The Seder Guest

‘Matza is like life,’ Reb Pinchas said. ‘It can be a blessing or a burden.’

Pessah matza 58 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Pessah matza 58
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Time, it’s been said, is often like a sharp gust of wind that can move you and turn you with its invisible force, and then disappear as quickly as it came. But time is also like a river, flowing from one end of eternity to the other, winding seamlessly through all the generations and places we have been, or dreamed of going. And while a river’s current may pass us by and is soon beyond our grasp, the river of time keeps right on flowing, and we can step right up to its banks any time we feel like it, just by closing our eyes and dipping in. Right about now, every spring before Passover, I smile with sweet mystery at my Seder with Reb Pinchas.
I was a junior in college back in 1975, part of that mixed-up generation that had soured on the idealism of the Sixties but hadn’t yet caught the Yuppie Fever of the Eighties. I was going to school in northern Pennsylvania, changing majors as fast as best friends, undergoing that rite of passage known as “finding yourself.”
When spring vacation approached, I thought about going home, like I usually did, but eventually decided against it. My folks were going to Palm Springs, I had plenty of class-work to catch up on, and I kind of liked the way Pennsy changed its seasons right before your eyes. So I opted to spend the break at school, and I looked for some part-time work to pass the time.
I noticed an interesting ad on the campus bulletin exchange, “Jewish student wanted for spring work,” and so I gave them a call. It turned out I was applying for work at a matza factory. Now, about all I knew concerning Matza was that you eat it on Passover, it tastes only slightly better than the box it comes in, and cream cheese and jelly is the best way to disguise it. But at the factory, they informed me that I didn’t have to know a whole lot in order to get the job, and I soon found out why.
I was put to work cleaning the dough out of the huge vats where it was kneaded and prepared for baking, making sure that every last particle of flour was removed before the vats were scoured. This plant was like one giant assembly-line, where time was of the essence.
There were three main areas of the factory: First, there was a mixing room, where the matza ingredients were blended together by large kneading machines, quickly turning the flour and water into a doughy consistency that would produce the flat, unleavened bread.
Then there was the cutting room, where the dough was taken automatically to be sliced and shaped into squares, flattened, and then perforated with dozens of tiny holes that served to spread the heat evenly and quickly during baking. Finally, conveyer belts passed the sections of dough through large ovens, where intense heat baked them as they went through, emerging as the finished product: Matza, the bread of affliction, “poor bread,” the key reminiscence of the Exodus from Egypt. They were then grouped eight together, sealed in cellophane, and boxed and labeled as soon as they cooled.
I marveled at the efficiency of it all. I had always pictured matza-making as a painstakingly slow and involved process, performed by hand by elderly scholars in long, black coats. This factory was completely automated, a mass of whirring machines that combined age-old ritual law with the modern need to supply thousands of homes with fresh matza for Passover.
While much matza was still made by hand, I was told, the majority of Jews ate machine-matza, which was both cheaper and more plentiful than the personally-baked product.
The foreman, one Paul Thom (I never did figure out if he was Jewish or not, but he sure knew his matza) explained to me that the most crucial aspect of the production process was Time. He cautioned that the whole baking process could not exceed eighteen minutes, because after that time the dough starts to leaven and is impermissible for the Passover.
The entire line had to be completed before the eighteen minutes, and, like clockwork, the machines automatically shut down before the deadline. A series of staccato bells would sound, the kneaders would stop kneading, the mixers would stop mixing, the rollers would stop rolling and the ovens would shut down and cool off.
The other workers had a ten-minute break, while I and a few other junior employees got down to business. We climbed into the vats and scraped out every last piece of dough. We cleaned the hooks and the trays, and even the conveyer belts. We had only seven minutes to do it, because there was a three-minute steam cleaning that preceded each new cycle. Between our scouring and the steam, not even an infinitesimal particle of dough remained that might have become hametz, that forbidden leaven that was our principal enemy.
Throughout all of this, a team of rabbis scurried about supervising the whole process.
They watched their watches – all carefully synchronized – to keep everything on a tight schedule. They examined every tool, every pot, every inch of the baking procedure to be sure that the matza emerged unscathed and untainted. Every once in a while one of them would spot a foreign substance, and let go with a shreiy that made us come running full-tilt.
