Rebbe asked if anybody wanted to go with him to the Matza factory. He promised to bring us there and back, and it would only take a few hours. It could be fun I thought, and it would give me a chance to spend time with him. We could talk about the Lower East Side or maybe topics in Jewish society, who knows. Anyway, the afternoon was free and it would be an experience.
We met outside by the car and it turned out that no one else could go. It was only me and him. I had known that he drove a Cadillac Catera. Usually, this would not have registered in my memory. However, I recalled that Rebbe had always made it a point to tell us that a pulpit rabbi should never be paid by his congregation. Rebbe was not paid by his congregants, but they had bought this car for him as a show of gratitude. On the other hand, a friend of mine, who I always thought was too infatuated with money, had boasted that he loves driving his rich father’s Catera, how smooth it was, how plush it was, and how well it handled and accelerated. This same friend happened to be an atheist and it was a major point of friction between us. He had a general disdain of rabbis, and it had always bothered me. When I asked Rebbe about the car, we waved his hand in disregard and said he missed his old Ford Taurus. He joked that his wife’s used Toyota Corolla was a far better car and that no one even recognized this particular model was a Cadillac. I laughed at the irony, but said nothing.
We did get to shmooze and for the first time, I felt that we were getting closer. After some prodding by me we began to talk about the Lower East Side and even his father’s old shul. His driving was just right for a dignified old man: easy, relaxed, not too slow, but not too fast. Now we were approaching Brooklyn and I began to scan my foreign surroundings. The great Ocean Parkway appeared before us. Mystical Brooklyn.
We pulled up to what can only be described as a shack. I asked Rebbe if this was it, and noticing my disdain, he told me that it only looks this way because the owner didn’t pay property tax. At first, I was shocked, but soon I realized that this was a different world than the one I knew. It was an older world where the Jew has not yet come to fully trust any government, and in an odd way, this was comforting. Rebbe turned off the engine and pulled out a certificate saying he was the official police chaplain of his county and placed it carefully on his dash. Yes, he was proud of it, I sensed.
Rebbe makes Shmura Matza for his whole community. He trusts only himself to oversee this holy work. He explained to us in class that 1400 degrees (the temperature Matza was usually baked at) is too hot, it burns the Matza and leaves it undercooked on the inside. But at 800 degrees things turn out right. Rebbe rents the services of this bakery for a day and tries to make enough Matza for the congregation in the way he sees fit, in accordance with his halachic interpretation. 800 degrees!
As we walked in, everybody seemed to know him; a friendly greeting, a nod, and a hello from here and there followed him. And yet there was urgency in the air, the type of urgency one feels at the Jerusalem Shuk on Friday afternoon. There are mitzvot to be done and the time is short.
It took me time to adjust to my surroundings and I had no idea what I was seeing. At first, I thought the inside was as crummy as the outside, but I came to realize that it wasn’t so. In fact everything inside, though far from neat, was kept precision clean. I came to realize that I was in an actual factory with actual workers. But who were these workers! Forty Russian babushkas lined up in neat pairs of twenty and twenty across one huge long table. These babushkas were no different looking than my own dear babushka. They wore kerchiefs and they were short and round. They spoke a dialect of Russian that, if left alone for a few years would become similar to Yiddish. Ah, I knew these ladies well. They came to me in an instant, rising from my past, gliding through my heritage. Yes, I knew their language and their mannerisms, and though I was never in Russia it seemed to me that I had come back. The rest of the workers were an assortment of Sefardi Jews and Ashkenazi Chassidim who represented, along with the others, the whole spectrum of Judaism.
The Matza factory is basically a mitzvah assembly line. First, water is carefully measured and poured through a small window into flour-filled bowls. The dough then gets kneaded by two strong-armed men who pass the dough to two others. Here these men roll the dough into a long oblong-shaped form. This in turn is placed on the long tables and is sliced up into relatively equal pieces and divided up amongst the women. The women use rollers to roll the dough into round flat shapes. When they are done they give a holler to one of two men who come with a stick and pick up their dough. It is then taken to a table where two other men use a small hand tool to perforate the dough and they, in turn, place their product on one of many long poles. Two other men take these poles, which by now have amassed three or four pieces of dough, and take them to the baker. Here the men wait for the baker’s direction. At his beckoning, they pass their long poles to him and he skillfully (not unlike a pizza maker) places the pieces of dough in the oven. Thirty seconds later, the baker uses a special tool to remove the ready Matza from the oven.
