From Bay Area to Humboldt, diverse list of people making their own matzah this year

Throughout Northern California, children and adults are mixing flour and water to make their own matzah, and in the process, are baking up a new appreciation for the ancient tradition.

“It’s really exciting and empowering to take this ritual food I’ve been involved with my whole life and make it myself,” said Casey Baruch Yurow, director of education at Urban Adamah in Berkeley. “Also, it tastes really good!”

Amy Remsen of Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland rolls a docker over the matzah dough.

The list of people making their own matzah in Northern California this year isn’t necessarily vast, but it’s diverse. It ranges from commercial enterprises such as Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland and Marla Bakery in San Francisco, to matzah workshops for kids all around the Bay Area, to synagogues in Humboldt and Mendocino counties.

In Berkeley, this is the third year that Urban Adamah, a farm/education nonprofit, has hosted matzah-making workshops for school groups.

“We start by making our own earthen bricks,” Yurow explained. “We put the bricks in the shape of a U, stacking them two to three high, and put a cast iron griddle on top and a wood fire underneath.”

Participants then grind the wheat by hand; sometimes it comes from grain that the urban farm has grown itself. When everything is ready, they start a timer, mix the flour and water, roll out the dough and bake — all the while racing against the rules of Jewish law.

“Since you can take only 18 minutes total from mix to off the grill, we sort of huddle together so everyone is on the same page and knows what to do once we start the timer,” Yurow said. “Every moment is precious, so it’s no time to get distracted. Maybe it teaches us that all our moments are precious.”

The adobe oven that will be used for baking matzah by the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht, the director of Chabad of Sunnyvale, is well aware of precious moments. He leads matzah baking classes for Jewish day schools, synagogue preschools and even public schools looking to incorporate a Jewish cultural experience. Over the years, he has worked with about 1,200 youngsters at more than 30 different schools from Santa Cruz to El Cerrito.

His zeal for hands-on matzah making started young.

“When I was 7 or 8, the rabbi set up a matzah factory. It was the coolest thing,” he said. Not only that, but when he was a kid, he helped out at a factory that made matzah by hand.

“It was so exciting to be in that environment,” he recalled. “There was this wow factor that it’s not just matzah to eat, it is this real tactile thing.”

At Hecht’s “model matzah bakery,” he starts the kids off by threshing and grinding the wheat and explains the significance of each step. Each child then gets to use a rolling pin retired by a matzah factory in Montreal (they were sanded down so many times, in keeping with the laws of Passover, that they became too worn out for the factory to use anymore). Hecht then hustles the matzahs into a portable pizza oven, and participants get to go home with a freshly baked round.

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht’s matzah bakery for kids at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale

“It’s phenomenal to see how excited the children are. It’s a totally different experience when a child is not only shown something but they can do it themselves,” he said.

Hecht’s program is one of several in the Bay Area. Chabad of Pacific Heights’ Rabbi Moshe Langer runs similar bakeries in San Francisco and Marin.

“It’s a great story how we bring Passover alive and interactive to Jewish children in a fun and exciting way,” Langer said.

Perhaps no Bay Area organization brings the matzah-making process to life like Wilderness Torah. For the sixth year in a row, the Berkeley-based nonprofit that celebrates the earth-based wisdom of Judaism will be staging “Passover in the Desert” for 100-125 participants near Death Valley.

“It feels like the desert of our ancestors, ” said Zelig Golden, one of the program’s leaders.

Although they won’t be on the run from Egypt — and will actually have time to “tarry” — participants at the five-day event (March 28–April 1) will be making two kinds of matzah. They will grind wheat for a traditional matzah and also make one with acorn flour, because of its use by indigenous peoples in California. Their bread of affliction will be cooked over a wood fire.

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht’s matzah bakery for kids at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale

An outdoor matzah bake a bit closer to home is scheduled for 3:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 24 and is being sponsored by the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community. Participants will bake their matzah in a wood-fired adobe oven. For information about attending, contact Nina Ravitz at (707) 937-0650.

“The matzah we make isn’t technically kosher l’pesach, as we don’t have shmurah [“guarded,” i.e. under supervision] flour,” a listing for the event noted. “But we will make sure to observe as many of the rules for matzah baking as we can.”

Farther north, in Humboldt County, members of Congregation B’nai Ha-Aretz will be making their own matzah with ground wheat from  Shakefork Community Farms, about an hour from the temple’s location in Garberville.

Miriam Billinger, the synagogue’s president, will lead a workshop at 3:30 p.m. Monday, March 25, right before the congregation’s potluck seder. She made her own matzah for the first time last year, and found the process to be easy and quick, and that it yielded a “delicious and beautiful” product.

Billinger is inviting anyone to attend, as long as they bring their own rolling pin. “Plus, we have the best potlucks anywhere,” she added, noting that many members grow their own food. For more information, call (707) 223-4849.

In San Francisco, not only will Marla Bakery be making matzah by hand, but co-owners Joe Wolf and Amy Brown will then cover it with dark chocolate and sprinkle it with sea salt.

Since Marla Bakery does not have a retail outlet, the treat will be available at its popups and by special order only. For more information, visit www.marla.com.

Matzah made by Beauty’s Bagel Shop

“It is inspiring to be able to make matzah,” Wolf said, because it “harkens back to our traditions.” Wolf was raised Orthodox and used to work at Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, the co-owners of 7-month-old Beauty’s Bagel Shop are diving headlong into their establishment’s first Passover by baking their own matzah in their wood-fired oven (usually used for their Montreal-style bagels).

“I’m Jewish and have never really like matzah,” co-owner Blake Joffe explained, “so I thought I would make matzah I’d like.”

He and partner Amy Remsen played with proportions of flour and water and added in a bit of salt and olive oil to create a matzah that they liked. Several local restaurants — such as Grand Lake Kitchen in Oakland, and Wise Sons Deli and Delfina in San Francisco — will be serving it during the holiday, and it will be available for $11 a pound at their Telegraph Avenue appetizing shop for six days starting Tuesday, March 26.

Joffe and Remsen make no bones about it: Their matzah is made in an oven that hasn’t been cleared of crumbs let alone feather-dusted for hametz, and is far from being kosher for Passover.

In fact, none of the matzah described in this article is kosher for Passover. Despite some makers’ good intentions on beating the 18-minute rule, other tenets of Jewish law generally are harder to meet, such as using shmurah flour or grinding it by hand, drawing water from a well and letting it sit overnight, and continually cleaning work surfaces and utensils to ensure no contact with even a morsel of anything that might have become leavened.

Bottom line: There is no kosher-for-Passover matzah made locally — at least none that the kosher certification agency Sunrise Kosher is aware of. To get a taste of handmade matzah that is kosher for Passover, look for shmurah matzah (made in New York, Israel and elsewhere) available at some local retailers and Chabad centers.

Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer. She blogs about her food at clickblogappetit.com. Contact Faith at clickblogappetit@gmail.com.