As Passover approaches, longtime OU kosher supervisor sounds alarm on Manischewitz


Three days before the beginning of Passover, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a veteran mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for the Orthodox Union (OU), filed a lawsuit against Manischewitz and the OU, saying he can no longer stand behind the kosher status of the Manischewitz products he has supervised for 20 years, including its Passover matzos.

“I believe this is a breach of public trust. I just couldn’t handle it,” Horowitz told the Journal on April 21, two days after he filed suit in the New York State Supreme Court.

Within the kashrut world, and particularly when it comes to Manischewitz, Horowitz is seen as a knowledgeable authority. The OU website’s “

“Rhapsody in Schmaltz”: Matzah and Michael Wex


'There are those who say that God gave us cardboard so that we could describe the taste of matzoh, but taste is what matzoh is not about,” Michael Wex writes in his new book, “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It.” 

“Rhapsody” is Wex’s provocative meditation on the crucial role food plays in keeping Jews Jewish. At the heart of his argument lies Passover, a holiday whose central ritual revolves around a meal that is festive and reflective, concrete and symbolic.

For Wex, the matzo is the ultimate Jewish food, in its originality, its longevity and its symbolism. “An aftertaste of oppression at a feast of deliverance,” is how he describes it.

In focusing our attention not on taste or — heaven knows, flavor — the matzo is the ultimate “brain food” — it forces you to think. In the excerpt below, Wex describes the starring role matzos play at the seder table, and how a dry cracker proved crucial to shaping and maintaining a people.'


While few contemporary seders are as momentous as the first, those that follow the traditional ritual are largely devoted to reinforcing the attitudes and beliefs that that seder was there to encourage. A sacrifice designed to distinguish Israelites from Egyptians has developed into an annual all-you-can-eat, semi-open bar symposium on the Exodus and its meaning. Like any proper symposium — the word means “drinking together” in Greek — it starts off with a glass of wine, after which the chief symposiast, generally known as Dad or Zeyde — Yiddish for grandpa — points to the three matzohs stacked before him and declares, in an Aramaic that he might not understand, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” For the next few hours, you’re his. 

Michael Wex. Photo by Zöe Gemelli

The length of the seder depends on the leader’s frame of mind, the size of the group, and the number of timeouts needed to threaten or cajole increasingly restive children, whose levels of boredom-stoked hunger rise in proportion to the adults’ interest in reciting and discussing the text of the Hagaddah, the ritual GPS — “Raise glass here”; “Dip finger in wineglass now” — that is part program, part menu, part interpretive overview of the Exodus. Hagaddah means narrative, and the ritual that it both embodies and describes is devoted to explaining why you’re going to eat that matzoh, even as you start to despair of when. You look at it, you hold it up, you point to it and discuss its history — but it’s a long time before you get to eat it. And even then, you don’t just cram it into your mouth; if you don’t follow the proper procedure — an olive’s worth from each of the top two matzohs in the stack, eaten as you lean to your left after Dad has made the blessing — you might as well watch the hockey game. The matzoh is the climax; the endless waiting and arguing and rehearsal of minority opinions the casuistic Kama Sutra that gets you there.

The matzoh is followed by an equally obligatory appetizer of bitter herbs, anything from Romaine lettuce or arugula to the traditional, if halachically suspect, horseradish, strong enough to call forth tears, but not so potent as to raise any gorges. The chosen herb is dipped into charoses, a paste of walnuts, apples, cinnamon, and wine meant to remind us of the bricks and mortar with which the Egyptians embittered our ancestors’ lives. One final appetizer follows, a party sandwich that fulfills the commandment in Exodus 12:8 about eating matzoh and bitter herbs together. Finally — at ten, ten-thirty, or even later — the menu blossoms into a lavish, less over-determined supper that my family always started with hard-boiled eggs in salt water — a little treat for the kids — after which the second half of the Hagaddah is recited.

This primal Jewish meal has more to do with discussion than digestion; you’re meant to feed your head, not stuff your face. The real treat isn’t dinner, which is only standing in for the Paschal sacrifice that can’t be offered before the Messiah arrives; the gustatory high point is the matzoh. Tension is supposed to build, the participants are supposed to get more and more anxious, more and more involved in the story, attaining release only when the leader distributes the matzoh, recites the usual blessing over the bread and follows it up with a special, seder-only benediction, “On the eating of matzoh.” Then, and only then, does mouth meet matzoh, and longing — fulfillment.

It doesn’t matter what it tastes like, we’ve been jonesing for it, especially since matzoh is otherwise banned on the day of the seder, and bread — if you can find any — has been off-limits since midmorning. It isn’t really nourishment that we crave — we invented Yom Kippur, we know from not eating — but a Jew loves matzoh like it was sweet jelly roll:

Matzoh is forbidden all day on the eve of Passover, as our sages have told us: “He who eats matzoh on Passover eve is like a man who has sex with his fiancée in her father’s house” [Yerushalmi Pesokhim, 10:1]. Our sages have decreed that anyone who has sex with his fiancée while she is still a ward of her father is to be flogged for his willful disregard of proper standards of behavior: in displaying his lust, he shows himself lecherous and lewd, unable to restrain himself long enough to hear the Seven Blessings with her beneath the wedding canopy. So does he who eats matzoh on Passover eve display his lust and his gluttony, his inability to restrain himself and wait until nighttime and the seven blessings that must be pronounced before eating matzoh … and he is likewise to be flogged for his willfulness.

It is hard to imagine how something so lacking in the usual attributes of good eating — things like taste, texture, and aroma — could arouse such passion, but matzoh is more than mere food; it’s the essence of Judaism — what Yiddish calls dos pintele yid, the irreducible nub of Jewishness — wrapped up in a biscuit. Mordechai Yoffe, the late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century author of the passage just quoted, is expressing the standard idea that even the coarsest, most uncouth Jew can see through the fripperies of moistness and flavor to the real essence of this Diana Prince of the bake pan. Lust he might, but for the freedom of yidishkayt, of Jewishness, in all its crunchy, nutlike splendor. The matzoh-hound looks past the matzoh’s workaday exterior to the divine spark that makes it what it is; instead of the crudest imaginable cracker, he sees an edible image of his soul, a crispy, immediately tangible version of his spiritual genome, and nothing’s going to keep him from it. Without matzoh there would be no Jews, the Torah would have stayed in heaven, and no one would ever have heard of kosher. 

Michael Wex is the author of fiction and nonfiction books and a speaker on Yiddish language and culture. He lives in Toronto.

Cruz takes a shot at matzah baking in Brooklyn


Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz on Thursday tried his luck at baking matzah as he seeks to earn the support of the Jewish community and compete for delegates in the New York primary later this month.

Flanked by Jewish community leaders and guided by Rabbi Moshe Winner of Chabad Neshoma Center, Cruz toured the Chabad Model Matzah Bakery in Brighton Beach. The Model Matzah Bakery at Chabad Neshoma Center in Brooklyn is one of hundreds run by Chabad-Lubavitch, around the world, to teach children about Passover in an interactive, hands-on way.

After posing for pictures, Cruz joined a group of young kids and started rolling a matzah. As he was rolling the matzah, Cruz told one the community leaders that were accompanying him that the story of the exodus is familiar to him and that he was privileged to attend several seders in the past.

Chaskel Bennett, a local community leader and board member of Agudath Israel of America toldJewish Insider that he chatted with the Texas Senator at the dough table, telling him that the Jewish story of survival has been an ongoing ‎saga for generations, “And this special country has ‎allowed and encouraged our people to flourish and stay true to our heritage because of the religious freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.‎” To which Cruz responded that he has made it his mission to protect religious freedom in the United States.

“It’s hole-y matzo,” Cruz joked as he observed that the matzah rolled by a girl aside him had many holes. Cruz was then offered to put the matzah in the oven, as he asked about the difference between this oven and a pizza oven.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” Cruz said at one point, a phrase that is recited at the conclusion of a Seder. When told that because Passover had not yet come, the appropriate phrase would be “this year in Jerusalem” at this stage, Cruz remarked, “Well, next year in Jerusalem, hopefully I’ll need a bigger plane to get there.”

Cruz then took a bite of the fresh baked matzah as some in the crowd started singing “Dayenu.”

As he exited the building, Cruz was met with cheers from the crowd – mostly Orthodox Jewish supporters and onlookers – gathered outside. “Jews for Cruz,” several Hasidic men yelled.

“We are fortunate to enjoy tremendous support in the Jewish community here in New York and across the country,” Cruz told Jewish Insider. “I think that’s the result of having built a long record – fighting to strengthen our relationship with the nation of Israel and fighting to defend religious liberty.”

Asked if he expects to see his steadfast support of Israel pay off with votes in the April 19 primary, Cruz said, “I certainly hope so. It the right thing to do so, regardless, but I would be grateful if it also earned the support of many people in New York and elsewhere.”

Cruz faces an uphill battle in the New York primary. According to a new Monmouth poll, Trump has the support of 52 percent of likely GOP voters in New York followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich with 25 percent. Cruz is in third place with 17 percent.

Gluten-free matzah


Although matzah is a symbol of our exodus from Egypt, it is, for some, a literal bread of affliction. Traditional matzah is made of flour milled from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. All of these grains — except oats — contain high levels of gluten, a protein that, if ingested by someone with celiac disease, can lead to serious health problems. Although there is no gluten in pure oats, they are almost always cross-contaminated by other grains in the storage process (they also have a protein called avenin that is similar to gluten and induces a negative reaction in 10 to 15 percent of people with celiac disease). One in 133 Americans is believed to suffer from celiac disease, which slowly (and painfully) destroys the villi, or fingerlike projections, that line the small intestine. Nearly 18 million Americans have what scientists theorize is “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” a condition that, though not as severe as celiac disease, can cause digestive upset.

This time of year, many Jews who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity ask themselves: “How can I fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah if I know it will make me sick?”

Of course, no denomination of Judaism would ever suggest that a person who has celiac disease or gluten intolerance should eat a traditional matzah. The question is whether the person is morally exempt from partaking in the ritual. The answer, like many in Judaism, can be found in technicality and interpretation. Jewish law states that we can eat and say blessings only over matzah that is made from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. At the beginning of a seder, one of three matzahs is broken in two. As the seder progresses, participants recite a general blessing over grain (ha-Motzi), then a specific blessing over matzah. They must then eat the matzah. A person with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can recite blessings and break matzah but cannot fulfill the mitzvah of eating it. One must ask: Are people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance spiritually exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah or are they bound by law and excluded from performing this basic — yet fundamental — Jewish ritual? 

Are they excused from the law or are they unwillingly breaking it? 

Jewish law prioritizes physical health over ritual. For example, people who are ill or pregnant cannot fast on Yom Kippur.  Gluten in matzah, though seemingly inconsequential, leads to an unexpected ethical gray area. Every denomination of Judaism will provide a different answer. Luckily, modern gastronomy has cooked up a tasty option that can help some Jews break their matzah and eat it, too.  

Enter the Passover of the future: Made from tapioca and potatoes, gluten-free “matzah-style squares” are delicious and completely kosher for Passover. However, it is important to remember that “kosher for Passover” does not necessarily mean that the food can be used during ritual to fulfill a mitzvah. In its most literal interpretation, Jewish law does not permit a person to substitute traditional grain matzah for a gluten-free option (unless it is made of oats, which, as previously stated, can cause similar digestive problems). Therefore, companies cannot market their non-oat, gluten free crackers as “matzah” (they must use “matzah-style squares” instead). 

A Reform person might argue that the spiritual and emotional act of eating matzah is more important than what is actually in the cracker and that traditional matzahs can be easily substituted with gluten free matzah-style varieties. Matzah-style squares may have complicated the Passover scene, but they also provide new alternatives for people who have struggled with both stomach and Scripture. 

If a person allows him- or herself to substitute traditional matzah with a gluten free “matzah-style” cracker, he or she will get to fully participate in a seder. Although the market for gluten free matzah isn’t exactly saturated, two kosher brands are leading the movement. Manischewitz’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are made with tapioca and potato starch instead of the five traditional grains. Yehuda’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are also made from tapioca and potato starch and are certified gluten free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). Both varieties can be ordered online and at some Ralphs locations.

In eastern Ukraine, a unique matzah factory puts food on Jewish tables


With one eye on a digital countdown timer, Binyamin Vestrikov jumps up and down while slamming a heavy rolling pin into a piece of dough.

Aware of his comical appearance to the journalist watching, he exaggerates his movements to draw laughs from a dozen colleagues at the kneading station of Tiferet Hamatzot — a factory believed to be Europe’s only permanently open bakery for handmade matzah, or shmurah matzah.

But Vestrikov’s urgency is not just for entertainment.

Rather it is designed to meet the production standards that have allowed this unique bakery in eastern Ukraine to provide the Jewish world with a specialty product at affordable prices. The factory here also offers job security to about 50 Jews living in a war-ravaged region with a weakened economy and high unemployment.

Each time Vestrikov and his coworkers receive a new chunk of dough, the timers over their work stations give them only minutes to turn it into a 2-pound package of fully baked matzah — a constraint meant to satisfy even the strictest religious requirements for the unleavened crackers that Jews consume on Passover to commemorate their ancestors’ hurried flight out of Egypt.

“The faster the process, the more certain we are that no extra water came into contact with the dough and that it did not have any chance of leavening,” says Rabbi Shmuel Liberman, one of two kashrut supervisors who ensure that the factory’s monthly production of approximately eight tons complies with kosher standards for shmurah matzah.

The time limitation means the entire production line has only 18 minutes to transform flour and water into fully baked and packaged matzah.

Still, the workers are not complaining. They are happy to have a steady, dollar-adjusted income in a country whose currency is now worth a third of its February 2014 value — the result of a civil war between government troops and pro-Russian separatists that has paralyzed Ukraine’s industrial heart and flooded the job market with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the battle zones.