“In business, time is money,” one rabbi said to me, “but in Judaism, time is Divine.”
The rabbis took turns starting the machines. They pointed out that Matza for Passover must be baked specifically for the purpose of fulfilling the commandment to eat unleavened bread, and not for any other purpose. Since a machine – at least so far! – can’t have thoughts in mind while doing its baking, the Rabbi would start each cycle of baking by proclaiming, “Matzot Mitzva! These matzot are being produced for the sole purpose of keeping God’s holy decree, ‘For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, in all your habitations.’” I worked hard for those two weeks of vacation, as Passover approached. I had never been very religious, but it felt good being part of something Jewish, knowing that in hundreds of homes in the days ahead, other Jews would be depending on my work to eat these unusual, historic flat breads. I even thought about writing up the whole thing for my student paper, a kind of culture-clash piece about how religion keeps up with modern times.
As the day of Pesach drew close, the activity at the factory intensified. We were told that, for the first time, there was a chance the Soviet Union might allow matza to be brought into the country. Ten thousand pounds of matza were being prepared nationally, and we were given an allotment of a thousand pounds to contribute. We worked almost around the clock, and when we tired, one of the Rabbis would smile and say, “Keep working – you’ll sleep in the next world!” Even the eve of Passover was no exception. We were asked to work as long as possible, with various people leaving throughout the day, depending upon where they lived and their travel time home. I told the foreman that because I lived so close by, and had no family to prepare for, I could stay until closing, just a couple hours before the sun set. I volunteered to actually shut down the plant, and lock everything up for the holiday.
As the day progressed, the skies became progressively darker, and a classic Pennsylvania storm began to move in.
This prompted many of the workers to leave even earlier than expected, not wishing to be caught in the rain. When the Rabbis announced that this would be the last run of the day, I was one of only a handful of employees left. I said goodbye and good holiday to my co-workers, and set about to clean the last few vats.
“Don’t forget to close the lights,” said Mr. Thom.
“The doors will automatically lock behind you when you go.”
There was a strange silence when everyone had left.
The huge machines had come to a rest; perhaps this was their reward for the holidays, after all their hard work in preparation. The lightning outside seemed to silhouette the vastness of the place, an enterprise created by men but powered by a desire to fulfill an ancient, divine decree. The sound of the rain on the skylights told me that darkness would be upon me faster than I had anticipated. I quickly closed all the lights, made sure that every machine had been shut down, and grabbed my coat.
But as I made my way for the door, there was a tremendous clap of thunder, and a stunning bolt of lightning lit up the room. Suddenly I heard a crash, almost like a tree falling over my head, and the whole factory seemed to shake for the longest moment.
Determined now to get back to the relative safety of my dorm room, I rushed to the door and pushed on the exit bar. Nothing happened; the lock remained frozen in place. I pushed again, and still no response.
And then it dawned on me; all the doors were electrically locked, automatically sealed! l flipped the light switch by the door, but the darkness remained. The storm had knocked out all the power in the plant, including the power to open the doors. I spent a few frantic, futile minutes trying other doors, looking for low, open windows, searching for an escape.
There was none. Even the phones had been rendered useless. As I pondered my situation, trapped alone in the factory with several hundred remaining boxes of matzot, I could only think of that novel I had been assigned to read, No Way Out.
About two hours into my ordeal, l heard a strange tapping noise coming from somewhere in the plant. At first I was just slightly terrified, imagining that certain reptilian creatures were asserting their hours of supremacy and challenging my intrusion on their turf.
But as the tap, tap, tapping continued, and as my frustration grew, I decided to look for the source of the noise. A hero, I knew, was someone too tired or too cold to care much about the risks.
It was now pitch dark in the plant, except for the flashes of lightning which illuminated the place at regular intervals. With each brilliant burst of light, I proceeded to make my way slowly towards the source of the noise. As I got closer, I perceived that it was coming from somewhere above me, perhaps from one of the storage rooms near the roof. l had only been back there once, and then by elevator, but I remembered seeing a staircase at the very rear of the plant. l gingerly felt my way there, totally unprepared for what I would find.
