Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Matzah, soft like pita, from a house locked tight 364 days a year

We were living in Yerushalayim in the spring of '01.  Pesah was my chance to take Michal and the kids to see the flurry of activity in a hand-made matzah bakery in action. 
When I was at the Hebrew U back in '72, wandering through the back alleys of Me'ah She'arim a few days before Pesah, I found an amazing old stone matzah bakery.  
With flawless timing and precise choreography, sweating black-clad men with beards covered in flour moved in a well-practiced assembly line.  
In the dim and dusty light, one scooped flour and another mixed in water.  Another took the dough, pulled off just the right-sized bits and passed them onto a long table with guys on both sides.  Two guys hand-rolled the bits into balls and passed them on.  A whole line of guys on each side of the table with wooden rolling pins pressed the dough and passed it down the line until it was flat.  In a flash, other guys ran a prickly roller over them to poke little perforations in them so they wouldn't even think of rising and then hung them in a row over long, long wooden poles.  Still other guys then swung the poles around and, reaching deep into stone ovens, laid down the soon-to-be matzahs on its smooth stone floor so they could bake and be snatched back out again on a long-handled paddle like a pizza baker's -- להבדיל.  

All in less than eighteen minutes from the moment the water touches the flour until the dough is baked -- or else it's not kosher for Pesah.  That's the rule.

I remembered exactly where it was 28 years earlier.  A few days before Pesah, I followed my memories and went back there to find out the best time to bring my family to watch -- and it was gone!  Closed.  Gornish!  Not happening.  They don't do it like that any more!

מה לעשות -- What to do?

One old guy in Mahaneh Yehudah told me to go the night before Pesah to an old stone house on the corner just a few blocks away at Ussishkin Street #60.  Iraqi Kurdish Jews in the neighbourhood keep that house locked up 364 days a year.  No one goes in; no one comes out.  Only on the day before Pesah do they turn the lock and open the door.  They come in, bake their matzah and lock it up until the next year.  
The night before Pesah, we went.  
Come through the door with us and see what we found.

In the hub-bub of activity, a young boy scoops up flour and passes it to his grand-dad sitting in a chair behind him, a big basin between his knees.  The flour is shmurah -- שמורה -- carefully watched and guarded from the moment the wheat was harvested in the field, as it was milled and bagged, right up to this moment.  No water or other moisture whatsoever had come in contact with it -- until just now.  That's the defining characteristic of shmurah matzah.

Then, an older brother pours in the water drawn from a well and kept still overnight.  Someone starts to keep time.  In eighteen minutes the matzah must be baked.  The the older man massages flour and water into a dough.

A younger man takes the whole dough and begins to flatten it out.  The hand-written sign on the wall declares:
כל פרורי חמץ שיפלו אחר זמן
הכיעור הרי הם כעפרא דארעא!א

All bits of hametz that fall after the time of the
basin are as the dust of the earth!

Any bits of dried dough that stick to a table or cling to someone's hands are hereby declared to be ownerless just like the dust of the earth.  They belong to no one.  Consequently, they are not the property of any Jews and do not violate the religious prohibition against any Jews owning hametz.

Another man cuts the dough into right-sized pieces, weighs them on a scale and then puts them on a long table for other guys to roll into balls.

The sign on the wall behind them says,

"לשם מצת מצוה 
for matzah for the mitzvah"

After the balls of dough were rolled flat, this woman marked each one with "סימנים" -- simanim or signs.  She made straight lines on the matzah, either one line, two or three.  I asked her why, what were the simanim for?  She said she had no idea but that's what they always do and they have to do it.  Never heard of "signs" on the matzah?  Ask the rabbi, she said.
He's right here, with the white shirt and black pants.  
The rabbi was only too happy to explain.  One line is "Yisrael", two is "Levi" and three is "Kohen".  That is still a custom that I haven't heard of anywhere else.  But then, what do I know? 

After the matzahs got their simanim, it was time to roll them with prickly rollers to make the little perforations that prevent rising.

And, quick, into the oven!  The ovens are large vertical clay pots set into an earthen counter and heated from the bottom -- just like a tandoori oven or a tabun.  The baker wears gloves and has a round pad.  The rabbi takes a soon-to-be matzah and briskly inspects it.  Simanim?  Check!  Perforations?  Check!  And then the rabbi puts it on the baker's pad.  The baker, in one swift sweep, slaps the still-sticky disk of dough onto the inside wall of the oven.  In moments, it bakes and, as it dries, begins to slowly peel off the wall of the oven.  The baker has to reach in at exactly the right instant to snatch it off the wall before it peels off completely and falls down into the bottom of the oven.