“It’s hard work, sure, but I am very happy to be doing it,” Vestrikov says. “I don’t need to worry about how to feed my family. There is very little hiring going on, and every job has dozens of takers because all the refugees from the east are here.”

Rolling up a sleeve over a throbbing bicep, he adds, “Besides, this way I don’t need to go to the gym.”

Despite working under pressure in a hectic and overheated environment — the ovens at Tiferet Hamatzot remain heated for days, preventing the building from ever cooling off even at the height of the harsh Ukrainian winter — the factory’s workers form a tight community whose social currency is made up of jokes and lively banter, mostly on cigarette breaks.

Workers like Vestrikov say they receive good wages, but production costs and taxes in Ukraine are so low that the factory can still afford to charge customers significantly less than its competitors in the West, said Stella Umanskaya, a member of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community and the factory’s administrational manager.

A 2-pound box of Tiferet Hamatzot costs approximately $10 locally and $15 abroad compared to more than double that price for shmurah matzah produced in bakeries in Western Europe, such as the Neymann matzah bakery in France, or those operating in Israel and the United States.

Shmurah matzah, Hebrew for “guarded matzah,” is more expensive than regular matzah because it requires manual labor by people whose task is to guard that it does not become leavened bread — a concept derived from a verse in the book of Exodus that states “You shall guard the matzot.” Some consider it a mitzvah to consume shmurah matzah because it upholds that commandment of devoting special attention or effort to guarding the matzah.

For this reason, traditional Jewish law requires that the handling of matzah and its ingredients be done by Jews only. But the factory also employs more than a dozen non-Jews who perform other tasks, including distribution.

To Rabbi Meir Stambler, the owner of Tiferet Hamatzot, this means the bakery “not only puts matzah shmurah on Jewish tables, but also helps build bridges and do mitzvot with non-Jews.”

Stambler, an Israeli Chabad rabbi who lives in Dnepropetrovsk and opened the factory 12 years ago, said his father used to bake shmurah matzah in secrecy in Tashkent, when the Uzbek capital was still part of the Soviet Union and subject to its anti-religious policies.

“Back then, matzah used to be smuggled from Israel into the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1990,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable that now, some years later, we bake matzah in Ukraine and send it all over the whole world.

Operation Passover: Israeli Rabbi smuggles matzah to Syria’s Jews


By the morning of Feb. 19, Rabbi Abraham Haim had collected more than 300 pounds of Jerusalem-made matzah for delivery to Syria. Boxes of the traditional Jewish crackers were stacked up to the ceiling of his cramped apartment in Bnei Brak, a religious suburb of Tel Aviv.

A few days later, the matzah would travel on a plane with the rabbi to Istanbul, Turkey.

And by late March, just before Passover — “God willing,” said Haim — the matzah, repackaged in label-less brown boxes, will have made the journey, through rain and snow, to a Turkish border town near Aleppo, Syria. Turkish smugglers who work closely with Haim then plan to cross into Syria and hand-deliver the matzah to approximately 50 Jews who, according to Haim, still live in the urban center of Damascus. (Others with connections to the Syrian-Jewish community have put its population even lower, at around 20 people.)

Haim makes this Passover mission every year — “and every year, we have a miracle,” he said, sitting at his dining-room table in Bnei Brak. “I’m speaking by phone with these people, and every year, they tell me they got it, that it arrived.”

So far, none of the matzah shipments has been intercepted by Syrian officials, rebels or terrorists. “But every year,” Haim said, “I’m thinking maybe this is the last year.”

Little has been heard from Syria’s Jews since spring 2011, just before anti-government riots broke out and the current civil war began. At the time, Jewish community leader Albert Cameo — then 70 years old and living with his two sisters — was quoted in multiple news stories, commending Syrian President Bashar Assad for his promise to restore Syria’s fleet of historic synagogues. 

Before the war, Cameo was one of about 200 Jews remaining in Syria, according to Bloomberg News. “Morally, I can’t leave my country and the religious places of worship here,” Cameo told Bloomberg. “I have a duty to preserve our heritage.”

The prior November, Cameo gave a tour of Damascus’ last active synagogue to a Cornell University student who blogged the encounter. Jacob Arem wrote on the New Voices site that two Syrian guards were on duty at the time to protect the Jewish quarter of Damascus’ Old City. “Cameo has not given up hope of a Jewish resurgence,” Arem wrote — and “to prepare itself, the community has purchased abandoned properties in the Quarter and is preserving them in the hope that Jews could return to Damascus after the signing of regional peace deals.”

In the four years since that visit, huge swaths of Syria have been rendered unrecognizable by relentless crossfire between Syrian forces, rebel fighters and foreign terror groups. More than 200,000 Syrians have died — nearly half of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

And although Damascus hasn’t been hit nearly as hard as Aleppo, there have been reports of heavy fighting at its edges and a suffocating government crackdown at its center. “You cannot begin to imagine what’s going on there,” Haim said.

One sure casualty of Damascus has been the 400-year-old Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the city’s Jobar suburb — considered by some to be the holiest Jewish site in Syria. In 2013, the synagogue’s roof was reportedly blown off and its contents looted. And in 2014, rebel forces provided the Daily Beast with photos of the synagogue in total ruins — shelled to splinters, they claimed, by the Syrian regime, as part of its “scorched earth” policy.

The famous Shrine of Elijah, located in the synagogue’s basement, is now thought to be sealed in rubble. “Big miracles happened in this place,” Haim said. “Now, it’s destroyed.”

A silver platter that Haim says was salvaged from the Jobar synagogue — and smuggled out by one of his men — now hangs in his hallway in Bnei Brak. “I’m not sure what this is, but I know it’s from Eliyahu Hanavi,” Haim said. One of the synagogue’s ancient prayer books, too, is in Haim’s possession — wedged between hundreds of others on his bookshelf, which sags from the weight.

Browsing through digital photos taken by his smugglers inside Syria, Haim stopped on a shot of Jewish community leader Cameo in his Damascus office from a few years back. In the photo, Cameo’s desk is decorated with a Syrian army flag and an intimate photo of the Assad family.

Like most of Syria’s religious minorities, “They have a good connection to the government,” Haim said of Syria’s last Jews. But beyond that, he said, “I don’t know if they’re OK, because we don’t have any real connection to them.”

Boxed in by bombing and shelling, and perhaps afraid of breaking their fragile relationship with the regime, Cameo and his sisters are now difficult to reach by phone. But when Haim called them from his cellphone on Feb. 19, they recognized his number and picked up.

Together, Haim and this reporter spoke to Cameo’s sister Rachel in a combination of Arabic, Syria’s native tongue, and Spanish, a hand-me-down from the Sephardic Jews who fled to Syria around 500 years ago, when they were driven out of Spain.

“It’s cold here. It’s so cold today,” Rachel Cameo said over a shaky connection. Asked if she was safe or if she needed anything, Rachel dodged the questions, clearly uncomfortable. But before she hung up, Rachel did ask about this year’s Passover shipment.

“Will there be cheese?” she pleaded.

Haim silently shook his head, “No.” The cheese wouldn’t stay fresh for the weeks-long trip from Istanbul to Damascus, he later explained. Not wishing to upset Rachel, he didn’t share this in the moment — but he did reassure her that the annual shipment of Passover matzah, both plain and chocolate-flavored, was on its way, along with around 10 bottles of kosher wine. “Thank you, brother,” Rachel answered. (“They are speaking according to what someone listening wants to hear,” Haim explained after he ended the call.)

Haim’s annual Passover shipment costs about $6,000 to purchase and transport —money he collects from donors in the Jewish Diaspora, mainly in Brooklyn and London. 

The rabbi, who is Sephardic with Turkish and Iraqi roots, has watched the paranoia surrounding his Passover operation multiply since 2012, when the civil war intensified. That year, the matzah was delivered via one of Turkish Airlines’ final flights between Istanbul and Damascus. Since then, Haim’s men have had to travel by car, and — afraid authorities might search their phones on the way out — are no longer willing to take photos for him.

They do, however, smuggle out the occasional thank-you letter from Rachel, written in French. “ ‘Pray for us’ — she is saying this every time,” the rabbi said. “‘Please, please pray for us.’”

Haim said residents have refused his offers to try to smuggle out more artifacts, nervous they could get intercepted or stolen. “They have connections in the army, but they’re afraid, afraid, afraid,” Haim said.

The small community of Jewish elders has instead chosen to stick out the war and personally guard what’s left of the Jewish-owned infrastructure in Damascus — synagogues, schoolhouses, books, graves.

So, Haim said, the least he can do is help them to uphold kosher law. Along with matzah and wine (and sometimes cheese) for Passover, Haim also sends in an annual load of around 220 pounds of frozen, kosher-cut meat. And every Sukkot, he smuggles in lulavim, etrogim, hadasim and aravot — the four plant species essential to the holiday.

“They are keeping kosher — it’s crazy,” the rabbi said of Syria’s Jews. Perhaps, he added, because “when someone is in trouble, he’s closer to the faith.” 

At Streit’s 90-year-old Lower East Side factory, ‘the men’ turn out their last matzah batch


Seated in his Lower East Side office, in front of a large portrait of company patriarch Aron Streit, Alan Adler avoids becoming too nostalgic.

“It’s like I tell my family members: none of you own a car from 1935, why do you think a matzah factory from 1935 is what we should be using today?” says Adler, one of Streit’s Matzos‘ 11 co-owners.

This is the line of thought behind the imminent closing of the Streit’s matzah factory, a longtime Jewish fixture in a city neighborhood that once was home to one of the highest concentration of Jews in the country.

Streit’s, the last family-owned matzah company in the United States, announced in December that it would be permanently closing its 90-year-old factory after this Passover season because of longstanding mechanical problems and subsequent economic concerns. Sometime in April, the company will shift its matzah production either to its other factory across the river in northern New Jersey, where several other products such as macaroons and wafers are made, or to another non-Manhattan location.

At the Streit’s Matzo factory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, matzah is broken into pieces and sent to be packaged in the same way it has been for over half a century. (Gabe Friedman/JTA)

The greatly gentrified Lower East Side has seen its real estate values skyrocket in recent decades. Although Streit’s has not yet identified a buyer for its landmark building on Rivington Street, the property was estimated to be worth $25 million in 2008, when the company first considered shuttering the factory.

“We should’ve been out of here five or 10 years ago,” says Adler, 63, who oversees the company’s day-to-day operations along with two cousins. “But we feel committed to the men [who work here] and we feel committed to the neighborhood, so we tried to keep this place afloat as long as we could. We probably could’ve stayed here even longer if I could’ve found somebody to work on the ovens.”

The ovens, identified only by “Springfield, Mass” on their side, date back to the 1930s. They are 75 feet long and are continuously fed a thin sheet of dough that emerges from the convection heat in perfect crisp form. Streit’s does not disclose its official production numbers, but Adler says the factory churns out millions of pounds of matzah each year.

Baked matzah coming out of the oven at Streit’s Matzo factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, date unknown. (Courtesy Streit’s Matzo)

However, Adler also estimates that the ovens are now about 25 percent slower than they used to be and he cannot find a mechanic willing to fix them. The slower pace decreases matzah output and affects the product’s flavor.

But the ovens aren’t the only outdated element of the factory. Except for a few electrical parts added to the machinery over the years, nearly all of the other equipment is more than 70 years old. As a result, employees’ tasks have barely changed in over half a century — from mixing the flour in small batches (in under 18 minutes to satisfy kosher requirements) to separating the matzah sheets into pieces that then travel up to higher floors on a conveyor belt.

“Nothing changes at Streit’s,” says Rabbi Mayer Kirshner, who oversees the factory’s kosher certification.

However, plenty has changed in the matzah business since Adler’s childhood in the 1950s and ’60s, when he liked to spend time picking fresh matzah out of the ovens. Back in the “heyday,” as Adler calls it, of the 1930s through the 1960s, there were four matzah factories in the New York metropolitan area: Horowitz-Margareten and Goodman’s in Queens, Manischewitz in New Jersey and Streit’s in Manhattan. Horowitz-Margareten and Goodman’s were sold to Manischewitz, which was bought by the private equity firm Kohlberg and Company in 1990. (Today it is owned by Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former investment firm.)Outside the soon-to-be-shuttered Streit’s Matzos factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Google Street View)

The Streit’s factory also used to boast a vibrant storefront with lines that spilled outside and around the corner. Today there is still a retail counter, but often it is left unmanned.

“Families have moved on, the Lower East Side has changed, so now we’ve sort of transitioned from a local bakery where people would stop by and pick up their matzah hot out of the oven in 1925 to now where 99.9 percent of our sales are wholesale to distributors who resell,” Adler says.

While his cousins helped at the retail counter, Adler, who joined the company 18 years ago after a law career, says he was always more comfortable working behind the scenes. In the factory’s freight elevator he has clearly ridden in innumerable times, he cracks a rare joke.

“You couldn’t build an elevator like this today,” he says. “It’s passed every safety law from 1925 and not one since.”Mikhail Musheyev cleans a matzah dough mixer at the Streit’s Matzo factory. (Gabe Friedman/JTA)

Adler says the 30 factory employees were shocked by the news in December but are taking it “surprisingly well.” The company has told them that there are many jobs available at the New Jersey facility, but only three employees have taken the company up on the offer.

Many of “the men,” as Adler calls the employees, live in Queens and take public transportation to work, meaning that a potential commute to New Jersey would be difficult. Streit’s is working with the New York Department of Labor to help them find new jobs.

Anthony Zapata, who has worked at Streit’s for 33 years, and who Adler says does everything from packing matzah to putting out fires (“literally, not figuratively”), tells JTA that he is very depressed about the factory’s closing. He says the increased transportation costs of traveling to New Jersey would be too much for him.

Mixing water with flour to make matzah dough at Streit’s Matzo Factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, date unknown. (Courtesy of Streit’s Matzos)

“I’m going to miss this place, and I’m going to miss everyone in it,” Zapata says. “I’ve never had a modern job to know what’s old, and what’s different between modern and old.”

Zapata, 53, says that all the employees are friends and have barbecues together around the city in the warmer months.

“We’ll remain tight,” he says.

Adler does not betray many emotions on the matter, but he offers a bittersweet anecdote on the neighborhood’s evolution. Shortly before the company first thought of selling the property in 2008, a man living in one of the condos adjacent to the factory complained to Adler about the noise and flour dust coming out of the building. Adler responded to his requests by blocking in and sealing several factory walls, and when he saw the man months later, he told him what he thought would be “good news” about the factory’s potential closing.

“He said, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want condos — there won’t be enough parking on this street!’” Adler recalls. “All of a sudden he liked my noise and my flour dust.

“I don’t know what they’ll do with this building now,” he adds, “but people don’t like change.”

Bringing handmade, organic trends to making matzah


In their small farmhouse bakery in Vermont, Doug Freilich and Julie Sperling work round the clock producing matzah during the period preceding Passover — a matzah that feels ancient and modern at once. 

Using a mix of grains they grow on their own farm and wheat sourced from other local farmers, the couple creates hundreds of pieces of the wholesome unleavened bread they call Vermatzah. 

“The idea came because of our initial interest in growing grains, looking at them from the harvest to the baking in a very simple sense, and highlighting grains that have good flavor,” Freilich said. “We celebrate our own Passover each year; we go through the matzah-making ritual for both the spring awakening and remembering the storytelling of this holiday.”

Freilich and Sperling, co-owners of the Naga Bakehouse in Middletown Springs, Vt., are among American-Jewish bakers looking to create matzah in new ways that dovetail with the concerns of an age of foodies and locally sourced groceries. They are joined in the process by their teenage children, Ticho and Ellis.

“Between the four of us, we are working each and every piece by hand; they are handmade with fingerprints, and heart, and soul,” Freilich said. “Our matzahs are tinted and kissed by the fire of the wood oven.” 

At the end of the labor-intensive process, each matzah is wrapped in parchment paper and hand tied before being sent off — with a bonus seed packet of wheatberries from the family’s farm — to prospective customers throughout the country. 

Vermatzah is primarily available in Vermont, New York and Massachusetts, but Freilich says a huge increase in Web orders (available through vermatzah.com) means the product is now making it across the United States. 

Freilich and Sperling have been making Vermatzah for six years. Now, others are beginning to embrace matzah’s role in the farm-to-table trend.

The Yiddish Farm, an eclectic collective in Goshen, N.Y., that combines Yiddish language instruction with agriculture, this year is producing its own matzah that is baked with grain grown in its fields.

The matzah will be whole wheat and shmurah — a ritual designation for matzah that refers to a process of careful supervision that begins when the matzah’s grain is in the field and doesn’t stop until the matzah is baked. The process involves planting, combine harvesting, reaping, milling and sifting at the Yiddish Farm, according to the Forward.

The end result is a locavore’s matzah dream that will travel from Goshen, in upstate New York, to Manhattan and New Jersey prior to Passover.

For Anne Kostroski, the owner of Crumb Bakery in Chicago, making her own matzah has less to do with food ideology than with more practical matters.

“I don’t like eating store-bought matzah because I think it tastes awful,” she said, laughing.

Kostroski, 41, has been making her own signature matzah since her conversion to Judaism in the mid-1990s.

“The matzah I make is made with honey, locally sourced eggs, black pepper and olive oil,” she said. “It’s flat and crunchy, but not as dry as the regular store-bought plain matzah. There’s a hint of heat and sweetness that makes matzah more interesting.”

For Kostroski, matzah-making has been a part of her Jewish journey, even when, under the strain of a baker’s life, she hasn’t been able to attend synagogue regularly. Matzah creates a feeling of connection with history and tradition, she explained.

And her homemade matzah — which she sells at farmers markets; her Chicago eatery, the Sauce and Bread Kitchen; and by pre-order — is made lovingly and painstakingly by hand.

“I make several hundred matzahs a year — mixed, rolled and baked,” she said. “One batch is maybe two dozen, and it’s really labor intensive.”

Kostroski said demand is increasing, slowly but surely, year by year.

“I came across this recipe in 1995 and I  started making it, and I’ve been making it ever since,” Kostroski said. “People are not expecting different types of matzah — they expect something flavorless, and it doesn’t have to be.”

Matzah, en route to freedom


Why matzah? It is an improbable symbol for such a grand holiday. With none of the embracing symbolism of a sukkah or the beauty of a Chanukah menorah, the unassuming cracker is the centerpiece of Passover. 

The rabbis identify the matzah with humility. Unlike bread, which is puffed up, the matzah lays flat, shorn of ego. Its very modest nature gives it power. Like the Western Wall (which, come to think of it, matzah resembles), lack of grandeur is the message. But significant as the insight may be, the essence of Passover is not really humility, and we do indeed eat bread the rest of the year. 

Another interpretation is that matzah represents our tradition’s capitalizing on every spiritual opportunity. Pushed out of Egypt, rushed and frightened, the Jews baked. Although the product was uninspired, Jewish tradition made matzah the cornerstone of Passover. Matzah memorializes the truth that every experience, no matter how ephemeral, lacks a precious charge of spiritual significance.

Yet spiritual readiness, vital though it may be, is not the central message of Passover. Pesach is the festival of freedom. Why should the matzah take pride of place among all the symbols of the seder in the Jewish collective consciousness?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once had an exchange with his aunt and provocateur, Mary Moody Emerson. She was a severe and brilliant goad to the young Emerson. Typical of her teaching was her advice to her young nephew:  “Scorn trifles; lift your aims: Do what you are afraid to do.” Once, Emerson copied into his notebook something his aunt said to him —
“ ‘Hurry’ is for slaves.”

To be a slave is to have no control over your own time. Slaves cannot do what they wish — they do the will of the master. The Israelites baked matzah because they had a brief moment, a slice of time, the beginning of true freedom, but they were not yet there. Matzah is the sign of a people about to be free.

The desert was hot, scary and lonely. But it granted the Jews time, which is the essential luxury of true freedom. If you control your schedule, if the priorities are largely of your own making, you are free. We always say we “need” to do this, we “need” to be there. But most of the time, it is a choice — an important, sometimes urgent choice — but still a choice. That is what it means to be free.

As we sit at the Passover seder, spending the evening telling our story, we are enacting the message. A free woman or man has hours for a meal, but a slave does not. The matzah is the bread of affliction but also the bread of transition — from being a slave to liberation into the service of God. 

The chametz within


Rejoice! Spring has arrived, and Pesach is here. The time of our liberation is at hand. The Exodus from our narrow straits is re-enacted once more.

To be sure, Pesach is about history — the story of the children of Israel leaving the oppression of Egypt, freed into the wilderness of Sinai.

But Pesach is far more than a retelling of history. 

Pesach is the holiday that teaches us to rid ourselves of the dross in our lives. It is the holiday of the eradication of chametz — the fermenting element needed for dough to rise. Get rid of the yeast and our daily bread becomes the food of angels, a vehicle for holy ascent.

This chametz exists within each of us. It is the ingredient that causes anger to bubble up, resentment to arise, prejudice to form. Chametz is both the cause and the result of the accumulation of stubbornly held opinions, ancient slights and long-held grudges. 

Chametz wraps around our souls and our hearts like linen around a mummy, preserving for eternity all the anguish within. Chametz wraps and wraps around our souls until the eternal light that shines within us is dimmed, dulled and can no longer be seen. 

We are commanded to find the chametz within us, gather it and burn it. This is the true meaning of a burnt offering; an offering that is a pleasing scent unto God. This is the offering we give those we love when we attempt to purge ourselves from past transgressions: “See how much I love you,” we say. “I’m cleaning house. I’m getting rid of all that displeases you, and I’m doing so for you, as a sign of my love.” 

Notice how we are not asked to gather the very best in us as an offering, but rather the very worst in us. This is key. This is the ikar — the main point.

The second verse in the book of Leviticus says: “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a person brings from you a sacrifice to the Lord; from the animal, from the cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.”

How are we to understand this statement? Is this a simple, straightforward instruction about the species to be sacrificed, or is there something deeper being addressed? Obviously, the Torah means what it says and must be understood that way. But if that was all the Torah was addressing, I believe it would have faded away into the dust of history ages ago.

Chasidic teaching instructs us to look at the wording and see that what we are really being asked to bring near to God is the animal, the beast within us. We are being asked to offer up the material, physical, earthbound element within us, our neshamah behemit — our beastly soul.

All of us, hopefully, have qualities we are pleased with and would love for others to notice. But we also have qualities we work hard to transform, subdue or even eradicate. Most of the time we wish those qualities would simply evaporate and disappear from within us.

The Torah commands us to bring our least desirable qualities as an offering, not because they are beautiful and pleasing, but rather because they represent our deepest, most painful struggle. We are, after all, Yisrael — those who will struggle with God — and it is within that struggle that our redemption is found. It is the very struggle with our inner demons, our worst angels, that ennobles us and raises us up higher than even angels can aspire to ascend. 

It is that coarse, material soul within us, the twin sister of our Godly soul, that bears the sweetest fruits of our labor; that is why we are asked to offer it up as a token of our love.

The chametz we carry within us year-round is the expression of that beastly soul; it is the Pharaoh within us, yearning to mummify all that is sweet, precious and pure within us, and cast us into the darkness of Egypt’s penultimate plague.

So let us clean house, demummify spiritually and physically. Let us burn the chametz of our anger and hurt, our pride and our prejudice. But let us remember this: It is only because of our chametz that we struggle and grow; it is only because of our beastly, material soul that we rise higher and higher as we labor to transform ourselves into better human beings. Clean, gather and burn the chametz, but leave a little trace of it somewhere deep inside so that next Pesach can be as joyous a festival as this one; so that next Pesach can offer us as meaningful a struggle for liberation as our past festivals have offered.

A joyous, happy and clean Pesach to all. 

Matzah: Simple cracker, detailed story


The matzah aisle in any local kosher supermarket — even some nonkosher ones — is increasingly more likely to resemble a cereal aisle with its myriad options rather than the modesty and simplicity that is matzah itself. 

A recent visit to Glatt Mart, one of Pico Boulevard’s two major kosher markets, revealed 36 different types of matzah. Yehuda’s gluten-free version is the most popular, according to owner Meir Davidpour. “Everybody wants something different,” he said, referring to the numerous kosher-for-Passover certifications that exist on the market. He estimated the store carries at least six types of handmade shemura matzah — matzah held to the highest kosher standard — and at least 30 types of more standard machine-made matzah.

There are innumerable varieties — egg, chocolate, apple, whole wheat, thin tea, Mediterranean, organic and more — from a bunch of brands, including Yehuda, Osem, Geula, Aviv, Manischewitz, Streit’s.

While matzah appears at first glance to be a very simple food — a combination of water, flour and heat — its many types, brands and flavors reflect the underlying intricacies of what is also known as the “bread of affliction.”

Just ask Rabbi Yechezkel Auerbach, a kosher supervisor based in Lakewood, N.J., a town about 70 miles south of New York City with a high concentration of Orthodox Jews. Auerbach is the founder of Independent Kashrus Research (IKR), through which he is a consultant for companies on issues pertaining to kosher food production.

His career in the kosher certification field unofficially began when he was an 8-year-old sanding rolling pins in matzah bakeries on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Officially, it began 25 years ago, and Auerbach is now regarded as an authority in the supervision field, working with major kosher certification labels like the Orthodox Union (OU) and Kosher Supervision of America (KSA). He is responsible for ensuring that all the matzah sold in three of Lakewood’s kosher grocery stores is fit for Passover.

Some of Lakewood’s Jews have their own certification because, Auerbach said. “We want to service our community with what we believe is the highest standard of kashrus.”

The story of Auerbach’s matzah takes place almost entirely in Israel. He visits the country twice per year, first in northern Israel for the harvest, just weeks after the end of Passover. He returns later to Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb, for the baking. From cutting, stripping and grinding the wheat, to cleaning the kernels, baking the matzah and shipping it to the stores, someone must always keep watch over what goes into the matzah. 

This is meant to ensure that no outside substance finds its way into the bakery, potentially rendering entire batches of matzah as chametz, which is the Hebrew word that describes leavened food, which is strictly forbidden for consumption on Passover.

Matzah that is shemura, or “guarded,” is different than the basic machine-made matzah, not in substance, but in degree. Whereas shemura matzah is closely watched from the time that the wheat is harvested, other matzah is only closely watched after the wheat is ground into kernels, not from the time that it is first cut. The shemura version of matzah goes another step further than its unguarded brother — even the water used to make the dough is carefully stored for at least the night before use.

Auerbach said that to prevent contamination, the wheat kernels are “stored away under protective custody” until several months later, when they are ground into flour and baked into matzah. By Chanukah, Auerbach said, most matzah bakeries are in full swing, working furiously to satisfy orders, many of which are made before the previous year’s Passover.

The bakeries, particularly the ones where the matzah is made by hand, evoke romantic images of brick ovens, floured hands, white baker’s caps and the ultimate prize, a hot, bumpy, uneven piece of matzah.

“Each dough is kneaded by hand, it is finished by hand, it is cut to size by hand,” Auerbach said. “Every step is done by a human being who can focus on the matzah.”

Machine bakeries, shemura and nonshemura alike, meanwhile evoke a more industrial, less romantic feel. The factories have an entire floor dedicated to mixing the dough, which is then sent down chutes into machines that shape the dough into long ribbons, poke holes in them and then flatten them and send them to the ovens.

The machine variant is cheaper largely because the machine process requires far fewer hands and is thus more efficient. But for Jews who are particularly stringent about not approaching the dividing line between chametz and kosher on Passover, handmade shemura matzah, according to Auerbach, is the best option. 

Laws pertaining to the baking process are mostly found not in the Torah but in subsequent rabbinic literature. And there are many explanations for not just the physical makeup of matzah, but also its spiritual significance.

