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Crown Heights Matzo Makers Take Handmade to the Extreme for Passover

By Sonja Sharp | March 21, 2013 6:55am

CROWN HEIGHTS — There's handmade — and then there's Pinny.

Faster than a Magic Bullet Blender and stronger than KitchenAid, the muscular Israeli baker spends his months between November and March mixing thousands of pounds of matzo that will grace Passover tables from Melbourne to Mombasa with nothing but his hands.

There is virtually no difference between the small unmarked Crown Heights Shmurah Matzah Bakery on Albany Avenue where Pinny works, and the small unmarked bakeries in western Russia — where matzo is made today the way it was 100 years ago — except for the occasional earbud worn by bakers and the endlessly ringing telephone.

"When you walk into this place, you don't feel like you're in 2013," said Chana Tenenbaum, whose family has owned the bakery since it opened more than 50 years ago. "The way it's baked here is the same way it would have been." 

Matzo is simple stuff — flour, water, fire and a pinch of faith. Jews believe this was the same food the ancient Israelites took with them when they fled bondage in Egypt, and strict rules govern its manufacture to ensure the flatbread hews as closely as possible to its ancestor.

Though the square supermarket matzo most New Yorkers are familiar with is made on ultra-modern machines expertly calibrated to ancient law, many observant families rely on bakeries like the Tenenbaums' for handmade "shmura" matzo, made from wheat that has been guarded for Passover purity from the moment it was harvested until the finished product is sold.  

"There's a few places in Brooklyn that do this — a handful," said Shmaya Haskelewich, who runs the bustling register, where a melange of Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and English echoes between workers and customers. "It's special. The Rebbe [Chabad-Lubavitch spiritual leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson] baked here."

The long, narrow bakery is the size of a typical railroad apartment. In front, the finished flatbreads are separated for quality (only flawless specimens may be used during the ritual Passover seder), weighed and packaged for pick-up or shipping. Packages of broken matzo are sold at a lower price to be eaten during the rest of the eight-day holiday. 

In a cramped hallway just behind the way station, Pinny waits for the signal that another 18-minute production cycle is about to begin. He steps into a shoulder-wide vestibule whose sole contents are a mirror-shined metal bowl.

A hand appears through a slot in the wall to the left of the bowl, pouring an expertly measured cup of flour. Under the supervision of a rabbi, the baker makes a well in the flour while another hand with a measuring cup of water appears from a slot on the opposite side. The clock starts the moment the water hits the flour.

This is where Pinny's muscles come from — the bowl clangs under the pressure of his hands, moving too fast to see as they churn the two ingredients into a heavy dough. Within seconds, the solid mass is scooped up and transferred to a station in the next room, where another baker forms it into a long cylinder, the ends of which are cut and divided among more than a dozen babushka-clad Bukharian women who roll it into paper-thin rounds.

Using dowels, the matzos are transferred to another station, where two more bakers punch holes  across them to allow steam to escape when they're fired — a process that takes less than a minute in a brick oven so scorching even the bakers don't quite know how hot it is. 

"The whole thing can only take 18 minutes — once it's past 18 minutes, it's chometz [not kosher for Passover]," Haskelewich said. "They do a few rounds in 18 minutes, but once 18 minutes is up, they change everything."

At the end of the cycle, the materials are scrubbed and sanded for any trace of dough. Fresh paper covers the tables. Plastic gloves and aprons are thrown away.

For the last two weeks before the holiday, the whole process goes into overdrive.

"We bake from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.," Tenenbaum said. "We're looking to come into [Passover] and have no matzo left."