Arizona Is Fertile Ground for New York Matzo

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YUMA, Ariz. -- Here, on a Christian farmer's land five miles from the Mexican border, lies the holiest of fields for some of New York's most observant Orthodox Jewish communities. Wheat harvested on these 40 acres is destined to become matzo, the unleavened bread eaten by Jews during the eight days of Passover.

It is not an everyday plant-and-pick operation, and the matzo made from this wheat is not everyday matzo.

Yisroel Tzvi Brody, rabbi of the Shaarei Orah synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, stood at the edge of one of the fields on Monday, stooping to rub a grain of wheat between his wrinkled thumb and index finger. Removing his glasses, he brought the grain close to his eyes and turned it from side to side, like a gemologist inspecting a precious stone.

"It is to ascertain that it's not sprouted," Rabbi Brody explained. "If it has, it's not valid."

For seven weeks, while the wheat grew in scorching heat under impossibly blue skies, two men clothed in the traditional black and white garments of the Hasidim stayed in a trailer overlooking the crop, to be able to attest that the wheat, once matured, had been untouched by rain or other moisture. Workers were prohibited from carrying water bottles in the field. Dust danced in the air as the wind blew, but unpaved roads could not be wet while the wheat was growing. The goal was to prevent any natural fermentation from taking place in the grains before they were milled into flour and the matzo was baked, sometime in the late fall.

Tradition calls for keeping watch over the matzo from the time the wheat is milled. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have carried that practice several steps further, guarding the grains before the wheat is harvested to ensure they are not overripe or wet from rainfall. That can be a challenging task on the rainy East Coast. Nonetheless, one segment of the Satmar sect, the largest Hasidic group in the United States, grows its wheat there, following seasonal weather forecasts to search for areas where rain is least likely to fall right before the wheat matures.

Five years ago, another Satmar group began shifting its wheat-growing operation here, where rain is rare at this time of year. That opened a new front line in the competition for the most rigorous standards in the production of matzo. (In a taste test, though, Vos Iz Neias?, a Jewish blog, chose neither, picking instead matzo made by the Pupa and Zehlem Matzoh Bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is run by Hasidic Jews of the Puppa sect. It is said that they, too, have used Yuma wheat.)

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York, whose research focuses on the social ethnography of Jewish Orthodox movements, said the competition between the two Satmar groups -- each led by one of two brothers -- was about one-upmanship.

"One is always looking to be more authoritative than the other," Professor Heilman said, "and one of the ways they're making this happen is over matzo -- our matzo is more kosher than yours, we're more scrupulous and careful over matzo baking than you are."

Zalman Teitelbaum is the younger of the brothers and a rabbi in one of the Satmar congregations in Williamsburg, where many of the sect's members live. The bakers who follow him use East Coast wheat.

Aaron Teitelbaum, the older brother, is the chief rabbi of the Satmar community based in the village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., settled by his uncle, Joel Teitelbaum, the dynasty's founder and its grand rabbi. Wheat used there comes from Yuma.

On Monday, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum got something close to a rock star reception when he paid a visit to the farm, straight from New York, to bless the wheat harvest. Rabbis and congregants at the farm formed a tight knot around him, taking pictures and jostling for a chance to touch him.

Rabbi Brody, clad in a bekishe, a traditional ankle-length black coat, approached Tim Dunn, the farm's owner. "How many degrees is now?" he asked.

"It's about 108 degrees," Mr. Dunn told him.

Rabbi Brody sighed.

Mr. Dunn remembers a call five years ago from a man who asked if he had any interest growing kosher wheat. He said yes, without any real idea about what working with ultra-Orthodox Jews would require. The first lesson came when his wife reached to shake hands with a visitor and the man, a rabbi, pulled back. (By custom, men and women are to avoid touching, unless they are related.)

Many more lessons followed. For example, no matter how many times Mr. Dunn cleans his equipment, the rabbis will come by and clean it some more. The purpose, they told him, was to rid the machines of every bit of dirt, a painstaking task that often includes blowing air into the tiniest nooks and crevices.

"When I meet prospective clients, I tell them, if I can meet these guys' standards, I can meet anybody's standards," said Mr. Dunn, who grows 12 varieties of wheat on his farm. Some is shipped to Italy, where it is used to make pasta. Some goes to a laboratory that develops new breads.

Matzo is made from soft white wheat. Once harvested, that wheat must be brought to a warehouse before dark, and when it is transported, the top of the truck that carries it must be covered.

After the grain is cleaned and packed into containers, which are sealed by the rabbis, it is shipped by train to Elizabeth, N.J., then taken by trucks to Orthodox bakeries in Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel.

Rabbi Eli Hershkowitz, who manages the Satmar Central Matzoh Bakery on Rutledge Street in Williamsburg, said the dough is kneaded and rolled by hand and baked in wood-fired brick ovens. It is how it was done centuries ago in Eastern Europe, where Hasidic sects trace their roots, and how it is also done at the Congregation Satmar Matzoh Bakery three blocks away on Broadway, which is run by followers of Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, the competition.

A one-pound box of Passover matzo costs about $25; "$14 to $15 is just the cost of labor," Rabbi Hershkowitz said.

Baking will begin five months before the holiday, which starts on the evening of April 14, 2014. Rabbi Hershkowitz estimated that the Orthodox bakeries of Brooklyn would produce between 80,000 and 100,000 pounds of matzo using Yuma wheat. A family might consume about 20 pounds over eight days, he said. "We're large families."

At noon, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum climbed onto a combine and started the engine to begin the harvest. A Hasidic man was at the wheel. Mr. Dunn's son, Kirk, who is studying agronomy at the University of Arizona, rode by his side as the combine lumbered across the field, gathering grain, the rabbis cheering from the sidelines.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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