The haste with which matzah was baked by the Jews in Egypt and is baked by Jews today, Auerbach said, was “to remind us that there was anticipation and [a] rush of eagerness to get on [to] the next step.”

The variety of types and brands that are available — in Los Angeles and around the world — are likely a combination of market competition and diverse standards of what makes matzah acceptable.

For Rabbi Eli Rivkin of Chabad of Northridge, shemura matzah is not only his personal matzah of choice over Passover, but he has distributed about 100 pounds of it to approximately 250 households in Northridge.

To eat matzah during the Passover seder, Rivkin said, is actually an explicit mitzvah according to Jewish law. And it’s the only mitzvah in Judaism that requires eating a specific food. 

Although he only eats one type of matzah over the holiday, Rivkin sees the many types available in the marketplace as a good sign for Judaism.

“I think it’s wonderful that Judaism is flourishing and that there’s such a wide variety of kosher food available,” he said.

The results of this proliferation were apparent in Glatt Mart’s matzah aisle, where Sigal Mamon-Harosh was pushing a shopping cart filled to the brim with Passover products and several of the 30 boxes of matzah she said she purchased. 

She anticipates about 20 people at each of her family’s two seders. With that many mouths to feed and tastes to satisfy, the wide variety of matzah on the shelves did not disappoint.

“My husband will eat matzah shemura, I eat the whole wheat, the kids eat the egg with the apple, my parents eat the white, and then I have guests that I’m not sure what they eat.” 

Egyptian exodus comes to Westwood


With focused eyes and wide smiles, a sea of preschoolers in white baker’s hats worked slowly, carefully kneading and flattening the dough that would soon emerge from a brick oven as that classic Passover food: matzah.

These little amateur cooks were part of the model matzah bakery at Chabad’s West Coast headquarters in Westwood, which over a two-week period drew about 6,700 children, most ranging in age from 3 to 7.

The 28th annual event, which took place March 3-17 at the Chabad on Gayley Avenue, gave inquisitive Jewish and non-Jewish children a chance to experience the biblical Exodus firsthand. They went from learning about the hardships of slavery to unleashing a torrent of plagues on the Egyptians to crossing the sea — and even enjoying their own hand-made, piping-hot matzah on the other side.

At the first of five stations, dozens of young participants, along with their teachers and some parents, learned about what the Hebrews suffered through: arduous work, little rest and molding mortar for the bricks. What is normally a large social hall was divided into stations, each with tarps designed according to a specific theme of the period of the Exodus.

One station resembled the Egyptian desert, with images of sand and pyramids adorning the tarps. Another featured Moses, Pharaoh and an Egyptian magician — all played by yeshiva students. 

After witnessing eight plagues, including, to their wide-eyed amazement, water poured into Pharaoh’s goblet turning into blood (or some other mysterious red substance), the children’s Egyptian masters suddenly stopped moving. They had been struck blind by the ninth plague, darkness. 

“We are frozen,” Pharaoh said, appearing to panic. 

“If you allow the Jewish people to go free,” Moses responded, then God will restore light. 

“Maybe,” Pharaoh said. “But first take the plague away.”

“OK, I trust you,” Moses said as he “removed” the darkness with a movement of his staff.

“He’s kidding!” yelled one child, not buying Pharaoh’s promise.

“Ha, ha, ha!” exclaimed Pharaoh. “I’m not letting anyone get away.”

The kids appeared disheartened, exhaling loudly. But after the 10th plague killed every firstborn male in Egypt, Pharaoh crumbled, allowing the children to leave Egypt to the tune of “Under the Sea,” from “The Little Mermaid.”

That brought them to an area where a man who went by the name “Farmer Joe” — the bakery’s wheat and flour expert — taught the basics of grinding wheat stalks into flour, the first step of the delicate and precise matzah-baking process. He softened up the crowd with a bit of comedy, introducing his stuffed ram.

“He’s an interesting ram. He doesn’t eat at all,” Farmer Joe said. “He always says he’s stuffed.”

As children crowded around several wooden tables, they separated kernels from the wheat stalks, grinding them down to flour. They then moved to the mixing station, where they watched some of their classmates enter two booths connected by a wooden plank, one booth for water and one for flour. The children in the respective booths enthusiastically dumped their flour and water into a stainless steel bowl, creating dough.

According to Jewish law, once water touches flour, there is a period of 18 minutes that may pass until the dough leavens, turning into chametz, which cannot be consumed during the holiday. In professional matzah bakeries across the world, this process is intense and hectic, as workers must ensure, down to the second, that all matzah packaged for distribution is baked within 18 minutes of the water and flour mixing.

Because the bakery in Westwood was just a model one, the matzah baked there was not technically kosher for Passover, but the kids understood that time was of the essence, hurrying from the mixing station to the bakery itself.

Little hands flattened the dough on large tables, then made holes in it using spiked rollers. They placed their creations in a brick oven, waiting eagerly for a taste. As the small, handmade, roundish pieces of matzah emerged minutes later, the kids gathered around, staring excitedly at the crunchy unleavened bread that was placed into their outstretched baker’s caps. 

As they left the building with their teachers and parents, munching on their snack, and singing a catchy tune about matzah, Rabbi Aron Teleshevsky, organizer of the bakery, reflected on the annual program.

“I love this,” Teleshevsky said. “It’s not ‘in-your-face’ Judaism; it’s a fun opportunity to celebrate Passover.”

Teleshevsky estimates that about 90 percent of the children who pass through the bakery in any given year are not from Orthodox day schools. Many, he said, are from public schools, or even a Christian school, and are simply interested in the holiday.

Rabbi Chaim Cunin, CEO of Chabad of California, thinks that model matzah bakeries — which are held worldwide — help children connect on a deeper, more personal level during the Passover holiday.

“They’ll be sitting at their own seder table, eating matzah around the table, telling the story. All of a sudden they have a point of reference to make sense of it all and to relive it,” Cunin said. 

Passover: On slavery and memory


Judaism is a religion that likes symbols. The Passover Seder table is full of them: There’s the salt that can represent tears or bitterness, the wine as metaphor for blood, the unleavened matzah as a symbol for humility, and so on.

In the Passover story itself, one of the deeper areas for symbolic reflection is slavery: We can be slaves to our physical desires, to our craving for honor, even to our need for certainty.

Today, there’s a very modern strain of figurative slavery, the notion that we can be enslaved by informational “pollutants.”

I came across this idea while reading “The Sabbath World,” by Judith Shulevitz, in which she writes about the “pollutants of communications overload: the overabundance of information that turns us into triagers and managers, rather than readers; the proliferation of bad or useless or ersatz information; the forces that push us to process information quickly rather than thoughtfully.”

Drawing from the work of David Levy, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, Shulevitz cautions that “if we don’t fend off these pollutants, we risk becoming cut off from the world, rather than more connected; less able to make wise decisions, rather than better informed; and, in the end, less human.”

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Pretending to listen to someone while sneaking a look at our smart phones to check the breaking news or see if anyone has e-mailed us in the last … er … 30 seconds?

Shulevitz quotes a techno-addict trying to deprogram herself: “I love technology. I’m not a Luddite. But I realized it was a problem when I would sit down to check my e-mail and it was almost like I would wake up six hours later and find I was watching videos of puppies on YouTube.”

Mixed in with the amazing privilege of being able to access virtually any information in seconds is the slippery slope of allowing technology to run our lives.

This is the slavery of virtual connection. I am wired, therefore I am.

The funny thing is, the demon has been outed. We all know it. We hold our smart phones in our hands and in our beds knowing full well that technology now runs our lives. And yet …

Someone once asked me: What good is Judaism if it can’t make our lives better?

There’s one sure way, I responded, that Judaism can make our lives better: It promotes deep reflection. The very text of the haggadah demonstrates this. It is storytelling interrupted by countless questions and commentary.

We probe, we try to understand, we look for lessons, we seek to improve.

It is this value in our tradition that can free us from informational pollutants — our inclination to keep asking questions until we feel the tingle of a possible answer.

In Shuvelitz’s book, Levy provides one possible answer when he equates informational pollutants with real-life pollutants:

“Much as the modern-day environmental movement has worked to cultivate and preserve certain natural habitats, such as wetlands and old-growth forests, for the health of the planet, so too should we now begin to cultivate and preserve human habitats for the sake of our own well-being.” 

With a Maimonidean sense of moderation, Levy adds that “just as environmentalists no longer try to shut down factories or get rid of cities, information environmentalists should not try to slow down the pace of life or limit the information revolution.”

Instead, he says, “We will need to cultivate unhurried activities and quiet places, sanctuaries in time and space for reflection and contemplation.”

I know what you’re thinking: That sounds a lot like Shabbat.

Well, yes, it does. But Shabbat per se is not the only antidote to our technology addictions. The idea behind Shabbat is equally important, that state of awareness and contemplation that puts us in touch with how we are leading our lives.

That Shabbat state is always available to us. It’s the spiritual smart phone of our souls that can be turned on at any time to reconnect us with our humanity.

Just as commercial smart phones connect us with the digital world, spiritual smart phones connect us with the very pitfalls of that world. 

If we remember to carry them, these spiritual phones will sound alarms when we ignore our loved ones during dinner in favor of a digital screen, or when we’re tempted to waste our lives away watching funny puppies on YouTube.

Because any power that enslaves is usually pervasive — whether it’s informational pollutants or our primal appetites — our vigilance must be pervasive as well. 

Maybe, then, we can say that the antidote to slavery is watchfulness or, if you prefer, continuous memory.

We must be wired for memory so we can remain free.

The seder table, where for centuries Jews have been reflecting on their ancient story, is the ultimate instrument of memory. It doesn’t just tell us to remember, it tells us to remember to remember. 

As Shulevitz writes at the end of her book, “We have to remember to stop so we can stop to remember.”

Happy Passover.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Save the self-pity, choices abound for Passover meals [RECIPES]


For the many who feel overwhelmed by Passover because of the demands of cooking without leaven, a word or two: That should not be an obstacle.

After all, on this most celebrated of Jewish holidays, we are allowed to eat fish, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, fruits, most vegetables and fresh herbs.

All of the recipes featured here  are nutritious, attractive, flavorful and easy to prepare. They emphasize fresh, seasonal ingredients, fewer complicated techniques, and stylish, elegant dishes. What more would you want for Passover?

The seder meals, when we recount the Exodus story, are the most important events of the holiday.  Most people, like myself, favor their own traditional menu. Each year I repeat the seder menu as a way to hold on to cherished family traditions.

The recipes are from the new cookbook “Helen Nash's New Kosher Cuisine” (Overlook Press).

BEET SOUP

With their magnificent color, delicious flavor and vitamin richness, beets are one of my favorite vegetables. In the summer I serve this soup at room temperature; in the winter I like it hot.

Ingredients:

1 1/4 pounds (570 g) beets, plus 1 small beet for garnish
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 McIntosh apple, peeled and sliced
4 1/2 cups (1.08 liters) vegetable broth
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

 

Preparation:

Peel and slice the beets (see note below). Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and apple, and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beets and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the beets are tender. Cool a little.

While the soup is cooking, wrap the reserved beet tightly in foil. Bake in a toaster oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 Celsius) for 30 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife. Cool, slip off the skin, and grate.

Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Season to taste with the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.

To serve, garnish with the grated beet; makes 6 servings.

Note: I always wear thin plastic gloves when I work with beets, as this avoids staining my fingers with beet juice, which can be hard to remove.

CHICKEN SALAD WITH RADICCHIO AND PINE NUTS

This is a colorful and delicious salad with an interesting mixture of textures and tastes. The currants and pine nuts add an unusual Mediterranean piquancy.

Ingredients:

1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for greasing the chicken
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 head radicchio, shredded
1 to 2 bunches arugula, leaves torn if they are large
1/2 cup (20 g) loosely packed flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Preparation:

Place the onion slices in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place in a large serving bowl.

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and grease with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Place each chicken breast in the center of a piece of cling wrap and wrap it so that it is completely covered. Place the packages in a steamer, cover and steam over high heat for about 9 minutes. (The inside of the chicken should still be pale pink.) Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 minute.

Remove the chicken and cool, still wrapped. When cool, unwrap the chicken and cut it on the diagonal into thin strips. Place in the bowl with the onions; makes 6 servings.

SWEET AND SOUR DRESSING

Ingredients:

1/3 cup (80 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70 g) pine nuts
1/2 cup (115 g) raisins or currants
2 tablespoons Marsala wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preparation:

Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the pine nuts and raisins and saute over low heat until the pine nuts are lightly golden. Remove from the heat and add the Marsala and vinegar.

Add the radicchio, arugula, and parsley to the chicken and onions; toss with the dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

MARINATED SALMON

This is a variation on the traditional pickled salmon sold in every Jewish delicatessen. The difference: The salmon is more delicate and less vinegary, and has a richer color. It makes a perfect Sabbath luncheon dish.

Ingredients:

6 skinless center-cut salmon fillets (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil for greasing the pan
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

 

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 200 F (95 C). Grease a glass or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold the fillets in a single layer.

Pat the fillets dry with paper towels and season them lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Place them in the dish and bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cooked to your taste.

Remove the baking pan from the oven, cover with foil, and let cool completely. (The fish will continue cooking outside of the oven.)

MARINADE

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons rice vinegar (for Passover, replace with white wine vinegar)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced (see note below)
15 dill sprigs, snipped finely with scissors, plus 2 sprigs, snipped, for garnish

 

Preparation:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and salt. Add pepper to taste. Pour the marinade over the salmon, add the onion and sprinkle with the 15 snipped sprigs of dill.

Cover the dish with wax paper, then foil and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days without turning.

To serve: Bring the salmon to room temperature. Place on individual plates along with some of the marinade and onions. Garnish with the fresh snipped dill; makes 6 servings.

Note: I use a mandoline to slice the onion, as it makes the cutting easier.

