Students learn proper preparation and history of Passover bread
T. Grant Fitch, Post-Tribune correspondent
An important part of the celebration of Passover is the eating of matzah, an unleavened bread. But many Jews don't know why, or appreciate the care that goes into the making of authentically kosher-for-Passover matzah. And that's where the traveling Model Matzah Bakery comes in. Last week, nearly 100 Jewish students and teachers gathered at Munster's Temple Beth-El to get a peek inside the tradition and to make their own matzah. "It's a nice diversion from regular Hebrew school," said Cynthia Ostrovsky, a teacher from nearby Congregation Beth Israel. "And it's a fun, different way to introduce the coming holiday." The event was a shared moment for the religious schools at Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Beth-El. "We've been wanting to start doing things together," said Sharon Bartel, principal of the CBI school. "To get the kids together for holidays. It's important to let the kids know these are things that are not just happening within the school, or at home, but in the outside world." "It gives them a sense of the larger Jewish community, and a sense that they're a part of that," added Gerson, as each student was given a commemorative matzah and reminded to eat it before Passover. "One school is reform, and the other conservative; but the kids see that we all celebrate Passover, we all have so much in common." As kids noisily lined up around half a dozen long tables spread with brown flour and littered with wooden dowels and plastic forks, Rabbi Avrohom Wolowik instructed them to use the hand sanitizers — "You're probably not going to get the matzah you rolled, so you want to make sure your hands are clean!" — and explained the purpose of the model bakery. "You're going to get an idea of how the matzahs are made, but please note that this is only a model, a make-believe matzah bakery, not a real one," said Wolowik. Though the students would be reproducing the official process as much as possible, he reminded them that it would be inappropriate to eat these matzahs for Passover. "Besides," he added, "by then they'll probably be stale." The Model Matzah Bakery is one of the outreach projects of Chabad of Naperville, and a program that Rabbi Wolowik has hosted dozens of times in the last several years, all over the Chicagoland area. The educational program spreads to Indiana this year through the invitation of host Chabad of Northwest Indiana and its director, Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov. "He did this about 15 or 20 times just last year," said Zalmanov, who assisted in the demonstration. "It's a wonderful way to make the traditional precept of matzah fresh and exciting for Jews of all ages and backgrounds, and we're very glad to have the bakery here." Making Matzah "All right, now that your hands are clean, you have to make sure your tools are clean," Wolowik told the students. "So grab some of that sandpaper, and sand off your sticks. Those sticks have been used before, so you have to make sure they're clean." At the real bakeries, he explained, the rollers are carefully inspected to make sure there is no dough from the previous time baking. Cleanliness is very important. Behind Wolowik stood two booths, with a small table between. Each of the tall booths held a canvas with large plastic windows on the sides and bore a word across the top, in both English and Hebrew. One read "FLOUR," the other "WATER." A volunteer was sent into each booth. Then a third volunteer ("I need somebody who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty," Wolowik said) took up his position by the large bowl on the table between the booths. Carefully, through little flaps in the canvas sides, the flour and water were added to the bowl from the separated booths, and the third volunteer began kneading the ingredients into dough. "It was fun learning how to make matzah," Brenda Mintz, of Munster, said. Brenda was the student chosen to go into the water booth, and she made the most of her moment. "I was waving to my friends through the window." Wolowik explained that in the real matzah bakeries, the flour and water are kept in two separate rooms, just like this. "Flour is very dusty, and it gets into the air. If it was in the same room as the water, it would settle into the water, and would become chametz, dough that is risen," Wolowik said. The flour is taken from the wheat fields very carefully, he said, so that no moisture touches it until it's time. "For it to be kosher, it cannot be allowed to rise at all," pointed out Francie Gerson, principal of the religious school at Temple Beth-El. The kids know that the point of the matzah is that it is unleavened bread, as crisp as a cracker, baked before it can rise. "From the moment the flour hits the water, you've got 18 minutes until it starts to rise," Gerson said. Back at the tables, the students hurriedly made their matzahs, watching the clock. The 18 minutes had begun. Rabbi Wolowik went from table to table, kneading the bowlful of dough, as the kids each took a handful and started rolling it into a ball. "If your ball is sticky, roll it in the flour on the table," Wolowik said. Rabbi Zalmanov, wearing the same "I Baked My Own Matzah at the Model Matzah Bakery" hat as all the kids, pointed out to a few of the students that if they stopped right now, they could make matzah ball soup. The balls of dough were pounded into flat circles, as thin as possible, then poked full of holes with the plastic forks to keep them from rising. In the real bakeries, there are special tools to cover the dough with hundreds of tiny holes; for the kids, plastic forks work just as well. "It was educational, and it was fun," said Evanv Zarowny, of Munster. "And we enjoyed it — even though we kept messing it up." Finally, the circles of flat dough were gathered up, draped over a baker's pole, and spread out carefully in the portable oven to bake. Passover began Monday evening and continues for eight days.