad Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights, the group’s leader, the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, started to encourage the importance of eating shmurah matzo in 1954, encouraging his followers to distribute it to every Jewish person they met. At the time, many Hasidim distributed it from door to door.

Schneerson sent emissaries, or “shlichim,” throughout the country to promote religious observance among Jewish people, but even those who were not in New York came to Brooklyn to pick up the shmurah matzo.

For example, according to Landa, in the 1950s and ’60s, Rabbi Dovid Edelman of Springfield, Massachusetts, would drive to Crown Heights, put as many boxes of shmurah matzo in his car as would fit, then drive home to distribute them to any Jewish person he could find. Eventually, in 2009, one of Edelman’s boxes of shmurah matzos found its way to a Passover seder hosted by President Barack Obama.

Today, says Landa, “matzah bakeries around the world, Brooklyn included, begin baking shmurah matzah as early as October, and more than 1 million pounds of shmurah matzah are expected to be purchased in America during the holiday season, many of which are baked here in Brooklyn.” Many stores, he said, that “never used to carry shmurah” now do, such as Walmart and Amazon.

Several YouTube videos show how shmurah matzo is made. The flour is kept in a separate room from the water until it is time to combine them to make the dough. The workers then mix them and knead the dough with a roller until it is in the desired round, flat shape. The round, unbaked matzohs are then put onto a rod and put into a large oven that resembles a pizza oven, and the entire process takes about 18 minutes.

Not all shmurah matzo are made with conventional wheat flour — other varieties are made with whole wheat flour and spelt flour.

In most of the videos, male workers wear the traditional kippot (head coverings), but most are dressed informally. They range from clean-shaven to full-bearded, depending on the level of observance. One fascinating video showing matzo-making on the day before Passover in Borough Park shows workers in black Hasidic garb who are wearing streimels (ceremonial fur hats) as they knead the dough.

Kevin Rodriguez, left, and Ashley Albert are the founders of the Matzo Project. Photo courtesy of the Matzo Project
Kevin Rodriguez, left, and Ashley Albert are the founders of the Matzo Project. Photo courtesy of the Matzo Project

The Matzo Project, formed in 2017 and located in Gowanus, takes a “culturally based” approach to matzo-making. The company was created by former co-camp counselors and friends Ashley Albert and Kevin Rodriguez, who, according to the firm’s website, “set out to bake a new take on the culturally beloved, but traditionally flavorless box of matzo.”

In addition to matzo itself, their products, made in small batches, include matzo chips (similar to pita chips), chocolate matzo “ungapotchkies” (a Yiddish word roughly meaning “too much” or “outrageous”) and matzo ball soup kits. The matzo chips have three flavors — plain, cinnamon-sugared and “everything.”

While its products are certified kosher, they are not kosher for Passover. “We have chosen not to get the kosher for Passover certification because we want our matzo to be a year-round cracker and not just for ritual use,” the website says.

Asked to elaborate, Rodriguez said that for a solemn occasion like the Passover seder, the traditional, plain matzahs may be more appropriate.

Rodriguez told the Brooklyn Eagle that the company’s approach is “culturally based.” Matzo should not be found only in the ethnic foods aisle but in the crackers aisle, “right there among the rosemary pita chips and the gorgonzola fig toast,” the website says.

“When I was a kid,” Rodriguez recalled, “we had to go to the local Lebanese restaurant to get pita chips, which were basically dried pieces of pita. Now, you can go to any supermarket and get pita chips.” He foresees a similar future for matzo.

“Our matzah is made in small batches, and we use no MSG, no artificial colors, no hydrogenated oils, no GMOs,” he said.

Among the stores that carry the Matzo Project, he says, are Zabar’s, Eataly, Whole Foods, Foragers, BKLYN Larder and Shelsky’s of Brooklyn. The company has also found outlets in Canada, England and especially Spain, where two large chains (one called “Taste of America”) carry its eclectic matzo products.

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