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Monday, April 13, 2009

Lotsa Matzoh

I was just reading the back of a Manischewitz matzoh box, where they are celebrating their 120th anniversary, and I wondered - did they invent the machine matzoh?

A brief Google search brought me to an article from Time magazine last week that answered that and many other matzoh questions:
For thousands of years, the story of matzo remained relatively unchanged. For one week during Passover, observant Jews refrained from any leavened bread product (meaning, anything made from dough that is able to rise), replacing it with irregularly shaped discs of handmade matzo. Orthodox Jews went a step further, eating only shmurah, or "guarded" matzo made from grains that had been watched by a Jewish official from the moment of harvest to ensure that they never came into contact with a liquid that would lead to accidental leavening. According to rabbinic law, once the flour is combined with water, matzo dough must be kneaded, rolled and baked within 18 minutes — otherwise it will begin to rise.

In 1838, a Frenchman named Isaac Singer invented a matzo-dough-rolling machine that cut down on the dough's prep time and made mass production possible. But changes to 3,000-year-old religious traditions never go smoothly, and Singer's invention became a hot-button issue for 19th century Jewish authorities. In 1959, a well-known Ukrainian rabbi named Solomon Kluger published an angry manifesto against machine-made matzo, while his brother-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson, published a defense. Jewish communities around the world weighed in on the issue — arguing that handmade matzo provided kneading jobs for the poor; that the machine made matzo cheap enough that poor people could afford it; that the mitzvah, or good deed, of eating matzo was ruined if a machine was used; that the machine made it easier to abide by the 18-minute rule. These discussions were not resolved quickly — and in some Orthodox communities, not at all.

In 1888, a Lithuanian immigrant named Dov Behr opened the first matzo-making factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. Behr adopted the name Manischewitz, named his factory the B. Manischewitz Company and developed an entirely automated method of matzo production. In advertisements, Manischewitz boasted that "no human hand touches these matzos!" By 1920, he was the world's largest matzo producer — at 1.25 million rectangular, sheetlike matzos a day — but he always adhered to the original kosher rules. As Manischewitz's popularity grew, so did the general perception of matzo. Gone were the lumps and bumps of homemade mazo; machine-made mazo was uniform in size, shape, taste and texture. Manischewitz endured some controversy for his use of machines, but after he spent 13 years studying the Talmud in Jerusalem, even the most hardened traditionalists eventually considered him an acceptable authority on matzo. The Manischewitz family sold the company in 1990 for $42.5 million; the brand is still the most popular type of matzo in the world.

Matzo Facts:

1. A matzo bakery was invited to the 1938 New York World's Fair, but for unknown reasons never appeared.

2. In 1973, Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan shouted, "Man, oh, Manischewitz," the matzo company's slogan, in the middle of his moonwalk.

3. In 2008, competitive-eating champion Joey Chestnut ate 78 matzo balls in eight minutes for a $1,500 prize.

But Time magazine in 2009 is not the only mainstream media to be interested in matzoh. Here's a typically inaccurate but fascinating article from the New York Times, April 4, 1871 (click to enlarge):