CHICKEN WITH POTATOES AND OLIVES

I am always pleased to come up with a dish that is a meal in itself — one that combines either chicken or meat with vegetables. This is one of my favorites, and because it is so easy to make, I often serve it at Passover. I bake it in an attractive casserole, so it can go directly from the oven to the table.

Ingredients:

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
9 garlic cloves
Kosher salt
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
Leaves from 10 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
5 plum tomatoes
1 pound (450 g) Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered
1/2 cup (67 g) pitted black olives, quartered

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C). With 1 tablespoon of the oil, grease a glass, ceramic or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold all the vegetables in a single layer.

Coarsely chop 4 of the garlic cloves on a cutting board. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and, using a knife, crush them into a paste. Place the paste in a small bowl and combine it with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the oil, half of the thyme leaves and pepper to taste.

Pat dry the chicken breasts with paper towels and season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Coat the chicken with the mixture and set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water; bring the water back to a boil and drain. Core the tomatoes and slip off the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half widthwise and squeeze gently to remove the seeds. (Some seeds will remain.) Cut the tomatoes in quarters.

Thickly slice the remaining 5 garlic cloves and spread them in the prepared baking pan along with the tomatoes, potatoes, olives, the rest of the thyme leaves, and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until almost tender.

Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables and bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Turn them over, spoon on some pan juices and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is slightly pink on the inside. Cover with foil for 1 minute; makes 4 servings.

STIR-FRIED SPINACH

This is a delicious recipe that captures the very essence of spinach. Now that prewashed spinach is available in almost every supermarket, you can prepare this dish in minutes.

Ingredients:

20 ounces (570 g) prewashed spinach
1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:

Break the stems off the spinach leaves and discard.

Roast the pine nuts in a toaster oven on the lowest setting for 1 or 2 minutes, until they are golden. (Watch them carefully, as they burn quickly.)

Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add the oil. Add the spinach and stir quickly until it is just wilted, no more than a minute. Season with salt and pepper. With a slotted spoon, transfer the spinach to a serving dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top; makes 6 servings.

CHOCOLATE MERINGUE SQUARES

These meringue squares are like cookies, but they are light, chocolaty and surprisingly low in calories. I often serve them at Passover.

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon (15 g) unsalted margarine for greasing the pan
1/2 pound (225 g) blanched almonds
6 ounces (170 g) good-quality imported semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
8 large egg whites (see notes)
1 cup (200 g) sugar

 

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Line a 9-by-13-by-2-inch (23-by-33-by-5 cm) baking pan with wax paper and grease the paper with the margarine.

Chop the almonds in a food processor, in two batches, until medium-fine. Transfer to a bowl. Chop the chocolate in the processor until fine, and combine with the almonds.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Using the balloon whisk attachment, beat at high speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until stiff.

With a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites, making a motion like a figure 8 with the spatula. Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out almost dry.

Cool on a wire rack. Invert onto a cutting board and peel off the paper. Cut into 1 1/2-inch (4 cm) squares; makes 3 1/2 dozen squares.

Notes: It is easier to separate the eggs straight from the refrigerator, when they are cold. Make sure the whites have come to room temperature before beating.

To freeze the squares, place them side by side in an air-tight plastic container, with  wax paper between the layers.

This year, more Angelenos than ever get Passover aid from local agencies


This year, more than 1,000 Los Angeles families in need received food from organizations that provide assistance specifically for Passover.

During the weeks leading up to the first seder, on April 6, visitors to distribution sites set up by agencies, synagogues and organizations took home essentials for the holiday — wine, grape juice, matzah, gefilte fish, horseradish, eggs and more — so that they could have seders and kosher food for the eight days of the holiday.

Low-income families received assistance from Tomchei Shabbos, Global Kindness, Valley Beth Shalom, JFS/SOVA, the Israeli Leadership Council, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and elsewhere. Social workers from Jewish Family Service, a nonsectarian social service agency, referred many individuals and families in need to food-giving agencies. Tomchei Shabbos, which provides donations of kosher food to Los Angeles Orthodox families weekly, served additional families for Passover.

The majority of recipients this year were people who’ve lost their jobs in the recent recession, including, said Rabbi Yona Landau, executive director of Tomchei Shabbos,  “people who got sick and couldn’t work, people who were abandoned, women who were abandoned by their husbands and they have to care of the family themselves.

“There’s a lot of different cases,” Landau said. “If they didn’t get our food, they wouldn’t have any food.”

Others receiving food assistance for Passover included immigrant families of Persian, Israeli and Russian descent; seniors with disabilities; and some divorcees, all facing major financial challenges, according to Debbie Alden, a board member of Valley Beth Shalom’s Sisterhood and Nouriel Cohen, CFO of Global Kindness. Many of the recipients were formerly volunteers at these agencies and organizations — people who used to be middle-class — but are now reliant on charity.

“We had people who were donating to us a little bit, and now they are asking, which is really sad,” said Shahla Javdan, president of the IAJF.

Because of privacy concerns, no recipient families gave their names for interviews.

On the night of April 2, an elderly woman living in West Hollywood receiving a delivery from two volunteers in their 20s, told of her problems with sciatica. “Not well,” she replied to a volunteer who asked how she was doing as they brought the food into her home.

Tomchei Shabbos volunteers delivered some of the food for Passover to recipients’ homes. Some requested that the food be left at their doorsteps.

Other recipients parked at the curb at Pico Boulevard and Weatherly Drive, the site of the organization’s storefront, waited to receive the boxes filled with produce, which they loaded into the backseats of their minivans and the trunks of their sedans with the help of eager volunteers.

Tomchei boxes were marked with only families’ initials so as not to give away their identities. Valley Beth Shalom’s distributors employed a similar method for their food giveaway.

In the days leading up to Passover, people strapped for cash shopped at Pico-Robertson grocery stores Elat Market and Glatt Mart using food coupons from the IAJF. The stores cooperated with the IAJF, selling $25 and $50 coupons at a 25 percent discount to the IAJF, which then distributed the coupons to community members.

SOVA, a program of Jewish Family Service, differentiated Passover packages for Ashkenazi and Sephardic families. Ashkenazi families received gefilte fish and horseradish, while Sephardic families received rice and dates in addition to matzah ball soup mix, macaroons, eggs, walnuts and matzah.

“They will be able to do a nice seder with what they receive,” Fred Summers, director of operations at JFS/SOVA, said. “Some of the things will last longer than one night, [but] it will probably not be an eight-day supply.

The numbers of those in need might surprise some. JFS/SOVA provided for approximately 700 individuals and families for Passover, according to Summers. Tomchei Shabbos served around 600 families, estimated Landau. VBS distributed 124 boxes filled with Passover items, Global Kindness helped nearly 350 families, the Israeli Leadership Council provided assistance for more than 100 families, and the IAJF distributed between $30,000 and $50,000 in food coupons, Javdan said.

More families requested Passover food this year than in previous years, Javdan, Landau and Cohen all said, and the agencies couldn’t meet all the demand. Despite news reports that the economy is improving and new jobs are being created each month, Cohen said more people are in need this year than ever before. “Not only for Passover, but for other holidays also.”

Mishap leaves Israeli brigade with seder meal of matzah and salami


Israeli soldiers in the Kfir Brigade ate salami and matzah for their seder meal after a base chef heated up the real seder food inappropriately, rendering it unkosher.

The infantry brigade returned to base from a mission at the start of Passover expecting a festive holiday meal, but the base chef had begun to heat up the food after the start of the holiday, which also fell on the Jewish Sabbath, and is prohibited by Jewish law and army rules, Israel’s Channel 2 reported. The station cited Israel Radio’s military affairs reporter Carmela Menashe, who was contacted by the parents of some of the soldiers.

The chef, a warrant officer, has been court-martialed for violating a standing military order, according to Channel 2.

The food that was heated up incorrectly was thrown away on the order of the kitchen’s kashrut supervisor, according to reports.

Opinion: Liberation


It’s fashionable to look at Passover as a universal idea. This makes sense; after all, how much more universal can you get than the theme of human freedom? Also, it’s a lot easier these days to be outer-directed and feel outrage at injustice. Thanks to the Internet, millions can now watch YouTube clips of people being oppressed in the Sudan or demonstrating in the Middle East.

So, when Passover arrives, it’s not surprising that many of us would associate this powerful Jewish holiday with tikkun olam — with the global struggle for justice and freedom.

But there’s another dimension to freedom that has little to do with what’s happening in Africa and everything to do with what’s happening inside each one of us. This is a deeply personal and intimate view of freedom, and Passover is an ideal time to try to connect with it.

I got an unexpected lesson on this subject the other day when I asked my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a teacher of “spiritual wisdom” who was visiting from his home in the south of France, to share some thoughts on Passover.

“Our personal journey of freedom is reflected in the four names we use for the festival of Pesach,” Glick told me over coffee. “Each name represents a different step in this journey.”

In other words, each step is like a “mini seder” that we must experience before moving on to the next step. As Glick went on, I thought: “This is so Jewish. As soon as you think you’ve accomplished something, a little voice tells you: ‘Don’t get too excited — you’re not done yet.’ ”

The first name for Pesach — Chag HaHerut (the festival of freedom) — represents the first, basic step of our liberation, when we are released from physical bondage. It’s not a coincidence that one of the seder rituals at this stage is to break off a small piece of matzah (yachatz) and put away the larger one. This is a sign, according to Glick, that there’s still a lot more work to be done.

What is that work? It is to realize that the freedom to do anything is not the same thing as the freedom to do the right thing.

This is the second level of freedom, as symbolized by the second name of the holiday — Chag HaPesach (the festival of Passover) — which features, among other things, the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb.

Here, we are called upon to sacrifice our animal natures for the sake of our higher selves. Just as Moses sacrificed the material benefits of being a prince for the spiritual benefits of doing God’s work, we are challenged to rise above our animal desires — such as unbridled hedonism — and use our newfound freedom for a higher purpose.

By now, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, this is a pretty high level. What else can God want from us?” Well, like I said, with Judaism there’s always something.

As Glick explained it, once we have managed to discipline our animal bodies and to make the right choices, we slowly realize there is yet another bondage that has a hold on us — the bondage of the mind.

We are enslaved to prejudice, dogma and ideology.

So, the third step in our journey to personal liberation, which is symbolized by the third name of Pesach — Chag HaMatzot (the festival of unleavened bread) — is to free ourselves from dogmatic thinking.

That’s why this step is symbolized by the matzah, the flat bread that is made without yeast and is not allowed to rise. Yeast represents the ego, and the unleavened matzah represents the freedom of an open and expansive mind.

But hold on, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still the fourth name for Pesach — Chag HaAviv, the festival of spring — which ushers in the final level of personal liberation.

This final step is when we are liberated from our most fundamental fears, such as the fear of old age, sickness and death.

Glick calls it “joining the mind of God,” which represents the eternal and the timeless. We no longer fear the end because, at this level of spiritual consciousness, there is no end, only constant renewal. As we recite the final psalms of Hallel, we are reminded that there’s also no end to God’s love, and we experience a state of “never- ending spring” when every living thing is part of one single great consciousness.

Now, if you’re wondering how you can experience all this spirituality while the wine is flowing, the kids are yelling and the guests are arguing over whether Obama is good for the Jews, here’s some good news: After the seder, you still have 49 days to go. According to the kabbalah, we are to use the 49 days between Passover and the festival of Shavuot — the days of the counting of the Omer — to reach higher and higher levels of spiritual perfection.

And for those of us who preach tikkun olam, I have no doubt that this spiritual process includes the obligation to help with the liberation of others.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being Jewish, it’s that no matter how spiritually elevated we get or how many good deeds we’ve done or how much we’ve learned or how many people we’ve helped … we’re never done.

And that’s a pretty universal idea.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Questionable behavior for after the seder


Why is the day after the seder different from all other days? Is it because we are exhausted? Or our clothes no longer button? Possibly.

More likely, I suspect the day after is different because of all the newly minted questions that drop into our brains like zuzim.

Hearing the Four Questions the night before at the seder just gets us started, and traditionally, by the next day when we meet another Jew, we have formulated four more:

  • At your seder, how many people were there?
  • How was the food?
  • What time did you eat?
  • How did you ever manage to stay awake?

Unlike the seder, where the Four Questions are usually asked by the youngest, the apres quartet are asked by friends, family and co-workers, and you will certainly want to respond with a detailed answer—a maggid, or story.

To that end, here’s a handy post-seder guide:

1. How many attended? That would seem the easiest to answer; even the simple son or daughter can count. What they really want to know is (in my best Four Questions chant), whose side of the family attended, and are they the ones that on Passover eat bread? Did the out-of-town college students take a plane? And tell me, did you invite any neighbors? Was there anyone there who wasn’t Jewish?

A lot of questions, but here’s the key query behind them: How inclusive was your seder?

On the night of the seder we ask why we dip our herbs twice, but the next day we want to know if Uncle Herb the family atheist fell asleep, or did Aunt Phyllis show with her new partner. And what of the vegan cousins?

Our tales of seder tables filled with character relatives are greeted with grins and groans, but Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration,” with Joel Lurie Grishaver, says at his seder he purposely leaves one seat empty.

“You leave an empty seat at the table for Elijah the prophet because you want Elijah to come,” Wolfson, the Fingerhut professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said in a recent interview. “Symbolically, leaving space is a metaphor for inclusivity.”

Wolfson believes the seder is a “wonderful opportunity to gather people”—colleagues, friends and family who have no place to go, or who are not Jewish—and that “hospitality will hasten the day that Elijah will come.”

My family has found that inviting guests beyond family has brought new perspectives, flavors and songs to our seder. And as a bonus, everyone is on their best behavior.

2. How was the food?  Beyond inquiring about the specific density of the matzah balls and the Scoville (hotness) rating of the maror, what people want to know—especially cooks—is whether your festival meal escaped from the servitude of old school Passover cuisine.

Wolfson says that asking food questions after the seder is a good way for cooks to up their game.

