The Americanization of Matzoby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
It is Pesach. I want to speak with you about matzo, about the Americanization of matzo to be exact. I want to tell you a true story. It shows us that what happened regarding the making of matzo and reveals so very much about our modern day society and values. My comments are based a great deal on the research of Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University under the sponsorship of the American Jewish Archives.
Until the late 1800s matzo was made by hand, everywhere. When I say everywhere, I mean in every city and village, every yeshivah and shul, in every shtetl and dorf. For the month before Pesach, lots of poor Jews would find temporary employment assisting in the making of matzo, a job that would frequently make a huge difference for the good concerning the annual income of these workers.
Individuals had their specialties. There was the baker and the apprentice to the baker called the mehl mester. He measured the flour. Then there was the weiser-giesser who poured cold water into the batter under the critical gaze of the kneader. After the matzo was rolled it was turned over to the perforator, a youngster who handled a wheel called the roedel. The handle would be turned and the roedel would run over the matzo in parallel lines to prevent it from rising and swelling. The derlanger carried the matzo on a rolling pin to the schieber, a man who placed it in the oven with a shovel. Before he did this, for just the right amount of time, he examined carefully each piece to be sure it met standards.
So it went, for century after century, generation after generation. Matzo was made everywhere there were Jews. No particular brands dominated the market.
Then came Dov Baer Manischewitz who settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, and built there the largest matzo factory with the largest oven on earth. He developed an automated means of preparing the dough, a process that would yield kosher for Passover matzo untouched by human hands. He created a new technology to create a superior product, but how could he gain acceptance for it?
He would need rabbinic approval, not only from American but also from European rabbinic authorities, and most important--the okay from leading rabbis in Palestine. He would have to convince the masses of Jews that the matzo that was ballyhooed as hand made was inferior to matzo made by machine. He would have to overcome the reality of the cottage industry that made matzo cheaply in thousands of localities and supplant that reality by demonstrating that he could manufacture matzo mechanically more cheaply than the small matzo makers could. He would have to overcome halachic objections; objections based on interpretations of Jewish law. What chance did he have against such odds?
Professor David Ellenson of the Hebrew Union College recently published an old responsum, an answer to a question asked about Jewish practice. This responsum dealt with whether machine made matzo was acceptable Jewishly. The answer written by Solomon Kluger goes on for four fully printed pages of single spaced text. The answer is a definitive NO! Why?
Here is the conclusion: 'Therefore, do not veer from the custom of your fathers."
How might Manischewitz overcome such strong rabbinic opposition? Money. First of all, not all rabbinic authorities agreed with the opponents of machine manufactured matzo. Manischewitz brought many of them to examine his process. They approved it. Now, it so happened that they were also from his hometown in Europe and some were relatives. But he did gain a measure of rabbinic endorsement for his high tech approach. With that he began to fund yeshivahs in Europe and Palestine that bore his name.
He got the money in part from the proceeds from the matzo he made the rest of the year, the regular matzo not meant to be kosher for Pesach produced in his vast oven in his plant in Cincinnati. It was known as "Cincinnati Matzo" then, just as today fame has attached itself to Cincinnati chili.
He contributed to the education of rabbis in the places he needed them to be. They were trained to be in favor of the machine made Cincinnati matzo for Pesach. They got ordained and went forth to spread the Manischewitz "gospel."
Before too long the 100,000 square foot factory in Cincinnati that produced 75,000 pounds of matzo per day, with each piece the exact same dimensions as every other piece, slowly bled to death the matzo baking endeavors in the thousands of towns where Jews lived in American, Europe and Palestine.
Marketing and advertising paved the way. Suddenly it was deemed best to eat matzo that no human hand had touched. It was deemed cleaner. The making of the mechanical matzo was called more precise. Even the square shape was advertised as vastly superior to the rounded matzo of local producers.
The small matzo businesses closed down one by on. The mehl mester, the weiser-geisser, the kneader, the perforator with the roedel, the derlanger, and the schieber with his shovel--all of them lost their jobs. The poor Jews who worked in these little bakeries would have to earn their keep elsewhere by other means. The big matzo producer, Manischewitz, just squeezed them out of business.
Imitators of Manischewitz quickly seized on the fame he had developed for his Cincinnati Matzo. They began calling their matzo by this name. Now Manischewitz had to convince people to look for his name on the box, rather than the name of the city in which it was baked. He used marketing techniques to instigate yet another change in the matzo scene.
Traditionally men bought the Passover matzos for their families, but women were fast becoming the primary purchasers. His ads would have to change to reflect this new phenomenon.
In the 1930s a popular ad revealed a square piece of matzo touching a drawing of the huge bakery with an American and Jewish-Palestinian flag flying from the pole on the rooftop, Underneath the illustrations were these words:
So people were swayed. Now, the freshness of the locally baked matzo bought by men was deemed inferior to the clean and packaged mass produced matzo shipped to your local market and purchased by women.
As the success of Manischewitz skyrocketed, it outgrew its quarters and found it necessary to move to New Jersey, to yet larger spaces. Around that time the Internal Revenue Service began to investigate why Manischewitz deducted its huge contributions to yeshivas as a business expense.
Off to court went Manischewitz. The company's attorneys claimed that the yeshiva graduates teach as rabbis in Palestine, Europe and South America. These yeshivahs have the name Manischewitz associated with them. The rabbis trained in them help to overcome the impression of Orthodox European Jews that American machine made matzo is not kosher, especially matzos for Passover. 70 percent of the company's income is derived from the sale of matzos for consumption during the Jewish festival of Passover. It was a business expense. Manischewitz won its cases with the IRS, setting some precedents in tax law that continue to this day.
The story of matzo pointed the way the world would move in regard to thousands of other future products. Local, hand made, goods employing many low-income wage earners were displaced. Their companies were shut down by less costly mass produced products made and distributed by distant, technologically advanced competitors whose advertising and marketing expertise lead consumers to favor the exact opposite of what they previously wanted.
It is the business story of our time, a clear description of how our business world has and economy have changed. It is the story of big winning out over little: whether we are talking about automobiles, banks, airlines, book stores, electronics companies, clothing manufacturers, hardware stores, even funeral homes and cemeteries. It is the story of Wal-Mart's success and the success of Microsoft and The Home Depot. It is the economic story of our time. But before all of that, it was the story, the true story of the Americanization of Matzo.