AS I climbed the stairs, holding on to the rail for dear life, I no longer heard the tapping sound. Instead I heard a low, humming noise, almost an imperceptible sing-song. When I reached the top of the landing, afraid to go on but even more scared to back down the long staircase, I saw a dim glow coming from beneath one of the doors at the end of the hall. I gathered up my courage and pushed open the door.
I almost fainted with surprise, and no little relief, when I was greeted by an elderly man with a broad smile on his face. “Come in,” he bellowed, with the faintest tinge of an elusive accent. “What a marvelous wonder to find you here!” By the light of two long candles burning on the table, I beheld an incredible scene. Here was a man, dressed in a flowing white robe, sitting cross-legged upon a pillow. In front of him was a low, oriental-style table, set as if for a banquet. A medley of delicious smells rushed at me, reminding me of just how hungry I was. My appetite took over and pushed the fear completely away.
“Who are you?” I asked sheepishly, glad to have a human – any human – to talk to. “My name is Pinchas, young man,” he said, “but my friends, and I have a feeling you’ll become one, call me Reb Pinchas. I was just about to begin my Pessah Seder, and I would be honored if you would join me. Like a lot of things,” and now he winked with a grin, “it goes better with two.”
“But who are you? What are you doing here? I’ve never seen you around. Do you work here? Does the foreman know...?” “Relax, son. Mr. Thom knows all about me. You see, I used to be the foreman here, a long time ago, before they decided to make the Matzot by machine. Back then, it was all hand-crafted, a real art, and I was the supervisor. But when they automated the place, I became kind of obsolete, and had to retire. But they gave me this place to live, as a sort of good-bye gesture to an old man who had served the company well. Now, since I’m the one with seniority here, I want you to be my guest. So tell me about yourself.”
I told him my name, and how I had come to be stuck in the factory – he smiled at the wonders of automation – and how I had followed the tapping noise. “Oh, that was just me, chopping walnuts for the charoses, the mortar-like food that we eat at the Seder. I’ve got to do all the preparations myself, you know, from the soup to the grinding of the horseradish root to the mixing of the salt water. But I’ll tell you what. Let’s try some of your machine matza tonight, if you can find your way back to retrieve some.”
Borrowing one of the candles, I retraced my steps and took a couple boxes of matza. I was fairly over Story whelmed by the whole scene, but, on the whole, it seemed better than spending what could be a couple of days alone in the dark. I knew that the foreman would return in two days, when the first days of the holiday were over, but that could be an eternity without food and companionship.
When I returned, I saw that the old man had set a place for me at his table. I sat down next to a large pillow, I relaxed, and we began to talk.
“Have you been to many Seders?” asked Reb Pinchas.
“Oh, I’ve been to a lot, but mostly they were just eatfests, huge banquets of great food with a few vague prayers and blessings thrown in for good measure. The old man smiled. “This may be a new experience for you, then.”
And we proceeded to talk about, well, about life, for a very long time. Reb Pinchas asked me about freedom, and what it means to me. I told him it means independence, and making my own decisions. He agreed with that, but he pointed out that true freedom is based on law and routine, about moving from a state of anarchy to established patterns of behavior in a civilized setting.
“I’ll bet America has more laws than any other country around,” he said, “and yet look how free a place this is. Laws don’t stifle freedom, they protect it. Judaism isn’t so different, either.
Why, some people look at the Torah and all its commandments and feel suppressed, when they should really feel liberated. After all, it was the Ten Commandments that freed the whole world from lawlessness and injustice. It brought seder, order, to civilization.”
A lot of what he had to say made sense. We talked a lot about matza, and how the rabbis debated whether or not it stood for slavery (as in the bread of affliction) or was a symbol of freedom to be eaten in lean-backed luxury.
“Matza is like life,” Reb Pinchas said. “It can be a blessing or a burden, all depending upon your perspective.
The minute you start taking it for granted, you may as well be under the taskmaster’s whip again.”
He asked me what my goals and future plans were, but, like most college students, I didn’t have a very clear answer.
“You know, son,” he said, between bites of the unleavened bread, which was tasting better all the time, “when we say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ we aren’t only speaking in the geographical sense. Every person has to have a dream, an ideal Jerusalem where he hopes to end up. You have to plot your life’s journey as soon as you can, set a course and follow it. “Like matza, as you now well know, if you wait too long it begins to sour and is no longer suitable or fulfilling. The clocks are running, and none of us can afford to waste precious minutes.”