I was put in charge of the next step. I was the checker of the Matza. Rebbe showed me the way to check the Matza in accordance with the Halacha. I would have to make sure that the Matza was not soft at the edges, and that it didn’t have any folds that Chametz could be stored in. I had to make sure that it wasn’t badly burned or misshapen. I had the responsibility of a whole community on my shoulders. If I overlooked something then someone might end up eating Chametz on the Seder night. After I was done sorting the Matza into a large cart, a man came and took it away. He brought the ready batch to the packing room where it was weighed and sold. Only sixty percent of the Matza made it if you were lucky, the rest was chucked because it did not make the grade.
At first my job did not go smoothly. I was not experienced in the ways of the Matza. But soon I found that Matza sense developed within me, and I began to recognize a fine specimen or one doomed for Chametzdom. All the while the heat from the oven rubbed against my face for I worked right beside it. There was no gas in this oven, everything was old-style. Just like a thousand years ago, this oven was coal and wood. The flame inside was clearly visible and though I tied to fend it off, images of the crematoriums filled my head. Fire has a hypnotic and transcendent effect. But here, the fire was of a particularly Jewish character.
Every eighteen minutes a bell would sound and the paper covering the tables would be changed immediately. A commanding but good-humored woman pleasantly hustled people yelling “bistra, bistra (fast, fast)”. At this time all the sticks in use were collected and were replaced by freshly sanded ones. Chametz was the enemy. Matza was our friend. Liquid was disastrous, dryness an ally. A worker approached me and was startled I spoke Russian and within five minutes everybody knew. Eyes turned to stare and I smile back easily. “Where you from, your parents, how do you know Russian, oh you speak it so well,” everybody asked.
I admit I was feeling very sentimental but I had another reason: My grandfather had told me that my great-grandparents were the bread and matza bakers in a Polish town called Avstovtza. This town had a large yeshiva within it and even had a history of great rabbis. It was my family who made the bread and Matza for this town and yeshiva, something right out of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories and Shalom Alechem tales. This past, this distant past, came back to me in this no-income-tax-paid-shack-in-the-middle-of-crazy-Brooklyn. Somewhere in my veins flowed the blood of a Matza-making Jew.
The day was about to end and we had filled our quota for the community’s Matza. Inside the factory was a Jewish world of yesterday, but soon I would get into the Cadillac Catera and drive back into the ultra-modern city, a city with seemingly no past. Many workers asked me if I would return the next day and I felt an urge to respond in the affirmative. I thought to myself that there were still a few days before Pesach and much work to be done.
The car ride home was uneventful and another young man from my class who had met us there took my front passenger seat. When the car stopped in front of my apartment building I reached over to shake Rebbe’s hand, but instead Rebbe took my hand and put it to his cheek. I could fee the stubble of his wiry bearn, and the emotion it was radiating. This small physical gesture was more than I could ever ask for and it would never leave me. He thanked me for my help and I fumbled to explain to him that the thanks was all mine.
We loved Rebbe precisely because was a remnant of the Old World and because he maintained the wry sense of humor and an obstinate view of new-fangled sensibilities. At the same time Rebbe was a great scientist, with a PhD in microbiology, and was unequal in bringing the perspective of halacha to practical questions, especially medical. Yet with all the life and death questions that Rebbe dealt with, he always maintained a an upbeat disposition. He dealt with heavy things yet was never heavy himself.
At the Seder table the Shmura Matza reappeared. It was like an old friend for me. I told my family that Pesach spelled backwards in Hebrew meant revelation and I proceeded to tell the story of the Matza factory. Both my parents related stories of how Matza was made secretly in their time in Russia, and my sister and brother chimed in with a Matza story of their own. The story of Matza is the story of a baton handed down through the ages and I felt lucky to be part of that long chain towards redemption.
In honor the memory of our great and beloved Rebbe, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler ZT”L