Out of the oven less than eighteen minutes from the water hitting the flour, the finished product is soft and floppy, just like a pita without a pocket.  It smells delicious.  

These Iraqi Kurdish Jews sell it right away.  Neighours line up in the street deep into the night, eager to buy it though a window, take it home for their seders the next night when, from windows, balconies and open doors all over Jewish Jerusalem is heard
"הא לחמא עניא . . .  
Ha lahma 'anya --  
This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the Land of Mitzrayim . . . 
all who are hungry, come and eat."

Intermarriage and babies . . . my decision thirteen years ago bears very sweet fruit

A little more than thirteen years ago, I got a call from a Jewish dad with a non-Jewish wife and brand new baby twins.  Would I help arrange a bris and mikvah to “convert” their baby boys? No other rabbi in town would do it and the mohel wouldn’t do a bris for these boys either.
I get calls often from parents – Jewish dad, gentile mom – wanting to bring their children into the full embrace of the Jewish people and securely under the wings of the Shechinah. It’s common nowadays. 
So, why would no other rabbi agree to this? What’s the problem?
Bob explained. Lisa is actively Christian – not just non-Jewish as many Jewish men’s wives are these days, but actually involved in her church and really, truly a Christian. No rabbi would “convert” the babies if their mom was actively Christian. Everyone said it would confuse the children and you could not raise Jewish kids in a home where one parent – davka the mother – is committed to another religion – davka Christianity. It won’t work; they’ll have no part of it.
Bob added that Lisa deeply wants her boys to be Jews and has no wish for them to be Christian -- but wouldn’t give up her own religion in order to accomplish that.
He waited for my reply.
I thought about it.
I had never been asked this before.
We talked. Deep in my kishkas, I knew that Bob was sincere. I couldn’t guarantee that these babies would grow up to live an integral Jewish life – I didn’t even know these people and I can’t guarantee that about my own children -- but I certainly wanted to give this family a chance to see how it would work. So many people with Jewish heritage and identity don’t pursue any Jewish life. At least, I could help them give it a try.
I remembered receiving a teaching from Rabbi Gershon Winkler that the great medieval commentator Rashi said any rabbi can say no but it takes creativity and courage to find a legitimate and honest way to say yes. I knew that there is no technical problem with a bris and a mikvah when both parents are committed to raising Jewish children. It’s the follow through that other rabbis don’t trust. Something told me I could trust -- or at least give the benefit of a doubt.  "דן על כף זכות"  So, I said, “Let’s do it. I’m honoured you’ve asked and I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”
I called the only non-Orthodox mohel in the Vancouver area, Dr. Neil Pollock, who deferred to my judgment. 
A few days later, we celebrated the bris in Bob and Lisa’s home with great joy and a little crying by both the babies and their parents. Later, we took the babies to the mikvah. Bob immersed their little baby bodies in the living waters of the mikvah, we said the brachas and the Shema and they came out as kosher Jewish baby boys with their whole futures wide open ahead of them. It remained to be seen how Bob and Lisa would raise them.
And, that was that. 
I never heard from them again . . .
. . . until six and half years later, now six and half years ago.
Bob called. Did I remember him?
Well, the boys are both in grade 2 at the Richmond Jewish Day School. One of them, David, loves to wear tsitsis and payes. They’d like to visit. They came to Kabbalat Shabbat. I was amazed. David sang Lecha Dodi with all his heart and soul. Bob and David came again and again to Kabbalat Shabbat, always bringing the most delicious kosher knishes! In addition, they went to Chabad as well as Beth Tikvah, the Conservative synagogue in Richmond. As the years went by, Bob and Lisa planned their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies on Masada in Israel. And now, they’ll come and celebrate with us at Ahavat Olam this coming Shabbat by leyning from the Torah and Haftarah.
I am very gratified that my initial willingness to trust Bob and Lisa has proven to be so very correct. Andrew is proud and happy to be a Jew, perhaps more than most young Jews his age. David’s neshamah soars with his Jewishness. He says he wants to be a rabbi. I won’t be surprised if that’s what he does.
I am thankful to my own guides and teachers – Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the theorists of the Reconstructionist movement and others – for preparing me for my own integrity and clarity thirteen years ago. And, I hope that more and more of us rabbis will become more open and trusting in similar situations in the future.
Come and join us on Shabbat this week. Hear David and Andrew leyn. And, leave the potluck at home!  Lunch is Bob and Lisa's treat.