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By Ze'ev Maghen
For the past several months – as the reader is no doubt aware – Israelis have been living in abject terror. Especially in Jerusalem and its environs, but throughout the remainder of the country as well, the Jewish population of the Jewish State has once again come to understand – as so often before in the long and tragic history of our beleaguered nation – the true meaning of the word fear. No one is safe. No haven is to be had. Our anxiety mounts daily, and when night descends we toss and turn, awakening in a cold sweat. In our streets and in our neighborhoods, in our very homes where our children sleep, security has become a stranger to us. We quiver, we shiver, we shudder, we quake, we cast furtive glances at every corner, search suspiciously under each item of furniture, constantly glancing over our shoulders, ever on the alert, prisoners of an acute, torturous and exponentially snowballing paranoia.
Wherefore do we tremble so? What has engendered this ominous atmosphere of malaise in our ranks? What threat, what force, what ghastly foe has cast consternation into our hitherto brave and placid bosoms? Is it Palestinian gunmen? Hamas terrorism? Islamic Jihad suicide bombers? No.
It is bread.
Passover is here again, dear reader, that heady holiday when spring is in the air, the flowers are all a-blossom, and hundreds of thousands of observant Jews in Israel and the Diaspora go irremediably and uncontrollably OUT OF THEIR MINDS. Seized by violent, existential panic over the possible presence anywhere within the confines of their ultra-sanitized domiciles of a micro-fraction of a subatomic particle of yeast-contaminated dough, it is not long before these leaven-leery lunatics leap into action. See them strap on their armor and do decisive battle with all feloniously tumescent cereal products, wiping out wetted wheat where it stands, boldly summoning bloated barley to single combat, lancing in their pious fury the puffed-up pride of panis! Thrill to their exultant, whooping cries, as they swoop down unannounced on scandalous scones, give cringing crumpets the coup de grace, hold public pumpernickel autos da fe (toast in hell!), yes, cheer them as they banish bagels, slaughter sandwiches and pillory pop-tarts, massacring muffins with not a hint of mercy, crucifying croissants with ne’er a care!
Deep in the throes of their annual fermentia, these Hebrew crumb hunters run amok, trashing their residences, switching their dishes, changing their wardrobes, replacing their dog-food, confiscating their children’s Play-Do (play-dough), manufacturing special Passover deodorant (sans the grain alcohol), purchasing kosher-for-Passover telephones (plosives with the mouth full can lead to irretrievable food particles lodged in the receiver), and generally scrubbing the self-same surfaces time and again like open-and-shut-case obsessive-compulsives, scraping, scouring, scalding, buffing, polishing, burnishing, sandblasting, blowtorching – everything short of full-tilt thermonuclear saturation bombardment – then hermetically sealing these sterilized exteriors under twenty-three layers of nylon, rubber, tin foil, Kevlar and God only knows what other agents of insulation, and finally – unsatisfied that all of these operations together have sufficed to extirpate every last vestige of the lethal Staff of Life from under their consecrated roofs – throwing up their hands, abandoning their homes altogether and fleeing pell-mell to resort-hotels in the mountains. An entire nation of purportedly intelligent and clear-minded people wages an annual international holy war of ruthless extermination…against a legume.
(Perhaps you find the traditional attitudes and activities described above to be somewhat humorous. That is what my cousin Kevin thought, when he had a deep-dish pan pizza delivered to my Uncle Joe’s house during the family seder [yes, of course it was pepperoni]. He was grounded for a month).
Amongst my people I do dwell: I cannot claim to have stood entirely aloof from this year’s collective paschal psychosis. Permit me to share with you just a few highlights from my own participation in the latest installment of this three thousand year-old insanity…
… The Matzah Bakery. How to make you understand? Picture a large, powerfully lit room with a low ceiling, slightly longer than it is broad, with what looks like the very jaws of hell (the monster oven) occupying the entire wall at one end. On the opposite side, where the whole operation will momentarily commence, envision a division: two separate, sealed-off compartments, one in each corner, with an alcove in between them. The first of these compartments is called the vasser tzimmer, Yiddish for the “water room” – whither we had delivered the previous afternoon’s hydro-haul. The second is the mel tzimmer or “flour room.” In the nook between the water and flour rooms, enthroned upon a sturdy tripod, rests a large aluminum bowl, presided over with much solemnity by the funnemmer (the “taker”). The funnemmer will soon demand and receive valuable and dangerous contributions from the chambers on either side of him, thereby initiating the momentous liquid-solid miscegenation process.
