31 March 2015

Zrizus: Notes from a Matzah Bakery

The matzah bakery is an overwhelming experience. It is in an unimproved basement, rough as a factory can be, half-painted and in shambles. In this concrete labyrinth are chasidim in their shirtsleeves and aprons, and other visitors: little boys in long coats and long payes and those beautiful velvet caps whose name I always forget.

The kneading room: three gleaming silver kneading pins hinged to gleaming silver tables, operated by hydraulic pumps. The noise of the chasidim banging these down and the pumps slamming them back up is sufficiently loud that some of the workers in this room wear protective headphones. Others do not: their ears swim in the holy racket of matzah-making.

At a fourth gleaming silver table, one man rolls the dough out into logs, and a second slices it with a knife (curled at the top into a self-handle) into parcels, weighs them, and throws them deftly through the air into the next room.

In the next room, women stand at a long silver table covered in paper, rolling with wooden pins, those perfect parcels into perfect circles. The individuality of this process is striking. One elderly woman stands and rolls, firmly and simply, as if she has done nothing else since 1936; another has made almost a dance of it. There is an air of incongruity about the group – all of these women engaged in labor together; where are their families? --I ask my husband who these women are and he says the custom is to hire widows. Above the table, a rack of fresh rolling pins. At the end of the shift the women will send the current ones to be sanded. The rolling pins will narrow from sanding over the months of matzah-making.

A man comes round with a paper-wrapped pole; the women flip the matzos off their rolling pins onto it.

He swings the pole round to another table, where one man rolls a shining reddler (perforator) over the matzos, once and back again; zip-zip! the sound is like an electronic vibration. Across the table, his fellow hangs the matzos on a fresh paper-wrapped pole. There is much laughter surrounding this man as he brings in a fresh load of poles and pours them into the rack above his head.

A beckoning: we may step into the next room.

A chasid thrusts the matzah-laden pole through a small doorway into a large oven of white-glazed bricks and twirls the pole to lay the matzos on the oven floor. Beside them, the fire neither flickers nor licks at the piled logs but rolls up them in earnest. It is 1000-something degrees Fahrenheit, by the thermometer.

The chasid loading the oven thrusts each unloaded pole behind him expertly, not looking, and it sails into a narrow trough, its paper now smoking or, occasionally, afire. Glowing bits of paper fly into the air. If nothing else in this room is inflammable, still it seems as if those sparks would ignite the very clatter of the operation. A worker strips the paper from the pole into a bin and inserts the pole into a pole-twirling machine to wind on fresh paper. On the wall behind him, a machine-operated wheel endlessly unspools paper for this purpose.

The matzos are done – the chasid at the oven flips them, smoking, into a wagon. Another chasid wearing thick gloves arranges them in neat rows. When the wagon is full they will be boxed.

The shift ends – the chasid at the oven passes by and I see that he is wearing two sets of sleeves, one sooty, the other nearly black with his good work.

It could be 200 years ago, it could be a Kacyzne photograph; what happens in this room is not confined to time.

It is time for Mincha – my husband is swept into the crowd of men; the women remove their gloves and collect their rolling pins. The men are in the next room talking to G-d. The paper on the tables is changed. Then boom, boom, like the drums of Tolkien's Moria but o so much nobler, one by one the kneading pins start up again.

A contemporary description of the beis hamikdash flutters into my mind, like one of those glowing bits of paper: an image of the kohanim, or was it the leviim, passing from hand to hand a gold vessel, then a silver, then a gold, then a silver, a dazzling array in perfect synchronization. This matzah bakery is the closest thing to the beis hamikdash that I have ever witnessed.
(OK, the Jewish home is.)

No one rushes. Whistles blow, clocks display the time, the matzos have to be in and out of the oven within 18 minutes of the water hitting the flour – time is absolutely of the essence – but no one rushes. They do good work in good time, lshem matzos mitzvah, they smile, there is a little kibbitzing, anyone is welcome to walk through and watch. The people working are focused with all the powers of human focus. There is no haste.

The instinct to feel at home in this modest but great enterprise is overpowering. I told my husband I want to become hasidic and take up smoking. I don't; I have just fallen in love with a matzah factory. This is a thing exactly as it is meant to be. If you painted that factory, if you cleared the hall corners, if you did your very best to make the place look respectable, let alone beautiful – you could not make it any lovelier than it is already.

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