Last year I had the pleasure of touring inside Streit's Matzoh factory on the Lower East Side. More recently, as part of the Chassidic Jewish Tours, I visited my second matzoh bakery in a small, non-descript brick building in Crown Heights.
Unlike Streit's, which operates year-round, the Dubrowsky and Tannenbaum (D&T) Matzoh Bakery only makes matzoh from November until the day before Passover. Also unlike Streit's, D&T's matzoh are all hand-made "shmura" matzoh, which means they've been watched and guarded from beginning to end.
You want artisanal? This is artisanal.
Flour is kneaded with water by a young Israeli man whose arms have been strengthened by years of playing the drums. "To the Lubavitch," writes Craig Rosa in a thesis on the subject, "water is commonly seen as a metaphor for passion, desire, and the bodily humors. It is free-flowing, messy, and when it is loose it has an unpredictable will of its own... In order to be worthy of guarded matzoh, the water must be brought under control."
After being so controlled, pieces of the dough go onto a long table covered with brown paper where they are rolled flat by Russian women wielding wooden dowels.
While photographs were permitted, we had been instructed prior not to photograph the women, as they recall a lifetime under KGB rule, where soldiers with machine guns might burst in and shoot them just for making matzoh. Although they understand life is different in Russia today, their fear of a photograph falling into the wrong hands is still compelling.
After being rolled out, the matzoh is punched with holes to keep it from rising and becoming leavened, or Hametz. At Streit's, this is done automatically on a long conveyor belt, but at D&T it is a task performed by a single man with a handheld device. One man also bakes the matzoh, feeding it by hand into a wood- and coal-fueled oven.
The whole bakery is essentially a single room and it smells deliciously of burning wood and baking bread. A tabby cat steps among the scraps that fall to the floor, hunting for mice. On the mostly bare, khaki-colored walls, photos of the Rebbe smile down on the bakers.
The entire process of making matzoh must be completed in 18 minutes, after which it ceases to be unleavened. In addition, every 18 minutes everything the matzoh touches must be cleansed or replaced--including the wooden rolling pins, which are sanded and inspected to ensure they are free of stray bits of 19-minutes-old matzoh.
At the end, the round matzoh comes out burned at the edges and brittle. It's thinner than the matzoh you get from Streit's. Being hand-made, it's uneven. Some are broken. It's loaded into a wooden cart and rolled out to a rabbi in a gray beard. He weighs it out, wraps it in paper, and ties it with string.
Tonight, all that matzoh will vanish at Seder tables around the city and around the world. The bakery will be quiet and still, left to the mice to forage for stray bits of Hametz left unswept by the painstaking clean-up crew. Then, in November, the kneaders and rollers, hole-punchers and bakers will return, and the cycle begins all over again.