“A lot of people share recipes after the seder,” he said. “Creative cooks are somewhat challenged by Passover. ‘How do you make a pesadik lasagna?’ they ask.”

In our own home, we have found that creative uses of typical Passover ingredients like matzah, or nuts to make matzah roca, or an almond tort can help delay the inevitable how many more days of this can I take?

3. What time did you eat?  Sometimes known at the seder as the fifth question, the query expresses our need to compare levels of endurance.

At our seder the festival meal usually isn’t served until about two hours in. (Is that an “oy” I just heard from some contrary son?) In such instances, before you start, Wolfson recommends tipping off people to the length, so they can prepare.

“And let them know why you are doing this,” he adds.

Wolfson also counsels flexibility. “I have seen seder leaders say it’s OK if you have to go at 10,” he said. He also suggests that hunger can be assuaged by using points of the seder, like eating the karpas, to also serve hor d’oeuvres.

We usually serve artichokes. After 20 pages it’s amazing how popular the pointy things become.

A post-seder question about length is really about our sense of time in responding to the Haggadah’s main dictate that “in every generation it is our obligation to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.” How successful we are in redacting the “going out” brings us to the fourth question.

4. How did you manage to stay awake? Few people actually ask this; it is more a question that every seder leader must consider. For in our “duty to tell the story of the departure from Egypt,” the more one tells of the departure in an unrelatable way might itself lead to a departure if not of seder attendees, then of their attention.

Wolfson suggests running the seder like a “committee meeting,” calling on different people to participate. He advises that prior to the seder, “Give them homework, so they can have an investment in the evening being a success.”

Depending on Jewish backgrounds of the seder goers, “edit judiciously,” Wolfson advises. “Most guests have not a clue to what’s going on.”

At our seder, after the plagues, to give guests a clue, we get them outside where between two walls of blue tarp and while singing “Dayenu,” we shpritz them with water bottles to remind them of the crossing of the Red Sea.

Afterward, there are lots of questions.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

How not to feel like a matzah ball on Passover


It’s April and steel shopping carts clang and collide like bumper cars in the kosher-for-Passover aisle of my local supermarket. Even in this mob I find soul mates, shoppers who share my angst about eating many of the hechshered-for-the-holiday packaged foods. Foods made with what blogger Lisa Rose calls the “four food groups of Passover: cottonseed oil, MSG, white sugar and potato starch.”

Take Elaine Hoffman from Berkeley Heights, N.J., who will buy spelt matzah but little else packaged. Or Robin Polson of Maplewood, N.J., who purchases whole wheat farfel for her granola recipe, but as for much of the rest, she “can live without for eight days.”

There’s a movement here, with no formal name or membership directory. It’s a movement of Jews—from those scrupulous about Passover kashrut to others who celebrate “kosher style”—who eschew what Rabbi Ethan Tucker, rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar in New York, calls the “modern affliction” of the Passover diet, eating a “disproportionate amount of food out of boxes and cans.”

That affliction extends to ditching—during Passover only—dietary principles followed year-round.

“I used to buy 20 bags of potato chips at Passover for my kids,” says Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin of Am Yisrael Congregation in Northfield, Ill. “During the rest of the school year I would never buy chips. Ever.”

She attributes our reliance on processed food during Passover to our terror “of being deprived.” Having grown accustomed to a 23-aisle-supermarket lifestyle, today’s Jews find it difficult to relinquish any daily comestible. Rose followed a recent Facebook exchange among Los Angeles Jews “desperate to find Diet Coke” and searching for “which kosher market in town still had some left because it sold out so fast.”

“Do we really need kosher-for-Passover chicken flavoring? Did people forget how to make chicken soup?” Rose asks. Or as Marilyn Labendz of West Caldwell, N.J., puts it, “You have tomatoes. You can make tomato sauce. What’s so limiting?”

Jews in this de facto circle question whether eating a less healthy diet on these eight days is truly halachic (according to Jewish law). Rabbi Noach Valley, former president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, points to Deuteronomy 4:9, which entreats us to guard our life and health diligently, and to the Rambam, who writes that matters of health take precedence over all-important ritual.

Valley himself rails against cottonseed oil, “ubiquitous during Passover,” and the byproduct of a cotton crop “inundated with pesticides.” He says that in the past he has contacted heads of kashrut agencies objecting to “injuring Jews in the process of observing Passover.”

Labendz chafes at the thought that anything unhealthy should carry a Passover hechsher. “It’s like smoking,” she says. “It should have a treif symbol.”

Rose, who is kashrut observant, struggles with whether she should lower her standards for certification so that “I can feed my kids what is healthy.”

In my own house we’ve opted to include kitniyot (rice and beans), even though we’re Ashkenazi. Last year I reluctantly started buying non-hechshered organic pasta sauce over Passover varieties containing sugar or cottonseed oil.

For someone like Los Angeles filmmaker Sarah Feinbloom, Passover is about values other than strict kashrut observance.

“The holiday should be a time when you think consciously of what you should or should not be eating,” she says. “I think of spring, of rebirth, regeneration, of bounty, of lots of fruits and vegetables.”

Karen Shiffman Lateiner of Phoenix, Ariz., makes dishes from scratch. Sometimes she’ll “buy a can of macaroons just because it’s tradition. The rest of the stuff—nah.” For her, the most important aspect of Passover is spending time with family and friends.

Eating low on the Passover food chain—fruits and vegetables—doesn’t mean facing eight days and nights of steamed broccoli.

“I am not an ascetic person,” says Roberta Kalechofsky, who has written two Haggadahs and three cookbooks for Jewish vegetarians. She recommended her recipe for Vegetable Nut Loaf from “The Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook.”

“We like good food and I like to serve it,” she says. More important than incorporating foods that don’t violate kashrut are nixing those that “violate the chemistry of the human being.”

Scratch cooking, as these health-conscious Jews advocate, can take time. There are ways to make it easier, though, says cookbook author and New York Times columnist Martha Rose Shulman.

“It’s not so much a question of finding fast foods but getting organized and getting ahead,” she says.

Some things can be made in advance, like vegetable or chicken stock, many salad dressings, or blanched or roasted vegetables.

The Passover recipes Shulman tested for this year’s New York Times holiday food column “aren’t that time-consuming.” A recipe for a Greek lemon soup, for example, calls for breaking up matzah into the broth rather than preparing more effort-intensive knaidlach.

Nava Atlas, author of “Vegan Holiday Kitchen” (2011, Sterling Publishing), suggests making holiday meals that involve entertaining cooperative affairs. “Divide and conquer,” she says. “It’s the only way to do it. And everyone feels they have participated.”

Atlas also praises—as did almost everyone I interviewed—quinoa, which has achieved manna-like status among Passover health foodies in the past decade-plus. When I asked Rabbi Newman Kamin what she does to make the holiday healthier, she answered, “I’ll tell you in one word. quinoa.”

This week, I did a dry run of Atlas’ Quinoa Pilaf from “Vegan Holiday Kitchen”; my dinner guests that night gave it a thumbs-up. So to start you on a healthy-eating chag, here goes:

QUINOA PILAF

8 to 10 servings

Gluten free, soy free and nut free

Adapted by Nava Atlas from a contribution from her longtime reader, Barbara Pollak, this pilaf is attractive when made with a combination of red and white quinoa, but either color can be used on its own. It’s a veggie-filled way to celebrate quinoa’s becoming standard Passover fare. Quinoa is high in top-quality protein, making this a good choice for an entree for vegetarians and vegans at the seder table, and a delicious side dish for everyone else. Don’t be daunted by the length of the ingredient list; this dish is as easy as can be to make.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed
  • 3 cups prepared vegetable broth
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow or red onions, or 1 of each, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bag (16 ounces) shredded cole slaw cabbage
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 cups finely chopped broccoli florets
  • 1 cup sliced cremini or baby bella mushrooms
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh or jarred ginger, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh dill, more or less to taste

Preparation:

Combine the quinoa with the broth in a large saucepan. Bring to a rapid simmer, then lower the heat, cover and simmer gently until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Test to see if the quinoa is done to your liking; if needed, add another 1/2 cup water and simmer until absorbed.Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet or stir-fry pan. Add the onions and saute over medium-low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and continue to saute until the onion is golden.Add the cabbage, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, ginger, basil, thyme, and lemon juice. Turn up the heat to medium-high and stir-fry until the cabbage is tender-crisp, about 5 minutes.Stir in the cooked quinoa, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the parsley and dill, remove from the heat, and serve.

Elisa Spungen Bildner is co-chair of JTA.

Q&A with pastry chef Chris Hanmer


Award-winning pastry chef Chris Hanmer doesn’t let a little matzah meal scare him. Hanmer, who, in 2011, came in first in the second season of “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” has been pastry chef at catered Passover programs at Ritz-Carlton hotels in Lake Las Vegas, Nev., and Naples, Fla.

And after five years of serving up his signature Passover brownies, carrot cake and molten chocolate cakes, Hanmer sounds like a seasoned Jewish homemaker.

“I really enjoy doing it. It’s like a big sporting event. It only comes once a year, but you prepare for it and prepare for it, and at the end of it you’re really exhausted and you swear you’ll never do this again. And then another year comes, and you say, ‘I’m ready for it!’ ” said Hanmer, who is not Jewish.

He now runs his own company, The School of Pastry Design in Las Vegas, and consults with Mark David Catering in New York, which runs the Passover program at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples. He talked to The Journal about his Passover preparations:

Jewish Journal: I always thought chefs at hotels that host Passover programs must think we’re crazy. We come in saying, “We need many lavish desserts for a whole week, and you can’t use any flour and most of them have to be nondairy.”
Chris Hanmer: I think that’s where the challenge part comes in, and that’s something that draws my personality. I’m used to dealing with flour and butter and sugar and cream, and so when I first tried the pareve Passover items — well, it’s difficult. I knew that it was hard to make, but I also knew there should be a way to do this better.

JJ: What were some of the things that you came up with that worked?
CH: My approach is, what would I do if I had to make Passover for myself? I try to put myself in that situation with a lot of my clients, whether it’s for cupcakes or high-end bonbons or Passover. So I took a couple of months for research and development to figure out how to take my recipes and modify them for Passover, replacing flour with potato starch or matzah, or other things that are common in the Passover environment.

So, that was full of highs and lows. I would start something and think, “Oh, this is going to be so good,” and then I’d taste and it’s like, “Awww.” But with some small modifications I was able to come up with some great recipes.

In fact, some of them, in my opinion, are so good that my wife and I prefer them over the non-Passover equivalents, like my Passover brownies or carrot cake.

When I developed a recipe for carrot cake, I gave it to the supervising rabbi to taste — and he knows kosher-for-Passover desserts are difficult. The look on his face was like seeing your son or daughter eat chocolate for the first time.

JJ: Do you have rabbis standing over your shoulder as you are baking?
CH: Oh yeah, absolutely. We have a rabbi mashgiach in there the whole time. Even though I’m not Jewish and don’t have any Jewish heritage, I really have a fascination and tremendous respect for the tradition and the people. The rabbis have a very serious job, and I take it very seriously when I’m working in that environment, because it needs to be respected.

I have found that coming from a non-Passover, non-kosher cooking background, all you have to do with the rabbis is just ask. They always have a great attitude and are so humble, and say, “You know, Chris, we can’t do this, or we can do this,” and they always give me a really interesting explanation based on the law.

JJ: What sort of interesting things have you learned?
CH: I think one of the hardest things for non-kosher people like myself to grasp is that the new day starts at sundown. As chefs, we’re thinking it’s sundown but we’re going to keep producing and working, but on some days of Passover we can’t — we have to stop at sundown. You have to be really organized and really aware of what you’re doing.

But once you understand it, you see that it’s not a burden; it’s a way of life and it’s been going on for thousands of years. I really like it.

JJ: What do you substitute to make the desserts pareve?
CH: What I usually do is use some nondairy whipped topping, and I make a version of pastry cream. I came up with a recipe that uses nondairy creamer, eggs, potato starch and sugar. It has a much different mouth feel and flavor than a nondairy topping by itself.

JJ: What are some common dessert mistakes that home bakers make for Passover?
CH: If you’re doing a cookie or cake recipe with matzah cake meal, adding some water to the recipe will actually help a lot. Matzah meal is so dry, because it’s already been baked, so all of the moisture is out of it. By adding about 10 percent additional water, it helps the recipe rehydrate.

I also like to use fruit in fun ways, like making cobblers or apple crisp, or using fresh berries and cooking them with a little sugar and lemon zest and making a nice fruit topping for a Passover cake or pareve ice cream. That is something they do a lot in professional baking that the home baker doesn’t do.


PASSOVER STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE

SHORTCAKE:

1/3 cup almond flour
1/4 cup potato starch
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg whites
2 tablespoons margarine

Preheat oven to 330 F. 

Sift together the almond flour and potato starch and set aside.

In a stand mixer, whip the egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar and vanilla extract until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.

In a clean bowl in the stand mixer, whip the egg whites with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until stiff and about double in volume.

Fold the whipped egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Mix only until about half the whites are incorporated.

Slowly fold in the sifted almond flour and potato starch until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps. 

Place batter in two loaf pans that have been sprayed with nonstick spray.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Set aside to cool.

LEMON CREAM:

1/2 teaspoon potato starch
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup lemon juice
4 tablespoons margarine

Place the potato starch and sugar in a bowl and mix with a whisk. Add the eggs and mix well.

Warm the lemon juice in a pot on the stove. Pour 1/4 cup of the lemon juice into the egg mixture and mix well.

Pour the warm egg lemon juice mixture back into the pot with the remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice.

Whisk over medium heat until it thickens and just comes to a boil.

Remove from the heat and let cool for 3 minutes.

Whisk in the margarine one piece at a time, mixing very well. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic film, and place in the refrigerator.

