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Matzoh, the holiest unleavened bread this side of the Red Sea, is the latest must-have accessory in Williamsburg.
With Passover starting on Monday night, Jews all over the world are stocking up on boxes of the sacred bread of afflication. But for Williamsburg’s growing Hasidic community, only shmura matzoh will do.
All matzohs symbolize the Jews’ flight from Egyptian bondage thousands of years ago, but the circular discs of shmura, which means guarded, is a super-sacred version that is ground, mixed, rolled and baked by hand, not machine.
“Jews believe that matzoh baked within the strictest supervision is the religious way to go,” said attorney Steve Cohn, who shops in Williamsburg for his Passover matzoh. “It is very special and also very expensive, but it is becoming the tradition in Orthodox households.”
On the Tuesday before Passover, the scene at each of the five shmura bakeries in Williamsburg is the same as scores of workers scurry to fill thousands of orders and keep pace with an increasing demand from a growing Hasidic population.
Over the past month, bakeries have been working 24 hours a day in order to prepare between 120,000 and 130,000 pounds of matzoh for Passover. But though the demand keeps rising, the dough never does.
Each bakery serves one of the major Hasidic sects in the neighborhood, such as the Pupa, Kerestir, and bitterly divided Satmar, which have their own schools, shuls and institutions. Even though the sects are different, the process to make matzohs in each bakery is basically the same.
In the summer, wheat and spelt kernels are shipped from farms in Arizona and Long Island to Williamsburg where they are ground by hand into flour. The flour is then mixed in proportions according to the baker’s recipe and stored in a refrigerated room devoid of moisture.
“The wheat has to be stored in a very dry climate. If any water comes on the wheat, it makes it non edible for matzoh,” said Gary Schlesinger, a Satmar leader.
The process from opening the bag of flour to placing the finished dough in the oven is 18 minutes, as required by Talmudic law. Here’s how it goes down step-by-step: A worker tears open the flour bag and pours it out as another baker adds a carefully measured amount of water. The dough is then brought in batches to a long table where dozens of young men swiftly flatten the dough into a thin round pancake.
Bakers carry finished dough on 10-foot wooden sticks into the ovens as a digital clock counts down the 18 minutes. At a temperature close to 700 degrees, the matzohs cook within seconds, before being removed to cool on wooden racks that look unchanged from the 1850s.
In the final step, the matzohs are packed and wrapped to order.
Keeping strictly kosher for Passover will cost you. Each box of matzoh costs between $18 and $23 per pound. According to bakery managers, the average Hasidic family in Williamsburg consumes 15 to 20 pounds of matzoh and one to two pounds of matzoh meal during the holiday, costing close to $500.
“You have to eat it as is, you can’t nosh it,” said Community Board 1 member and Satmar member Simon Weiser, who has been coming to the Satmar Matzoh Bakery at 427 Broadway for 25 years.
“At every meal, you have to make the blessing over two matzohs and for the Seder you need three.”
For Hasidic Jews, the Seder represents a time when the entire family can come together, relax, and rejoice in their heritage, including shmura matzoh. For other religious Jews, the matzoh is a treat and, according to Cohn, maybe even a lesson.
“What does it teach us? Humility. When the dough doesn’t have a chance to rise, when our ego doesn’t have a chance to grow, we should be as humble all year round as the matzoh,” said Cohn.
©2010 Community Newspaper Group
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