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Students Try Hand at Matzo Making

Times Staff Writer

Since the hurried Exodus of the Jews from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, the unleavened bread known as matzos--eaten as part of the eight-day Passover festival--has been baked in some unlikely places and circumstances.

According to Exodus 12:39, the newly freed Hebrew slaves took with them “cakes of dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual.”

For the last three weeks, nearly a thousand Jewish children and some adults from throughout Orange County have been preparing the distinctive unleavened bread mixture in an Irvine parking lot and heating it in a pizza oven framed by a fake brick facade.

The project, sponsored by Chabad of the Irvine Jewish Center, has attracted young people from most of the county’s Hebrew schools to its open-air bakery to demonstrate how to make matzos, the so-called “bread of affliction” in the Passover Seder. The ritual meal will be held this week on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

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“Each year, prior to Passover, youngsters and adults walk into supermarkets and see beautiful Passover shelves featuring Passover matzos, and never think for a moment where do the matzos actually come from,” Rabbi Mendel Duchman of Chabad said in his invitation to the county’s Jewish community.

“As part of our holiday awareness program, we have decided to open a real matzo bakery so the community can actually mix the flour and water and do the baking,” he said.

“This is a hands-on experience for the kids,” said Rabbi Meir Gitlin as he prepared for another busload of children to arrive in the parking lot. Although this is the first year that such a model bakery has been set up in Orange County, Gitlin said he had set up others in Minnesota.

As each bus pulled up, the visitors were divided into two groups, with half of them herded inside the center to watch a 20-minute videotape documentary about the distinctive, round, handmade matzos that are called shmura , a word meaning watched or guarded.

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From the wheat field to the oven, the narrator explained, the ingredients of the matzos are scrutinized by rabbis to make certain that no leavening or fermentation takes place, in order to produce what the rabbis call “food that strengthens our belief.”

In recent years, the Soviet Union has made it difficult for that country’s dwindling Jewish community to import matzos for Passover.

Meanwhile, the youngsters out in the parking lot were fitted with white paper baker’s hats. They helped pour the flour and water into a basin and observed as the mixture was quickly kneaded.

Gitlin kept up a running commentary of the whys and wherefores of each step, frequently calling on the students to provide their own answers. “I try to explain to each group at its own level,” he said later.

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As he set a white timer, for example, Gitlin said the entire process of making shmura matzos had to be completed in less than 18 minutes, to make certain the dough does not rise.

“We have to work very hard and very fast,” he explained last week to some kindergarten and first-graders from Chabad’s Hebrew Academy day school in Westminster.

The kneaded dough was quickly divided so that each child had a portion to take to a table, where wooden rolling pins awaited. After the dough was flattened, it was punctured with plastic forks and then collected by the rabbi.

Gitlin deftly slid the pieces into the pizza oven, heated to 800 degrees, and moments later shoveled them out to begin cooling.

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Before heading back to school, the young bakers were given a sample of their handiwork to show parents. But few of the crisp crackers make it home each afternoon, according to Gitlin.

“The kids eat most of them,” he said. “All we want to do is to give them a little example of what shmura matzo is.”

Gitlin pointed out that the matzos baked in the parking lot are not considered kosher for Passover. “We don’t go through the excruciating effort it takes to do this for real,” he said.

The Chabad community--part of the Orthodox, Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher sect--is so careful about its Passover matzos that it imports shmura matzos from its own bakery in Israel, Gitlin said.

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