I enjoyed reading from the Haggada that Reb Pinchas gave me. I could still sing the Four Questions – that much I had retained from my younger days – and I ended up doing most of the narration. We stopped all along the way to ask questions of each other and discuss.
I think that’s how you really get to know someone, by asking them questions.
“My friend, it’s a mitzva to ask questions at the Seder,” Reb Pinchas said. “Most years, I have to ask myself the questions, and that can seem downright senile. So I’m beholden to you for sharing this night with me so we can really ask the questions of one another.”
I remember so vividly discussing the Four Sons.
“Some people think this is about four separate people,” said Reb Pinchas, “but I say it’s about four sides of the same person. After all, at different times in our life, we’re motivated, or rebellious or uninformed, even apathetic. But as long as we know we have the capacity to be wise, that’s half the battle in getting there.”
There was a lot of that upbeat philosophy at the table. I remarked that the mix of symbols at the Seder, the bitterness of the horseradish and the sweetness of the wine seemed to show that Jewish life contains all the elements of emotion, from deep depression and the feeling of being trapped, to unbridled song and the sensory satisfaction of Spring. It was just a question of making some kind of Seder, some order, of it all.
“There’s that chacham in you!” smiled my friend.
“You’re talking like a scholar now!” The matza that we shared took on a special quality that night. But most of all, the taste that remains with me to this day is the wine. From a dusty, round bottle we poured cup after cup of the delicious grape wine. I poured for him, and he for me, and I know I’ve never tasted anything so sweet and satisfying.
“Been brewing this since Egypt,” Reb Pinchas said with a twinkle in his eyes, and it must have been the wine that made those songs sound so on-key and pleasant, even from my lips.
After talking long into the night, and eating and drinking our fill, we awoke barely in time to begin preparing for the second Seder.
“I insist you stay,” my new friend urged. “We haven’t quite finished explaining all the mysteries of the universe yet!” And so, for two nights and two days, in the upper room of a dark factory, we lit up our little world with a friendship and a sharing that taught me more than any professor ever has, or ever will.
I not only learned about a heritage I hardly knew I had, but I learned that I fit in, that I wasn’t an outsider, but a valuable, real player in this game of Jewish life. When I put on Reb Pinchas’s white robe the second night – he said it was my turn now to be the leader – I really felt royal, as a leader should. I never knew – until then – that I had it in me.
“For about f o u r thousand years you’ve had it in you,” said Reb Pinchas, “it just took a little wine and song to get it out!” The wine was something out of this world. I fell asleep clutching a bottle of it in my hand, and I must have slept the better part of a day, because I awakened to the sound of voices downstairs.
Rushing to the lower level, I saw Mr. Thom, who realized once he saw me that I had been locked inside for the last forty-eight hours.
“I’ve heard of devotion to work,” said the foreman, “but this is beyond the call of duty. You must be famished, scared! “ “Not really,” I explained. “You see, I found the old man upstairs. We had two wonderful Seders together.
He taught me a lot about Passover, and about myself.
All in all, I’d say it changed my life!” Mr. Thom had a confused look on his face, but smiled when he saw the bottle of wine in my hand.
“You must have been drinking one l’chaim too many,” he said. “I don’t know what old man you’re talking about.”
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Click for special Jpost Pessah features
He seemed to be totally unaware of Reb Pinchas and his association with the company, so I insisted he come upstairs and meet my new friend for himself. But when I threw open the door to our little banquet hall, the room was completely transformed. No table or pillows – or Reb Pinchas – remained. Only boxes of matza supplies, filing cabinets and machine parts piled in a corner of the room. I looked all around, searching in vain for a trace of the Seder, and then I looked at Mr.
Thom, who, after all, I hoped, would re-hire me next spring. I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and said, “You’re right; it must have been the wine.” And then I remembered the wine – the bottle was still in my hand! – and I smiled a knowing smile that no one in the world could have erased.
The years have passed since that fateful Pessah. Now, I conduct my own Seder, with my own children gathered around the table. They ask good questions, those little chachamim, the kind of questions my wife and I are hard-pressed to answer. But every time we’re just about stumped, I pour the tiniest bit of Reb Pinchas’s wine into our cups and, somehow, we seem to find all the right answers.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.