The fellow at the water post occasionally emerges from his room for a quick breather. But no one has ever even met the flour guy. He goes into strict sequestration in his mel-tzimmer corner cell long before anyone arrives, bolts the door and never comes out. They say he has it all in there: library, telephone, Internet hook-up, DVD, facilities for responding to the call of nature – you name it. Just so long as he stays put. This policy of rigid apartheid is more than justified, given that the “flour guy” handles the matzah-baking version of pure grade plutonium: were the tiniest speck of unsupervised wheat-flour inadvertently to be trekked by a heedless mel-mann into the main room and there to encounter the minutest droplet of unaccounted-for liquid trickling somewhere around the premises, well – chametz (leaven) could conceivably come into being, and then, of course, the entire universe as we know it would be sucked back into the Cosmic Egg.
Proceeding further down the floor of the factory, we enter the fearsome domain of the finners, eight bruiser-class mastodons of the palooka variety who together resemble nothing so much as the backfield line-up of the Washington Redskins, and whose job description is basically to beat the bleeding bejazus out of the funnemmer-furnished proto-dough, rendering it soft, malleable, and submissive. Moving beyond these prodigious personages, we arrive at the center of the factory, which is dominated by the tish, a massive table made of stainless steel and literally glistening with vestal immaculacy. Around the tish stand thirteen velgerers (“rollers”) – ten of them laymen (including the present writer), two “skilled workers,” and a supervisor – whose collective duty it is to fashion by means of assembly line a round sheet of dough (real matzahs are round, machine-made matzahs are square) so flat and thin that you can barely see it from the side, lest any part of the innards escape unbaked.
Onward to the penultimate station, staffed by a lone reddler or “perforator,” who effects the Passover fare’s notorious punch-card look (another method of preventing dough expansion) using a three-pronged, hoe-like device that he cleans every thirty seconds with a blow-torch. Finally, two shibbers (“shovers”) and four bakkers (“bakers”) hold sway over Dante’s Matzah Inferno at the back wall, which is partitioned off from the main ward lest it escalate room temperature by a sliver of a mini-micro-nano-degree, and thereby accelerate the rising process. These highly trained (and no less highly remunerated) “specialists” are charged with the unenviable double task of ensuring, on the one hand, that the wafer-thin matzah-frisbees are not immediately burnt to a crisp and rendered inedible by the immense heat, while at the same time seeing to it, on the other hand, that not a single square millimeter on any of the thousands of large-circumference patties that will be flung into the oven over the course of the evening escapes the full effect of the roaring flames. For were it to remain uncooked, that mite-size morsel of matzah could conceivably continue to decompose, react and rise…and we all know what that means. Altogether, theirs is a nerve-racking navigation between the Scylla of incineration and the Charybdis of fermentation that less lion-hearted folks tend to shy away from – which explains why the shibbers and bakkers get the big bucks.
Every one of the above-mentioned participants is subjected to a full body search upon ingress, and then either dons a surgical mask (really) or takes a vow of silence (I am not making this up), so that no possibility of expectorated saliva alighting upon unsuspecting dough need be feared.
Major domo of this whole Kafkaesque menagerie was Itzik: stopwatch in hand, whistle around neck, his anxiety-ridden features showing the toll of the inordinate responsibility placed upon his shoulders, as he made a final round of inspection and engaged in last minute consultations with Talmudic commentaries, medieval super-commentaries and even one or two manuscript discrepancies. All eyes were upon him. The atmosphere was choked with that thick, electric silence that precedes a violent storm. At long last the moment of truth arrived. Drawing in a deep breath, Itzik locked eyes meaningfully with the supervisor of the central table or tish. Giving him a grave, barely perceptible nod, he issued forth the command:
“Flour!” seconded the supervisor with voice raised, turning in the direction of the Goliathan finners at their anvils.
“Flour!” thundered the finners as one man, swiveling to face the stern-looking funnemmer in his alcove between the two corner cubicles.
“Flour!” barked the funnemmer, master of the silver basin, addressing his order to the partitioned-off mel tzimmer on his right.
And then…nothing. All waited with bated breath. After an excruciating ten seconds that seemed like an eternity, a lone hand emerged through an aperture in the wall of the flour room, clutching a paper bag filled with exactly one kilo of the precious yet perilous substance. Stretching itself out to full length over the funnemmer’s bowl, the hand hesitated slightly, and then, with a practiced flourish, emptied out the contents of the bag into the bowl with not a hint of refraction or even a cloud. The hand immediately withdrew into the wall. An audible sigh of relief greeted the successful maneuver.
“We have flour!” shouted the funnemmer, keeping his masked mouth as far away from the silver basin as possible.
“Flour on deck!” bellowed the Brobdingnagian finners, preparing to pound like jack-hammers.
“Flour on the main deck! Look alive!” echoed the tish supervisor, unable to conceal the rudiments of a satisfied grin.
