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A worker at the Pupa and Zehlem Matzoh Bakery in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., places matzo in an oven. The Matzoh is hand made at this bakery, which is open for only 3 months each year.
updated 4/12/2006 10:28:18 AM ET 2006-04-12T14:28:18

It had to be done in 18 minutes flat.

In a Jewish bakery operated by members of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch movement, every batch of Passover matzo was carefully timed from the moment the flour touched water to the instant the unleavened bread left the oven.

The dough had to be worked fast to keep it from rising; otherwise, it wouldn’t be kosher for Passover.

Matzo has to be flat “to remind us of when the Jews went out of Egypt and they didn’t have time to let the bread rise,” said Chana Drizin, a 10-year-old bakery volunteer perched atop a woodpile that helped fuel the oven’s roaring fire.

With Passover arriving on Wednesday at sundown, making matzo is a job done with religious fervor at the Shmurah Matzoh Bakery in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

The boisterous, crowded bakery churned out more than 80 tons of matzo in the seven months leading up to Passover. At $15 a pound, the matzo was shipped or hand-delivered to about 70 countries, from France, England and Greece to Congo, Vietnam and India.

During the last week of production, the bakery was alive with voices in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and English and the clatter of rolling pins as women sitting around a long table rolled dough in a race against the clock and announced “Matzo!” as they handed off the flat loaves, ready for the oven.

3,000 years of tradition
The Lubavitchers are the most outward-looking of ultrareligious Jews. The more than 200,000 faithful use satellite and Internet technology to communicate their beliefs; the matzo can be ordered via a Web site.

But when it comes to baking matzo, “it’s been done the same way for 3,000 years,” said Rabbi Mendel Feller, who was bringing matzos back to St. Paul, Minn.

This “bread of affliction” plays a central role in the seder, the ritual Passover meal celebrating the Hebrews’ release from slavery in ancient Egypt. Eating leavened bread during the eight days of Passover is forbidden by Jewish law. It is a “mitzvah” — a sacred command — to eat matzo.

The handmade Lubavitch matzo is among dozens of types of matzo on the market, many of them mass-produced by industry giants like Manischewitz and Streit’s.

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“Shmurah” in the bakery’s name is Hebrew for “guarded”: Someone must always watch the flour so that no water comes in contact with it until the bread is made. The vigilance started in August, when the wheat was harvested in upstate New York.

‘Like fine cigars’
At the bakery, there was a digital timer on the wall above the big steel bowl where flour finally met water, and the mixture was kneaded into dough by lightning-fast hands.

“It’s a six-second loaf! I have good arm muscles,” said a beaming Yanko Klein, an Israeli-born rabbinical student. After months of eight-hour days spent kneading, he was exhausted. “But it’s a very holy thing to do this,” he said.

After being rolled flat, the matzos were passed to the official baker, who was sweating as he slid the dough into the oven for about 20 seconds to bake.

The slightly burned matzos — they are round, unlike the perfect, perforated squares turned out by the big manufacturers — were quickly pulled out, inspected to make sure they were thoroughly baked, and put in boxes.

“Like fine cigars,” said Mendel Schneerson, “they have to be packed so they don’t crack.”

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