Bakery makes matzos according to Jewish law

March 14, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

Yehuda Fishkind's new matzo bakery is run more like a little synagogue than a business where dough is rolled and baked for the traditional Jewish Passover flat bread.

Instead of using machines to mix and knead the dough, Mr. Fishkind's employees stand side by side like worshipers, carefully hand-rolling each matzo under the strict rules of Jewish law.

They say a simple prayer as they roll each batch of matzos. And a rabbi inspects every matzo as it comes out of the wood-burning oven.

It has been almost 40 years since matzos were baked in Baltimore, according to the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland.

Today most Jews buy machine-made matzos baked in large factories in New York City.

But Mr. Fishkind, an enterprising 22-year-old Baltimore rabbinical student, wanted to make matzos to more closely resemble the handmade unleavened breads Jews baked while fleeing the Egyptians in the desert 3,306 years ago -- when there was no time to let the dough rise.

"I was attracted to a handmade matzo bakery when I realized how alive Judaism is. It's not just an ancient religion with ancient customs and a lot of mysticism," said Mr. Fishkind, who is president of Baltimore Shmura Matzos Inc.

Since he opened his business in December, Mr. Fishkind's matzos have been selling like hot cakes.

From his little, one-story bakery in Federal Hill he is sending out 100,000 matzos to stores and synagogues in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio -- and to his own Jewish community in Northwest Baltimore. He even had a call from an Episcopal church, asking him to make Holy Communion wafers. He turned them down.

His 25 employees -- who make only 200 matzos an hour -- will have to work overtime to fill all the orders by March 26, when Passover begins at sundown and runs until April 3. During the eight-day holiday, Jews eat matzo instead of breads or cakes that rise with yeast, baking soda or baking powder.

At the Giant supermarket in the 3700 block of Old Court Road, grocery manager Bob Bragg said, "I was totally shocked" that Mr. Fishkind's high-priced matzo -- a box of four matzos for $6.79 -- is selling so well. He's already sold nearly 100 boxes -- packaged under the name King David Seder Matzo -- and has ordered 60 more.

Mr. Fishkind takes his matzo seriously.

He named his company, using the Hebrew word "shmura" -- meaning "guarded" -- because he takes great pains to guard the wheat and flour from moisture that might begin the fermenting process that helps bread dough rise.

To make sure he follows Jewish laws precisely, he keeps old leather-bound volumes of the Talmud -- ancient Jewish laws -- next to his computer where he stores his accounting and employee records.

"How is this matzo different from all other matzos?" he said, anticipating a question.

He begins with the wheat.

"It's better to use the matzo [that is supervised] from the time of harvest," said Mr. Fishkind, a tall man who wears a white lab coat, a yarmulke over his short dark hair. Commercial matzo, he said, is supervised only after the flour is made.

He bought 250 bushels of wheat from a farmer in Harford County and had an orthodox rabbi inspect it to make sure it was dry. He then purchased a machine to stone-grind the wheat into flour and a wood-burning oven.

His brightly lighted bakery near the Cross Street Market was financed by private investors and the Maryland Permanent Bank in Northwest Baltimore.

He keeps the wheat in a large wooden bin, padlocked and covered with plastic to guard it from moisture.

After the flour is ground in a small milling room, it is mixed with spring water from a well in Owings Mills.

"You can't get it any fresher," he said of his flour.

He makes two kinds of matzos -- white and whole wheat. The spring water is the only other ingredient.

Samuel Isak, a 72-year-old retired Baltimore baker and Holocaust survivor, mixes and kneads a small batch of dough with his hands in a metal bowl.

The dough then is divided into small mounds the size of tennis balls and distributed to 12 "rollers" who stand at a long table, each using a narrow rolling pin.

They chant the Hebrew words, "L'shem matzos mitzvah," which mean "commanded for the purpose of matzo," said Mr. Fishkind.

A small digital timer gives them 18 minutes to roll out a batch of matzos -- the time allowed to make the flat bread before it might start to ferment.

Each piece of dough -- rolled to a round shape, about one-sixteenth of an inch thick -- is then handed to Lida Fakheri, the "finisher."

"I make sure it's in good shape, that it's round and smooth and has no spots, no wrinkles," says Ms. Fakheri, an Iranian Jew who worked as a medical technician in her native country before moving here six years ago.

The dough then is pierced with a device that makes hundreds of tiny perforations to prevent it from rising during baking. The limp pieces of dough are draped on a clothesline over a long wooden pole.

Then George Shimanovich, the baker, takes over.

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