This, however, had been child’s play. Now things would get sticky – literally. The funnemmer shifted his stance and positioned himself just so behind his bowl. The finners flexed their elephantine forearms. The tish was tense. Itzik raised his eyes heavenward and mumbled a hasty supplication. Then, consigning himself to the will of the Almighty, he gave the order:
“Water!” repeated the tish foreman.
“Water!” roared the finners in unison.
“Water!” cried the funnemmer, turning this time to the vasser tzimmer on his left, a shadow of genuine worry flitting across his determined visage.
Out from a tiny window in the wall of the water room came a second hand. Quavering with obvious trepidation, it extended itself toward the silver bowl, slowing to a halt at its rim. For a horrific moment the hand wobbled, but then it regained its composure, and ever so carefully – the years of experience serving it well – overturned a small pitcher, pouring out its fluid contents into the funnemmer’s basin without spilling so much as a drop.
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
According to the Talmud, from the moment you cease kneading matzah-fated dough, you have “the time it takes to traverse a Roman mile” before the criminal fermentation process kicks in and the big beige blob in your bowl begins to rise. It seems, however, that Roman people moved at a rate that would make Carl Lewis look like a snail on barbiturates, because once flour-water fusion had been achieved in the funnemmer’s vessel, the resultant concoction – and hundreds of others like it, hurled at us in an unrelenting fusillade over the next six hours straight – was the proximate cause of factory-wide pandemonium, with portions frenziedly catapulted out every which way to be pulverized, steam-rolled, rounded, massaged, tossed, twirled, sliced, mashed, smashed, squashed, skewered and burnt alive, at the incredibly punishing pace of exactly seven minutes from bowl to oven and with the utmost attention paid to all legal minutia and special strictnesses along route. One false move, one miscalculation, one minor fumble, and you were liable to be sent up to the Big House (Leavenworth, I presume). And all this organized mania went down to the accompaniment of drill-Sergeant Itzik’s splenetic, dithyrambic and – as the evening wore on – increasingly rabid harangue:
“Just between you and me, funnemmer: are you a lily-livered leaven-lover? Are you a slimy, good-for-nothing, yeast-infested, commie-pinko deadbeat? GET THAT LOUSY BRAN-GOOP UP AND OUT OF THIS BOWL BEFORE I IMPALE YOU ON A SERRATED BROOMSTICK, YOU SPACED-OUT, LOTUS-EATING GOLD-BRICKER!”
“Well, well – and what have we here? It appears that finner number four is being dainty with his dollop. Why you gentle giant, you! Here’s my cell-phone, cream-puff. Perhaps you’d like to call up the Pillsbury Dough-Boy Municipal Shelter for Battered Batter – and volunteer? Maybe you want I should demonstrate the concepts “pummel” and “bludgeon” with this here five-kilo mallet on your twelve-inch thick skull? I SAID BASTINADO THE LIVING CORN-JUICE OUT OF THAT INFERNAL BALL OF WHEAT-PULP, YOU SPINELESS LEVIATHAN PANSY!!!”
“Tell me, velgerer – is this pathetic excuse for a Passover patty your idea of ‘flat’? You shikker! This matzah has a profile like Barbara Streisand! I want a two-dimensional sliver, dammit, and I’m gonna get it if I have to – wait a minute…WHAT IN THE NAME OF SOLOMON’S SEVEN HUNDRED AND SEVENTY SEVEN SQUEEZES – IS THAT?!?!
About four hours into the program, the unthinkable had happened. Itzik and everyone else stopped whatever they were doing and stood with mouths agape, staring at a single gob of heretofore ignored matzah-dough, lounging in self-complacent solitude near the north-east corner of the tish. The Lord alone knew how long it had been lying there, left to its own devices, just sitting pretty and quite possibly…fermenting. That’s when things got ugly.
“OH MY GOD! RED ALERT! RED ALERT! GO TO DEFCON 3! MELTDOWN! MAYDAY, MAYDAY! CALL OUT THE NATIONAL GUARD! ABANDON SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP!!!
The stress of the last few days had taken its toll: Itzik had clearly left lucidity behind. Desperate measures were required. We lured him outside and dumped a five-kilogram vat of flour over his head, bringing to a forced conclusion his part in the performance. Sic semper tyrannis.
What I am trying to say here, dear reader, is that if you have never experienced the joy of matzah baking – don’t start now. It is a truly grueling affair, and not suitable for the stout of heart, let alone the weak. The famous eighteenth century Hassidic rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, once visited a matzah factory, and emerged visibly shaken. “It has always been charged against us, that matzah is made with the blood of Christians,” he commented afterwards. “This is not true. Matzah is made with the blood of Jews.”
This is an except from a new book called JOHN LENNON AND THE JEWS: A Philosophical Rampage by Ze'ev Maghen available at Amazon.com
from the April 2011 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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