The origins of matzah may be a lot older than you think. Religiously, of course, matzah begins as last-minute preparation for our ancestors’ escape from Egypt, but unleavened flatbreads go back much further. Recent lab analyses of clay potsherds from a tel in Jordan revealed ancient breadcrumbs—specifically unleavened ones –from well over 10,000 years ago, before the first known cultivation of grain. Flatbread is light, quick to bake on a flat surface over a tiny scrub fire, easy to carry and it keeps well even when stale. It’s the staple of people on the move.
Physically, matzah isn’t all that different from other modern-day flatbreads either. Chappatis and tortillas are also unleavened and cooked quickly over small fires. Some flour tortillas are even called “pan de semites”—Jewish bread, the disguised matzah used by crypto-Jews in Mexico. In Persian and other Silk Road communities, the traditional round matzot are thicker than Western ones and pricked before baking so they don’t puff up much or make pockets, but they come out soft like the workaday pita, naan, and laffa flatbreads. Even standard Western matzah is still a bit pliable when it first emerges from the oven, and crisps up as it cools.
However, one of the key requirements for making matzah ever since has been kavvanah, or intent, to make unleavened bread specifically in commemoration for Passover. In other words, you can’t just make it by accident or use ordinary unleavened bread that happens to be lying around. Every step, from guarding the grain in the field to letting the spring water (traditionally, the cleanest water available) settle for 24 hours, and especially the 18-minute time limit for mixing and baking, keeps you mindful of the purpose of matzah—the urgency to grab up whatever dough you have on hand (“matzui”, “easily found”), even if it’s not ready to bake, so that you can be ready to flee. In one way it seems like a game, all these formal, artificially imposed rules, but the deeper meaning is that people’s lives are more important than perfect bread and we can’t afford to forget it.
Throughout most of our history, and even into the 1960s in some communities, matzah was a hands-on product. Families would go to their synagogue’s newly kashered communal oven on the afternoon before the first seder to bake their supplies of matzah. Haggadot from several centuries and countries from eastern Europe to India show men and women working side by side, dividing tasks to work faster and produce enough of the round, flat matzot to last them the week.
The square, mechanically-produced, sealed-for-your-protection cracker we recognize as matzah today is actually only 180 or so years old, a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Amid the upheaval of the French and American revolutions and the Napoleonic wars that followed, many Jews in Europe were migrating to the bigger cities when they weren’t leaving for America altogether. City synagogues on both sides of the Atlantic couldn’t keep up with the growth. From the late 1700s on, they started contracting out to professional kosher bakers or renting dedicated space in a larger city bakery the week before Passover. It had been tradition at Purim to collect “ma’ot hittim,” donations to help the poor purchase Passover wheat, but that was no longer enough with high postwar grain prices.
In 1837, a French Jew by the name of Isaac Singer introduced the first matzah-rolling machine, basically a hand-cranked pasta roller the size of a Gutenberg-style printing press. It made lighter, thinner and more even sheets of dough that cost less to produce—no surprise then that it quickly took off in cities from Pressburg to Prague. There were hot debates over kashrut, the ability of a machine to convey intent, and the displacement of poor women laborers in matzah bakeries, but most of these were quickly overcome. It wasn’t long before Jewish immigrants in America—the Horowitzes, Streits and Goodmans in New York City, and most notably Behr Manischewitz in Cincinnati in the 1850s—introduced machine-rolled matzah.
Matzah’s incredible success story pops up every April in magazines from The New Yorker to FastCompany, Professor Jonathan Sarna’s famous 2005 lecture at Brandeis University gives fascinating details on the development of matzah as a worldwide industry, complete with advertising, marketing outreach to rabbinical authorities and an impressive array of patents—the Manischewitz family alone held more than 50 by the 1920s. In the past 20 years, Chabad bakers have also repopularized handmade shmurah matzah on a national scale using many of Behr Manischewitz’s outreach techniques, this time approaching the larger Jewish public. Humor pieces, think pieces, business, recipes, archeological research–any way you roll it, matzah is hot.
And yet—are we losing sight of the need for intent? What are we really supposed to remember? “Matzah” shows up in Hebrew dictionaries as matzah, the bread, but also as “strife.” We think we know what that means. Most of our history has been short periods of peace and plenty punctuated by persecution and exile. But the reality mostly remains as family stories or literary accounts, and the sharper edges wear down as time passes. What’s missing is not the easily grasped sense of upheaval or violence, which are vivid and memorable, but the weary descent of whole communities into starvation as food sources dwindled. Famine drives nearly every exile and hunger dogs all refugees, but that flight is often a much slower process than depicted in most stories. Without feeling it, we can’t really appreciate how dearly Jews in every age have clung to matzah as a symbol of their own worth, identity and ability to survive, baking often literally underground in defiance of government bans. Jews in the Soviet Union distributed matzah, siddurim and haggadot in secret, risking jail as late as the 1960s and ‘70s.
My grandfather lived through the pogroms as a child in Ukraine. While I was searching online for the history of matzah-baking in the shtetls, I suddenly remembered the memoir he’d finally written in his 80s, when I was in college. Had he said anything about matzah-baking in Savran? I’d read an early draft but hadn’t read the copy on my shelf.
The matzah-baking comes early on, a bright memory of the town’s bustling market days before the war—gypsy wagons, horse-trading, geese and ducks, fruit and vegetables, hand-shake deals.
“In the back streets of the Jewish quarter there were other wonders. In the spring, mornings could be spent outside the bakery inhaling the delights of matzos being baked for Passover. When the stern, long-kaftaned baker emerged to scatter us (for matzo-baking was a solemn religious observance requiring meticulous supervision), there was the yard of the shokhet to go to…”
It was not to last. Pogroms had been sporadic until the Bolshevik Revolution, and then became a horrifying constant. When Grandpa’s family left Savran, just as in ancient Egypt, non-Jewish peasant neighbors sheltered them and others helped smuggle many more Jews into Romania. But each stage of the escape took months, and each setback cost them dearly. Grandpa always told us he spent much of his last winter on the road, at age 12 or 13, eating nothing but mamaliga, cornmeal mush, and got pellagra. It was always just a detail—spring came, they got out, he recovered. His memoir went much deeper. All over Russia and Ukraine, he realized later, soldiers had trampled fields. A full year of missed crops, farmers reduced to eating seed grain and slaughtering dairy cattle for meat. It showed in his daily life.
“Each week there was simply less in the marketplace…The migrant families were using up their resources, eating less each day, visibly starving. Among these ghost-like wanderers were a number of former neighbors from Savran…I remember the indignation my sister and I felt that, hungry as we were, we had to share our food with others. But mother shamed us with recollections of feasts and good times shared with these very people at our home or theirs in times of plenty…What we lived through in Kamenka was evidently representative of the entire Ukraine—a land of plenty grinding down to bare fields with millions starving.”
This is what we’re meant to remember—not just the hunger itself but how we survived it together, not least by sharing with others in need. The unexpected help from neighbors and complete strangers is something we must figure out how to pay forward, because there is never a time without hunger.
|• All quotes above are taken from Oh Say, Can You See: Chaos, and a Dream of Peace, by Abraham Gootnick (1987, University Press of America).|
DEBORAH NOBLE IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.