TO ASSEMBLE AND SERVE:

1 pint fresh strawberries
1 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Lemon zest

Clean and slice strawberries and sprinkle with sugar. Mix well and let them rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Slice each loaf into 1-inch slices. Place 1 slice on each of 8 dessert plates. Spoon some of the sliced strawberries on top of the cake. Spoon some of the lemon cream over the strawberries. Repeat with another slice of cake, some of the strawberries and some of the lemon cream. Top each with a little fresh lemon zest. 

Makes about 8 servings.

Valentine’s Day: Use what you’ve got


Valentine’s Day can be a tough time for a young Jew. Fancy restaurants do not cater well to our people. The last time I took a lady to a snooty eatery, the special was baked swiss-cheese-topped-pork stuffed into a lobster served on a picture of Jesus.

Why do we put ourselves through this fahklumpt meshugas? Why not treat your special someone to a romantic night right in your own home? What if you prepared this same sexy evening, from ingredients that you have left over from Jewish holidays? The possibilities, my friends, are endless.

Set the mood with candles. Hanukkah candles.

You’ve got a menorah just sitting on a shelf as a decoration? If that menorah had a Jewish mother it would get yelled at for being so lazy. Put it to work softly lighting the room, and watch your significant other marvel at your ability to create ambiance and your resourcefulness. If she asks why a menorah, look deeply into her eyes and say “because I never stop believing in miracles,” and kiss her, you smoothie.

What’s for dinner? What isn’t?

A romantic dinner comprised of Jewish leftovers from around the house could be any number of tantalizing combinations. When you think of a sexy dish, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Gefilte fish, I knew we were on the same page. What if you upped the ante and served up some Manischewitz-marinated Gefilte fish?  That latke mix box you’ve got lying around doesn’t make latkes, it makes, “salt-encrusted potato medallions.” You just created a fancy dinner and freed up pantry space (for more Gefilte fish).

Sukkot: The gift that keeps on giving.

What is the point of a gift like chocolates? They’re gone when you eat them, and then you forget about them. A gift should be something practical, something you can really use in your daily life. I say, take the wood and hammers you used to make your sukkah, and gift them to your lady. She’ll always have them as a reminder of your romantic gift-giving skills and thoughtfulness. Who knows what she could create with them? As long as she doesn’t build a chuppah, you can’t go wrong.

Sprinkle rose petals on the bed? More like sprinkle matzah.

Why would you waste perfectly good flowers creating a sexy atmosphere when you’ve got what you need collecting dust in the back of the pantry since last April? Keep those flowers in a vase and crumble (let’s be honest—it’s already crumbled) some matzah on that bed. What you lack in traditional symbols of love you will gain in the cute, uniting task of gathering all the tiny matzah bits when they get everywhere. And have you ever been with your lady on top of a bed of matzah? I won’t make a find the Afikomen joke here, but she will, and she’ll thank you for it.

Put all these steps together, and you’ve got yourself a sexy dinner for two followed by an intensely romantic evening. A successful evening and using all your Jewish holiday leftovers? Now that’s a good Tuesday. Just be sure to save the Purim noisemakers for some fun in the bedroom.

Beyond matzah and couscous


Ataste of Israel is no farther away than your local grocery store — and not just in the kosher aisle.

No one’s surprised to find Israeli matzah on a shelf, but what about sliced Mexican turkey from a company called Hod Golan (motto: “The Height of Good Taste”), which is offered at many Ralphs stores?

That’s just the beginning when it comes to the varied food products being imported from the Holy Land these days. There’s also tea, spices, cheese and even frozen herbs.

Consider it food for thought as Buy Israel Week approaches. The effort to promote products made in Israel, which is co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, will take place Nov. 28 through Dec. 4.

American grocery stores have seen an influx of products hailing from Israel. In the first half of this year alone, the country exported $85 million in food to the United States, an 8 percent increase over the same period last year, according to Lital Frenkel-Porat of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute.

A document by that nonprofit organization, which is supported by the Israeli government and private sector and charged with promoting the country’s business abroad, suggests a few reasons for the boost:

• A blend of cultures due to geography and immigrant populations has created a variety of unique food products;

• A national health awareness has translated into increased meatless and sugar-, lactose- and gluten-free products;

• A strong commitment to research and development has led to advancements in food-ingredient technology and innovative products.

The result? Hundreds of products trickling into American grocery stores, even if the average consumer isn’t aware of it.

Whole Foods Market, for example, sells more than 200 products nationwide that are made in Israel by 14 companies. Among them are Elyon’s fat-free, gluten-free marshmallows; Gefen’s gluten-free ziti noodles; and a host of spices by Pereg — including mixed spices for the all-American hamburger. (Availability varies by store.)

“Whole Foods Market is proud to sell products from Israel and many other countries around the world,” Marci Frumkin, executive marketing coordinator for the company’s Southern Pacific region, said in a statement. “In fact, our 365 Everyday Value team recently took a trip to Israel to investigate products we may want to include in our line.”

Other major chains stock up on Israeli goods, too. Ralphs lists about 275 products from more than 30 companies. Vons counts more than 80 items from eight Israeli businesses.

Trader Joe’s was the first to carry a line of frozen foods by Dorot, a kibbutz located at the edge of the Negev in southern Israel. It produces all-natural, flash-frozen herbs and other products that are packaged in ice cube-like trays for individual servings.

“A few hours after the harvest, it’s already frozen,” said Tal Tal-Or, CEO of the company’s U.S. subsidiary based in West Hills and vice president for all Dorot export markets. “We always say it’s faster than fresh.”

Now Dorot products can be found in nearly 4,000 stores, including Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and Ralphs.

“There are a lot of struggles, but our company is growing in the U.S.,” Tal-Or said. “Our product is not like bread or cheese or milk. It requires a lot of explanation. People don’t expect to find basil in the freezer.”

Trader Joe’s carries Israeli couscous, too, but perhaps more intriguing is what consumers may find a few aisles over: Pastures of Eden feta cheese. Produced by the Israeli Sheep Breeders Association, it’s a creamy, Balkan-style cheese made from sheep’s milk.

“In terms of feta, this is really the highest quality that we have found,” said Melissa Shore, marketing director of importer Arthur Schuman in New Jersey. “It’s very different from the Greek feta. It’s just a totally different texture. I think people are surprised by it.”

Israeli grocery imports go beyond just food. Ralphs, for example, carries a number of drinks by Prigat, a brand that has been in the United States since 2000. It produces mango and peach nectar, as well as other flavors.

Then there’s the wine, especially that being produced in the Golan Heights. Brands like Yarden are widely available — Ralphs is one carrier — and up to world-class standards, according to Martin Weiner, who runs the Los Angeles School of Wines.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a marked increase in quality,” he said.

Tea drinkers can indulge in Wissotzky Tea, available at Ralphs and Vons. Flavors include everything from Mango and Passion Fruit to Nana-Lemon (a mix of lemon and mint). The company has a manufacturing plant in the Galilee and has been producing tea since 1936.

So the time is good to be an Israeli food exporter. But it’s not without its challenges. Dorot, for one, has been caught up in campaigns by pro-Palestinian organizations to boycott Israeli goods, according to Tal-Or.

Trader Joe’s, however, told the company not to sweat it.

“[They] told us, ‘Look, since these protests have started, your sales have gone up 20 percent. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the U.S. … were exposed to the product. That helped us increase sales,” he said.

Still, he concluded: “A lot of Israeli products really suffer from these Palestinian organizations, and it’s making us feel uncomfortable. We try to fight it as best we can.”

Judge rules U.S. inmate has no right to matzah


A U.S. federal judge has ruled that an inmate in a New York jail does not have a constitutionally protected right to matzah and grape juice.

Christopher Henry, who was charged with first-degree sodomy, claimed permanent trauma and malnourishment and requested nearly $10 billion in damages for what he called a violation of his First Amendment right to religious freedom.

Henry didn’t request matzah for Passover, the Jewish holiday during which it is traditionally eaten. Instead, Henry claimed he had a right to have the unleavened bread served daily and grape juice every Friday.

But on Aug. 2, U.S. Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin held that the Rikers Island jail could deny Henry his request in the interests of maintaining order and keeping costs reasonable.

“Providing individualized meals to a single inmate might well foster an impression of favoritism, which could lead to jealousy and resentment among the inmate population, which in turn could cause tension and threaten prison security,” she wrote.

“Similarly, providing individualized meals to one or several inmates would involve a substantial increase in administrative costs.”

Scheindlin noted that Henry already receives Kosher meals and is allowed to meet with a rabbi.

Henry, who represented himself, has filed a number of lawsuits against the department of corrections, including claims based on the permitted length of phone calls and lack of conjugal visits.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder)

This matzah is kept under lock and key. So are the people who will eat it.


A few weeks before Passover, there was a moment when Shirley Friedman looked worried that there might not be enough food for everybody.

Friedman, who calls herself “a full-time grandmother,” is expecting to feed three dozen people over the first two nights of Passover at her table at home — but on that Thursday morning, she wasn’t worrying about a problem that could be solved by another trip to the supermarket.

That’s not the way things work in the Los Angeles County Jail system.

“Why do I only have two pallets?” Friedman, asked, eyeing two dense stacks of shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes that had just come out of an industrial-size freezer. The boxes contained Passover food from a large kosher food processing company in New York and cost the county nearly $8,000; the contents were supposed to feed the county jail’s 35 kosher-observant inmates for the eight days of Passover. And Friedman, an Orthodox woman who has been volunteering as a chaplain in the jail for the last 10 years, was on hand to make sure that everything was, well, kosher.

Taking care of the spirits and souls of Southern California’s jailed Jews is a demanding job throughout the year. Passover’s additional requirements take the religious observance to another level of complexity.

“I think it’s the most intensive Jewish holy day inside the prison system, just because it is so logistically complicated,” said Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, who has served as the Jewish chaplain at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo for the past 15 years.

From finding officers to supervise the pre-Passover cleaning of the prison’s two separate Jewish chapels where the communal seders will be held, to training the “supervisor volunteers” to lead them, the effort has kept Moskowitz very busy. “It takes six weeks of eight-hour-day preparation,” Moskowitz said.

Even with all that work in advance, the California state budget situation could still throw a wrench into the works.

“The whole prison system is on what they call a ‘rolling lockdown,’ which means that at any given time, one of the yards that the men live on is locked down,” Moskowitz explained. “Some of the men will actually not be free to walk the 200 to 300 yards from their cell over to the chapel area to participate in a halachic community seder.”

Jewish law — halachah — specifies the date (April 18) and time (after sundown) when a Passover seder is to take place. But in correctional facilities, despite the protections for religious practice provided by the First Amendment, the California administrative code and an 11-year-old federal law that specifically protects prisoners’ religious rights, other laws, rules and regulations can present obstacles to observance.

Rabbi Yossi Carron, senior rabbi in the L.A. County jails for the past eight years, has become adept at balancing these competing requirements.

Carron calls the people he serves “the forgotten Jews,” and he quickly makes clear that not all Jewish prisoners are behind bars for white-collar crimes. “There are rapists and murderers and drug addicts — mostly drug addicts — and armed robbers,” Carron said, “just like the rest of the world. But nobody wants to acknowledge it.”

Dividing his weeks between L.A. County’s cash-strapped jails and one state prison in Corcoran, Carron has learned to stretch his limited time and his limited funds as far as possible — far beyond what would be expected of most rabbis.

There’s no Protestant chaplain, no Catholic chaplain, no imam” at the state prison in Corcoran, Carron explained, so whenever he leads Jewish services, he’s also nominally supervising the other inmate-led religious services. “Otherwise they couldn’t have services at all,” Carron said.

“Rabbi Carron has taken that chaplaincy to an entirely new level of commitment, of involvement, of caring about the inmates and the staff,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Inmates who meet with Carron know his rules. They are not to lie to him, and they must not show up intoxicated at any meeting. But aside from those two strict guidelines, Carron is probably one of the more flexible people in the county jail.

Take Carron’s seder, which he leads using a photocopied haggadah of his own devising. “It’s always about recovery, and how Judaism and recovery fit together, and how we’re expected to be holy,” Carron said.

Carron will lead this year’s seder on April 22, the fourth day of Passover, but he’s not sure how many people will be able to come, nor could he say for certain what they’ll be eating.

Until last year, Carron was able to find caterers to donate food for the seder, but last year, in accordance with a change in jail policy prohibiting any outside food being brought inside, he had to end that practice. Not being able to bring in food from the outside, Carron had to depend on the jail kitchen, which led to a less-than-ideal situation for the Jewish inmates who were not among those keeping kosher.

Some ended up eating meals that were kosher but not kosher for Passover. And they were the lucky ones.

“Some guys, if they weren’t on kosher, they weren’t allowed to come. And that’s wrong,” Carron said. It isn’t clear how that policy has changed this year, if at all.

Which isn’t to say that administrators in charge of running the L.A. County jails aren’t working very hard to accommodate the Jewish inmates interested in celebrating the holy day.

Benson Li, the sheriff’s department manager for food service units in the jail, explained that the Meal Mart-branded kosher for Passover food costs $24.30 per inmate per day. “That’s almost nine times more than the regular meals,” Li said, referring to nonkosher food that most of the 15,000 other inmates eat daily. “We always take care of our religious inmates — whatever it takes.”

On the first night of Passover, this includes a meal of roast chicken, potato kugel and carrot tzimmes. Included in each prisoner’s box are four boxes of grape juice, an Artscroll paperback haggadah and a plastic seder plate with all the fixings, all of them freezer-safe. (The green vegetable on the plate is celery, which freezes better than the alternatives.)

Los Angeles County Bureau of Offender Programs and Services director Karen S. Dalton said her staff attempts to allow inmates to eat communally, “to the extent possible that we can.”

“We have several different housing areas where the inmates who are Jewish live,” Dalton said. “In many of them, there’s only one Jewish inmate. If they’re housed in the same area, same pod, same everything, they can sit at the same table and eat together.”

