RJ Magazine Top Menu

The 4,452 Year Old Food

Matzah, the unleavened bread which the Israelites ate before leaving Egypt for the Promised Land, has weathered gastronomic trends, mass production, and fickle palates to claim its place on supermarket shelves throughout North America.

More often than not, the history of the Jews is one of upheaval rather than stability. It is the story of migration, change, renewal--and more change. And yet, through it all, one phenomenon has endured and held its own for millennia: a very humble food product fashioned from wheat, water, and salt which we know as matzah.

Think about it. Matzah, the unleavened bread which the Israelites ate as they hurriedly prepared to leave Egypt for the Promised Land, continues, thousands of years after the fact, to be consumed at the Passover seder by their latter-day descendants, contemporary Jews who call the suburbs, rather than Canaan, their home. What's more, come Passover-time, the shelves of supermarkets throughout the length and breadth of North America are crowded with box after box containing identically shaped, neatly perforated sheets of matzah. How many ritual foodstuffs do you know that go back that far and are mass-produced today? Matzah's longevity is even more remarkable given our fickle palates and nationwide penchant for indulging in and then discarding one gastronomic trend after another. Add to the mix the availability of whole-wheat matzahs, salt-free matzahs, tea matzahs, and self-styled artisanal matzahs that sell for well over $20 a pound, and the staying power of this food is nothing short of breathtaking. 

Scholars of the ancient Near East are quick to point out that the matzah we eat in 2005 is probably not quite the same unleavened bread our ancestors consumed way back when. For one thing, the type of grain the Israelites used was undoubtedly a different species than what's produced in the US today; for another, the size and overall appearance of matzah in the ancient world was a far cry from ours: much larger, more disc-shaped (the Bible, for instance, refers to "cakes" of matzah), and far more roughhewn around the edges than our own.

But then, our contemporary notion of what constitutes authentic matzah is itself a relatively recent invention, an artifact of modernity, as the research of Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University makes clear. Well into the 19th century, matzah was made by hand, in dark and unheated basements to prevent the dough from rising; the shape of the matzah was irregular, at best; and packaging came in the form of newspapers rather than sanitary boxes.

More to the point, the very idea of industrializing and standardizing matzah production was anathematized by leading rabbinical authorities of the time. Although by 1838 a device capable of kneading matzah mechanically had been invented, Europe's rabbis expressed grave reservations about it, in some quarters even going so far as to pronounce its use as treif. Some feared that mechanization would destroy the livelihood of those who had traditionally earned their modest keep from the kneading and rolling of the matzah dough; others worried that, with the new technology, stray contaminants might work their way into the matzah, rendering it unfit for ritual consumption. And still others were simply unready to come to grips with the manifold challenges modernity posed to the traditional, time-honored way of doing things.

Attempts at convincing the rabbinate, and with it, traditional elements of both European and American Jewish society, that the mechanization of matzah might well be a boon rather than a drawback took some doing. That responsibility fell to Dov Behr Manischewitz, the creator of America's very first matzah factory, which opened in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1880s. A rabbi as well as an astute businessman, Manischewitz took great pains to secure the approval of the leading Torah sages of Jerusalem, whose consent he succeeded in winning by trading on his own yichus (pedigree), cultivating close ties with the rabbinical establishment of the Holy Land, and demonstrating his religious rectitude and noble intentions by establishing a yeshiva in Jerusalem that bore his good name. He would subsequently display their endorsement--"There is none more faithful to be found"--in both English and Hebrew on the exterior of his mass-produced matzah boxes.

At the Manischewitz plant in Cincinnati, where, it was said, "no human hand touches these matzahs," or at the factories of its competitors such as Horowitz Bros. & Margareten, whose owners boasted that, when it came to making matzah, they followed "carefully computed formulae," much was made of the felicitous union between modernity and tradition. Much was also made of hygiene. In an effort to persuade Jewish consumers to relinquish their tried-and-true ways of doing things (e.g., purchasing old-fashioned, irregularly shaped matzah, loosely wrapped in newsprint), modern-day matzah manufacturers appealed to what, earlier in the 20th century, had already become an issue of great concern: the fear of germs. Drawing on what was then called "antiseptic-consciousness," they spoke lyrically of their sun-flooded factories and of the "sanitary and painstaking conditions" under which modern-day matzah was made.

If health concerns were not reason enough to switch, matzah manufacturers drew on an additional source of persuasion: the radio jingle. "Manischewitz Matzo, buy, buy, buy" went one jaunty B. Manischewitz Co. commercial. Another radio ad put it this way: "When you hear the word 'sterling,' what comes to mind? Silver. When you hear the word 'matzah,' what comes to mind? Why, Manischewitz." The handiwork of lyricist and Yiddish lexicographer Nahum Stutchkoff, these pitches, along with dozens of others like them, endowed Manischewitz matzah with attributes worthy of Mother Nature herself: "burnished," "pearl-like," and "bright as the rising sun."

If neither health nor peppy jingles did the trick, there was always the recipe. Sometime during the interwar years and peaking in postwar America, test kitchen cooks and Jewish cookbook authors joined forces in a concerted attempt to broaden matzah use beyond the boundaries of the seder, and to avoid "matzah monotony" by adapting this ancient foodstuff to modern tastes. Appealing to what one food writer of the 1930s called the "unusual recipe-consciousness" of America's Jews, they crafted imaginative uses for it, from making spaghetti out of matzah meal to fashioning farfeloons, an exotic, macaroon-like concoction, from matzah farfel.

So pliant, so versatile was matzah, the organizers of the 1939-1940 World's Fair invited Horowitz Bros. & Margareten to showcase a model matzah factory on the grounds of an international exposition devoted to "Building the World of Tomorrow." For some reason, the exhibit did not materialize (historians aren't quite sure why), but the very idea of displaying a matzah factory at the World's Fair underscored the possibility that tradition could make its peace with the modern era.

Industrialized, standardized, advertised, sung about, and otherwise reimagined, millennial matzah lent itself admirably to adaptation. Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that so many American Jews found it difficult to resist what one of their number, in 1911, described as the "call of the matzah"? Then, as now, there's something in that ancient amalgam of water, wheat, and salt that speaks of hope. 

Jenna Weissman Joselit is a cultural historian of American Jewish life and the author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture.