Shmurah’s Back-Alley Road To Seders
search

Shmurah’s Back-Alley Road To Seders

Hand-made matzah and the high price of freedom.

Associate Editor

Pieces of wood are pitched into a brick oven, licked by other-worldly orange flames. Some 30 workers, faces aged and weathered, keep kneading and rolling dough in the matzah bakery on Albany Avenue in Crown Heights, as narrow and long as a two-room railroad flat, its painted walls as faded and colorless as fog. As the matzah is made, each batch in less than 18 minutes, one hears, “L’shem matzot mitzvah” (“We are doing this for the sake of the mitzvah of matzah.”) There is nothing modern here, even the water for the dough is drawn not from a tap but from rainwater or fresh water. It is like a speakeasy, no one enters who doesn’t know where he’s going. There’s no sign on the door, no name, and a metal sheet covers the window facing the street.

Trying to figure the business of shmurah matzah is like watching Elijah’s cup for his sip; now you see it, now you don’t. Shmurah matzah, as with its autumnal cousin, the esrog, is spiritually exquisite, yet its pricing is as inexplicable as a Middle Eastern bazaar or voodoo economics. People in the know tell us that the matzah is too often made by non-unionized workers, transients and migrants. Even experts in the kosher business have no idea what the workers are paid. The ingredients are nothing but flour and water. The only real yet limited expense are the rabbis who watch (shmurah means watching, or guarding) the matzah from the time of the harvest. (Machine matzah is usually watched from the time of milling). It is hard to imagine a product with cheaper ingredients or cheaper labor. And yet, Chabad’s most affordable shmurah exports, which come from Kfar Chabad in Israel and in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, sell here for $12.99 and $14 for one-pound boxes. But on the shelves of several Brooklyn kosher supermarkets this week, non-Chabad shmurah matzah sells for $19, $23, $32, even $40, sometimes $50 a pound. A five-pound non-shmurah machine-made package of Streit’s is $11, or $2.20 per pound.

In recent years there have been many complaints in the Orthodox community about “price gouging,” and the “highway robbery” of shmurah prices. There have been calls for boycotts, a return for charedim to the cheaper but equally kosher machine-made matzah (between $2 and $3), and for the rabbinate to assert its authority and impose price controls on ritual items necessary for the Jewish community.

As for the higher costs, Menachem Lubinsky, the executive of Lubicom, the marketing firm specializing in kosher foods, said that for all the complaints on price, “Hand-[made] shmurah, to people, is sort of a higher brand, and they’re paying for it, and they want to pay for it.”

As for the low cost for Chabad matzahs from Israel and Ukraine, he said, “First of all, the cost of labor and hasgacha [supervision] in some of these markets is cheaper than it is here. One of the complaints of even the domestic machine bakeries is that the Israelis were [sending] matzah here at much cheaper prices, and that it wasn’t a level playing field because the Israelis were able to produce the matzah for less than the American matzahs are produced.”

Nevertheless, Lubinsky admitted that American shmurah were often produced with non-union labor, which would negate the Israeli advantage in labor costs. Also, people were buying the Israeli imports not just for price but because the Israeli matzahs “are quality and people like them. Some people even feel a sense of reward that they are buying Israeli products.”

There is no central address, and no major companies, like Streit’s or Manischewitz, in the shmurah business, and unlike the machine matzah companies that go year-round, shmurah bakeries appear with the first snow and disappear with the thaw, basically from Chanukah to the seder. They seem fly-by-night. Lubinsky says of shmurah, “It’s a seasonal business.” They seem back-alley. Yes, he agrees, “That would describe them pretty well.”

And yet, says Lubinsky, 25 percent of American matzahs are now shmurah, a market growing “by leaps and bounds. Stores that never used to carry shmurah now do: Costco, Shop-Rite, Target, it’s even on Amazon. I hear a Wal-Mart in Chicago is selling shmurah matzah.” Once a mostly chasidic preserve, there are now “some non-chasidic bakeries. Baltimore has one. Los Angeles has one managed by Modern Orthodox Jews.”

Chabad.org reports that the business manager who handles kosher products for Bi-Lo Holdings, which operates supermarkets including the Winn-Dixie chain, says 50 of their stores now carry shmurah. In the Midwest, Jewel-Osco supermarkets report that 100 of their 185 stores now carry shmurah.