Even Friedman, the Orthodox volunteer chaplain, admitted that a degree of flexibility is required on certain matters — like having non-Jews heat up food on Shabbat for Jewish inmates, which is halachically prohibited.

But Friedman was not willing to compromise as she oversaw 13 people — one officer, one jail dietitian and her intern, five cooks from the different jail facilities and five prisoners in yellow jumpsuits — sort through the Passover food.

Aside from one loading dock guard who called the Passover preparations “mumbo jumbo,” the staff and inmates were efficient and cooperative as they sorted packets of French dressing, individually boxed beef goulash and boxes of matzah into a week’s worth of meals.

When the job was done, there was enough food for the 35 inmates on Friedman’s list — more than enough, actually. The county had ordered food for 40 people, and every prisoner would get about 2,700 calories per prisoner per day, a bit more than the mandated 2,500 calories.

And even though nearly everything was shrink-wrapped, reducing the risk of something contaminating the kosher for Passover food, Friedman kept her eye on everything — including this reporter.

At one point, I approached an inmate named Miguel while he was sorting cream cheese and jam into individual plastic bags. He said he’d never before celebrated Passover.

Then I asked if the Passover food he was packing up looked better than the food he was used to in the jails. His eyes went wide.

“Don’t answer that,” Friedman told Miguel.

He didn’t.

RECIPE: The Fluffiest Matzah Balls


The Fluffiest Matzah Balls
(Click here for the full article)

I’ve been tweaking this matzah ball recipe over the years, and I’m now satisfied that it produces the lightest matzah balls you’ve ever tasted. If you don’t want to take the time to make them, boil some Passover noodles and add to the soup instead.

3 eggs, separated

About 1/2 cup water or chicken stock

1 to 1 1/2 cups matzah meal

1/8 teaspoon salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Place egg yolks in a measuring cup and add enough water or chicken stock to fill one cup. Beat with a fork until well blended. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks; do not overbeat. In a small bowl, combine matzah meal with salt and pepper. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the yolk mixture alternately with the matzah mixture into beaten egg whites. Use only enough matzah to make a light, soft dough. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Cover and let firm up for five minutes.

Bring soup to a slow boil and using a large spoon, gently drop in matzah balls. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes (do not uncover during this cooking time).

Makes 12 servings.

 

L.A. Jewish girl joins the African Jewish matzah dance


My Pesach preparation, like that of so many Americans, usually involves walking to my local supermarket and loading a cart full of Manischewitz products … you
know, the chocolate-covered jellies, the matzah-pizza sauce and, of course, the kosher cheese that rarely melts. The hardest part of the process is simply choosing between the egg and onion or the butter-flavored matzah.

But preparing for Pesach this year was a bit different. Living in the village of Gonder in Northern Ethiopia and teaching Hebrew music, dance and culture to eager students, ages 6 to 20, has been an enormous blessing. I wake up each morning to pray with white-robed, modest Ethiopians who have moved from the surrounding villages to be a part of this unbelievable 14,000-person Jewish community. From morning services, I walk the rocky dirt path to the mud and straw school, which is decorated with vibrant paintings of the Torah, a shofar, Israeli flags and even a diagram of the body in Hebrew. It is alive with exuberant children skipping quickly inside to get a good seat on the wooden benches. They sing “Hava Nagila,” “Esa Enai” and “Hinei Matov” with every ounce of power in their lungs and with a groovy boogie in their brightly colored foam-sandaled feet. Meanwhile, some of their older cousins and parents are busy suiting up in matching beige aprons preparing for the coming holiday.

Almost 400 miles away from the nearest “supermarket” — not to mention one that sells kosher food — the members of Gonder’s Beta Israel Jewish Community have to make all their matzah themselves, resulting in the production of 300,000 matzot in an outdoor, 18-minute-or-less whirlwind, just in time to replace the injera (traditional flat, sour, bubbly pancakes — the staple Ethiopian food) for Pesach.

As a Los Angeles-bred city girl, I would have had no idea where to start if I were asked to hand-prepare fresh matzah. I probably would have plopped some bread dough on my head and hurriedly walked around outside in the sun, trying to mimic my ancestors leaving Egypt, hoping that it would somehow bake into a neat flattened square crisp.

But in Gonder, they have the process down to an art. More than 100 community members in kippot and hair coverings (for the women) work under the supervision of an Israeli Ethiopian named Getinet beneath the precious shade of a large green tree. Turquoise-, yellow- and cantaloupe-shaded birds gather on the branches to witness the operation, also providing a cheery tune on the breeze. The men face each other across long, spotless tables. They count down to the start of the 18-minute cycle with an excited Amharic “ahnd, hoolet, sost!” (And I thought that the ’90s cooking show, “Ready, Set, Cook!” was good.) As soon as the countdown reaches its climax and the time begins to run, they rapidly mix the flour and water, pound it out, roll it, puncture it with “the little hole making wheel” and cut out medium-sized circles.

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May this Pesach bring us all a little “Jewish matzah dance” of our own — or may it at least inspire us to enjoy the natural beauty and joy of Hashem’s creations. More importantly, may the fire of our souls inspire us to perform many mitzvot and celebrate the glory of our heritage that transcends continents, languages and cultures.

For more information about the program, contact the

Missing Matzah? It’s a Chain Store Problem


The hunt for matzah stretched beyond the afikomen this year. A matzah shortage this week left many Southern California shoppers driving to multiple supermarkets in search of the unleavened bread, which plays a leading role during Passover seders and is used throughout the week.

Linda Guss, a Valley Village resident, said her local Ralphs was totally out of matzah when she did her Passover shopping last week.

“The checkout lady said that this was happening at other stores as well. In all my years, I have never seen a grocery store completely out of matzah,” she said.

Shortages have been reported across Southern California, but the problem isn’t confined to the Southland. The Bay Area and Reno have also reported shortages, and supplies are limited in Portland, Ore.

Ralphs did not return calls seeking comment. A Vons and Pavilions representative said the chain hadn’t been affected, but calls to several area stores found no stock at press time Tuesday. Trader Joe’s and some Costco stores did not carry matzah this year, and representatives from Gelson’s and Whole Foods say their supplies are dwindling.

“Unfortunately, due to a manufacturer issue, there has been a shortage on matzah this year, which has impacted our stores,” Whole Foods spokesperson Shawn Glasser said.

Construction issues and problems with a new state-of-the-art oven at Manischewitz’s only plant in Newark led the company to announce it wouldn’t produce Tam Tams and other kosher-for-Passover products this year, including its flavored matzah lines. Instead, the company focused on unsalted, whole wheat and egg matzah. In late January, R.A.B. Foods Group, Manischewitz’s parent company, sent a memo out to distributors listing which products would not be available, adding that its plant would work around the clock to produce Passover products.

“The last few months have been difficult; we are now heading in the right direction. We appreciate your patience and support, look forward to serving all of our customers with our full line of quality products and will work very hard to win your confidence back with improved service in the future,” the memo stated.

While rising food prices and mounting global food shortages are not to blame for the shortage this year, David Rossi, Manischewitz’s vice president of marketing, told the New Jersey Jewish News that the company does expect prices to rise in 2009 once its wheat contracts are renegotiated after Passover.

“We’re biting the bullet for this Passover,” Rossi said. “We’ll get through it and come out better.”

Streit’s West Coast distributor and other matzah manufacturers could not be reached for comment about the shortage.

Manischewitz spokeswoman Amy Stern said that production of kosher-for-Passover matzah ended in late March, and that retailers had up until the week before Passover to place their orders.

Los Angeles kosher markets contacted said matzah boxes still line their shelves.

A representative for the recently re-opened Glatt Mart said it still had a full selection of matzah. And Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwarz says his matzah supply hadn’t been affected.

“It’s purely a chain store problem,” he said. “We’ve got matzah!”

Get ready to sing . . . Hatikvah!


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May Days!

There are a lot of holidays this month, and your school or synagogue probably has special activities for them. We’ve listed them below … but we’ve taken out the vowels. See if you can fill in the blanks and then match the holiday to the date we celebrate it on. Scroll down and see if you have the right answers.

1) L_G b’_M_R
2) M_M_R__L D_Y
3) M_TH_R’S D_Y
4) R_SH CH_D_SH _Y_R
5) Y_M H_SH__H
a) May 1
b) May 5
c) May 11
d) May 23
e) May 26

A Time to Celebrate

Israel turns 60 on May 14. Which, of course, means it is party time! On May 18, Los Angeles is having an all-day bash in the park. From 10 a.m.-10 p.m. at Woodley Park (between Burbank and Victory boulevards) in Encino, hear music, watch a fashion show, enjoy tons of food, play games, enjoy rides, buy Israeli products and wish the Jewish state a happy birthday.

The Jewish Journal will be there with our friend, Anne Marie Balia Asner, author of the Matzah Ball Books series, including “Shmutzy Girl” and “Noshy Boy.” Anne Marie will be signing her latest book, “Klutzy Boy,” so be sure to stop by our Readers Lounge and take a break from the heat. Yom Hooledet Sameach Yisrael!

For more information, visit

Japanese video — ‘Improve your matzoh handling technique’


Breaking matzoh cleanly. Hat tip to Mobius.

I Ate the Whole Thing!


I Ate the Whole Thing!

Rap music and matzah balls? Hey, Jews can rap. Just ask the group, Chutzpah, which showed up in full rapping gear for the weighing of the 26-pound-matzah ball at Canter’s Deli last week to celebrate the DVD release of “When Do We Eat?” The weights and measures officials arrived in uniform to record the official weight to send to Guinness, and guests and regulars ogled the giant treat. Not exactly like grandma used to make, but in this case bigger was better.

The matzah ball weigh-in was all part of the 75th anniversary celebration for the legendary L.A. deli, with Assemblyman Paul Koretz doing the honors of presenting an official proclamation from the state of California. Alan Canter, representing the second generation of family ownership, accepted the honor; he has spent practically his whole life keeping Canter’s one of Southern California’s most beloved and long-lasting dining establishments.

Koretz saluted the restaurant for its many years of great food, legendary service and extensive community involvement.

Two longstanding employees, head waitress Jean Cocchiaro and manager and main sandwich man George Karkabasis — considered by many to be the fastest and best sandwichmaker in town — were also surprised with certificates of commendation.

Together, they have worked at Canter’s for more than 100 years! Jacqueline, Gary and Mark Canter were on hand to celebrate their family’s famous fressing history with Dad, Alan.

The Canters reminisced about old times with Koretz, noting the table where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller sat on Friday nights, the visits from sports stars like Wilt Chamberlain and Hank Aaron, the joking of regulars like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett.

Solidarity Brother

Responding to the crisis in Israel, Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, and the synagogue’s director of education, Metuka Benjamin, quickly organized a solidarity mission to Israel. The group of 21 congregants met with high-level military and political leadership for a crisis update, visited military bases directly involved in the conflict and experienced first-hand the mobilization of essential services for Israelis in the north who were directly affected by this war. Herscher and Benjamin led the temple’s leadership as they brought gifts to wounded soldiers at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. They also visited a summer camp organized by the Joint Distribution Committee to serve children affected by the bombings in the Haifa area and met with handicapped Israelis who were evacuated to hotels in the center of the country. The temple has scheduled three other Israel missions for the coming year and raised $1.4 million dollars toward meeting Israel’s immediate crisis needs.

Zev on the Mount

Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries named Bob Zev director of marketing. Zev, who has a bachelor’s from CSUN and an MBA from USC, has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience serving as the vice president of marketing for a financial institution.

Zev grew up in Los Angeles, became a bar mitzvah at Sinai Temple, and attended Hillel Hebrew Academy, Hebrew High School, Camp Ramah and spent a year in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

‘Lost’ in the Art World

Even though Jack Bender didn’t win the best director Emmy Sunday night for his work on “Lost,” he was very much a winner at the premiere of his one-man show, “Found” at the Timothy Yarger Fine Art Gallery in Beverly Hills on Aug. 26. The exhibition was a “lost and found” of sorts for Bender’s friends, colleagues and admirers, who all converged onto the swanky gallery floors to view his colorful, explosive mixed-media paintings and, of course, to socialize.

The paintings could hardly be viewed through the talkative crowd of well-dressed art lovers, gallery clients and Bender’s circle of friends, who were sipping vodka-based cocktails named in Bender’s honor, such as “On a Bender” and “Castaway.” Across from “The Hatch Painting,” made famous for its appearance in “Lost,” students from View Park Prep in South L.A. played smooth jazz for the guests.

Among the celebs present to gush over Bender’s artwork were actress Blythe Danner; Jacqueline Bisset; J.J. Abrams, creator of “Lost”; Carlton Cuse, “Lost” producer; “Lost” star Evangeline Lily (who plays Kate) and “Sex and the City” actor Evan Handler (Charlotte’s Jewish husband).

“I don’t know how he did all of these,” Danner enthused to Entertainment Tonight, at the gallery.

Works exhibited are those he completed during breaks from filming “Lost” in Hawaii these past two years. Bender has been painting ever since he was a teen.Lilly, however, wasn’t surprised by Bender’s creative output on display: “It’s an expression and extension of himself,” she told The Journal in the gallery’s backroom, where Bender shared exhibition space with Chagall and Picasso. “He’s very spontaneous as a director and doesn’t like to premeditate things.”Bender summed up the evening: “It’s wonderful to be in this extraordinary environment. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a long ride.”

— Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Beit T’Shuvah’s New President Honored

Brindell Gottlieb recently opened her home to celebrate Nancy Mishkin as the new president of Beit T’Shuvah. Mishkin’s two-year term with the Westside congregation and rehabilitation center began in July. The annual Steps to Recovery Gala on Jan. 28, 2007, honoring Ron Herman, Dr. Susan Krevoy and Diane Licht, will be the first event highlighting Mishkin’s presidency. Beit T’Shuvah’s mission is to insure the physical, emotional and spiritual health of individuals and families within a supportive Jewish community. For more information, call (310) 204-5200, ext. 211.