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A Thousand Matzos A Minute

Barbara Bensoussan

The Manischewitz company, which we Americans all grew up associating with Yiddish-speaking bubbys and matzoh-ball soup, is now owned by a couple of guys from Casablanca who are more likely to be eating fava bean soup and matbuchah at their Yom Tov meals. But they are still king of the machine matzos, so some things never change.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

When my children were younger, they used to go on yearly pre-Pesach class trips to visit a matzoh bakery. It sounded like such fun that I wished I too could board those yellow school buses and join them, to go shuffling through rooms ringing with the clatter of wooden dowels, watching strong-armed matrons slap down the dough and roll it out. Then there’s the thrill of seeing the matzos emerge triumphantly on a paddle from the fiery furnace, charred and brittle, in a room stiflingly hot and redolent of baking dough.

Well, I finally got my tour.

We visited the Manischewitz plant in Newark, New Jersey, the largest and perhaps the oldest continuous manufacturer of machine matzoh in the world (the company reached its meah v’esrim birthday — 120 years — in 2008).

You might say the Manischewitz company owes some of its good health, despite its advanced age, to the industrial equivalent of receiving a brand-new mechanical heart: as of 2006, the company rebuilt its entire matzoh-making apparatus to create a super efficient and halachically sound matzoh-making environment worthy of the twenty-first century. The company claims that you could circle the globe twice with the amount of matzoh Manischewitz churns out every year, which is produced in a plant the size of four football fields.

Meir the photographer and I locate the factory in an industrial zone so close to the Newark airport that every passing plane seems to fly low enough for us to reach up and touch. The next thing we notice, getting out of the car and sniffing the air, is the heimische smell of … chicken soup! Turns out consommé production is in full force today, and its fragrance sure beats some of the other smells around that particular stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike.

We search for the entrance, but the entire administrative area has been gutted in preparation for a massive renovation, as the company consolidates its plant in Secaucus with the gargantuan Newark facility. A company rep comes running out to rescue us from our confusion, and brings us to a makeshift temporary office inside the main hangar. There we’re introduced to Mr. Alain Bankier, company president, who shares this title with his partner Mr. Paul Bensabat.

Bankier and Bensabat are both nattily dressed, convivial men of Moroccan Jewish origin who are pleasantly surprised to find themselves interviewed by a lady with a Moroccan last name. (How do you say landsman in Maghrebit?) I find this a delightful piece of celestial irony: the Manischewitz company, which we Americans all grew up associating with Yiddish-speaking bubbys and matzoh-ball soup, is now owned by a couple of guys from Casablanca who are more likely to be eating fava bean soup and matbuchah at their Shabbos (uh, Shabbat) and Yom Tov meals.

In fact, Mr. Bankier proudly tells us, the Sephardic influence has indeed crept into the product line. He seizes a jar of one of his newest kosher-for-Passover offerings and displays it with a flourish: Moroccan fish balls in tomato sauce — a standard in my own home! That, together with Pesachdig candied orange rind and chocolate-dipped biscotti, might induce even my most hard-core Sephardic friends to throw some of these items into their grocery carts, despite the vus-vus name and old-timey logo on the packaging.

However tempting these goodies and the rest of the broad, colorful mix of Pesach products that have been hastily assembled into a table display for us, we’re really here to see the Main Event: the ultramodern, state-of-the-art matzoh production process, researched and designed by the plant’s industrial mavens in conjunction with the rabbinic expertise of Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, the company’s rav hamachshir (via the OU) for the past sixteen years. Rabbi Horowitz supervises ten mashgichim for matzoh alone, in addition to all the company’s other products, Pesach and non-Pesach alike.

 

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