In New York, says Lubinsky, “There’s a natural growth in the Orthodox market; you’re feeding a lot more mouths. But what I’m hearing from a lot of retailers is that a lot of non-traditional [Jews] are buying the hand-shmurah, too.”

What is known about the shmurah business, says Lubinsky, is that “there are four or five major bakeries,” primarily in Borough Park, Williamsburg, Lakewood, N.J., and we have a pretty good indication of what their numbers are. They might do anywhere from $2 million to $5 million in sales.”

Shmurah versus machine has been the Hatfield-McCoys of the business. Some of the dispute was halachic (who was more prone to chametz-related error, a machine or a human?), but Gil Marks, author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” wrote that a real concern was “the loss of jobs by poor women and widows who relied on the yearly work of dough rolling, no small matter in the impoverished and restricted climate of eastern Europe.” In general, adds Marks, “Lithuanian rabbis were much less critical of the new technology than their chasidic brethren.”

Shmurah was almost nonexistent in the United States, as were chasidim, until mid-century, but in 1954, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, began a campaign to have Lubavitchers start giving out shmurah matzah at a time when it simply couldn’t be found, and often wasn’t even heard of by American Jews. The rebbe said, “For various reasons, the custom has been discontinued [but] I would ask that the custom of distributing matzah be instituted and that rabbis give shmurah matzah to their congregants.”

The rebbe didn't just ask this of Chabad rabbis but he sent public and personal letters to rabbis around the world to facilitate the rabbanic distribution of shmurah matzah.

The rebbe didn’t have as many shluchim, or emissaries, in 1954 as there are now, but by train and truck from Crown Heights, Jews began getting free shmurah, supplies permitting, along with an education in the spiritual virtues of hand-made shmurah. The custom continues, and this year, for example, some 500 pounds of shmurah are being distributed in Oregon, personally handed out by shluchim and their families. One Chabad rabbi’s son had his bar mitzvah before Passover and more than 60 boxes of shmurah were given out as “party favors.”

In the 1950s, for all that Chabad was doing, the demand was still quite limited. But the demand grew steadily until it rocketed “in the last decade,” said Lubinsky. If not mainstream, shmurah became almost universally used in Orthodox circles, and recognized far beyond that. In 2013, the official White House seder featured shmurah matzah. As recently as the 1970s, most Catskill hotels served machine matzah as their “default” matzah. The Catskill hotels are gone, but in 2015, said Lubinsky, “We counted, in the U.S. alone, around 125 resorts or [Passover] programs, and they are ordering a tremendous amount of shmurah matzah. Prime Group, for example, has several hotels, and about 80 percent of their matzah orders are shmurah.”

Hand-made shmurah seems authentic in its imperfection, all the more authentic precisely for its imperfection. It just looks and tastes, people say, exactly as in the leaving of Egypt.

And yet, the food historian Marks told us (in several conversations before his death in December), that for all the virtues of shmurah, authenticity is not one of them.

Although Passover’s biblical name is Chag HaMatzot (Festival of Matzah), the Torah tells us nothing about what it looked like. There is no halachic prohibition against “authentic” soft matzah, and Marks says that the original matzah was most likely soft. According to softmatza.com, “Soft matzah is the same shmurah matzah that you buy at your local matzah bakery. The only difference is that it is rolled out to be a little thicker and when baked ends up soft instead of crunchy.”

Soft matzah, said Marks, explains the kabbalistic custom of placing the relatively heavy seder plate on top of the matzot, a weight that soft matzah could absorb but would break modern matzah.

Cracker-like matzah, wrote Marks, “was actually a relatively late development, emerging perhaps around the 15th century in Ashkenazic communities,” a change driven by various halachic concerns, such as the problem of baking matzah on Passover, as soft matzah requires because it easily goes stale, while cracker-style could be baked before Passover and easily last the week. Matzah was baked in the home, for most of history, but in the 1700s, writes Marks, the commercial matzah bakery emerged, as the skills and exactitude of matzah baking became more elusive for the general popultion.

Then, as today, Jews imagined themselves as having left Egypt, and imagined their shmurah matzah to have been there, too.

All these years later, in the Albany Street afternoon, wood is fed to the fire and shmurah matzah emerges from the flames. Young chasidic children come in with their father to buy matzah; perhaps that piece, over there, will become the afikomen. Erev Pesach, wrote Sholom Aleichem, “is there a greater pleasure than that?” May it be a pleasure for the lonely and the migrants who bake our matzah as it is for the children who hide it.

Jonathan@jewishweek.org

read more:
comments