“Every single chumrah that can possibly exist in industrial matzoh production, I have instituted in my bakery,” Rav Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar once declared
“Every single chumrah that can possibly exist in industrial matzoh production, I have instituted in my bakery,” Rav Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar once declared. In Williamsburg today, that same bakery is still in operation, and Reb Yoelish’s spirit is evident in the precision and care invested in the 215,000 pounds of matzos it produces. In a rare conversation, the community secretary shares the storied history of the bakery, painting a vibrant portrait of its illustrious founder
o anyone who has attended a wedding in New York during the past few years, the street names in Williamsburg are familiar enough: Bedford, Rodney, Lee, Hewes (or Heves, as it’s pronounced here, with a Hungarian lilt). But passing through those streets at night while scooting in and out of the neighborhood for a wedding, you hardly get a feel for the local color. During the day, everything looks different. On a crisp, wintry morning, people amble about on foot, a reflection of the simpler way of life. At 10:30, tardy children contend with the freezing temperatures as their mothers rush them off to school, encountering some work-bound men on their way.
Surprisingly, what seemed to be an innocent interview about a matzoh bakery can only commence after several days of clandestine, almost cloak-and-dagger maneuvering. Even now, while driving to an elusive address, it’s not clear where we are headed. “Go to 150 Rodney street,” were the instructions, “and you’ll meet with Reb Yida Lazer Jacobowitz.”
The intense distaste for media exposure that was one of the trademarks of Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, the first Satmar Rav, has never left this community. In fact, while the minivans and SUVs that line the streets are definitely not relics of his era, not much else has changed since the Rebbe’s days — and that is a matter of choice that locals are proud of. Still, media-shyness aside, community members are friendly and full of Yiddishe chein. As we stop to ask for directions to the matzoh bakery at 150 Rodney, several people rush over to offer assistance. One fellow proceeds to list the addresses of every matzoh bakery in Williamsburg to try to guide us to our destination. Confused, we ask for 150 Rodney nonetheless, and are guided toward an aging structure dwarfed by the neighboring building, an imposing structure that houses the Satmar Beis Medrash — one of the largest in the world — where the founder of the chassidus, the Divrei Yoel, ztz”l, and his successor, the Beirach Moshe, ztz”l, davened, and now under the leadership of Rav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum of Satmar, shlita. The decidedly more modest building before us, I belatedly learn, is the world headquarters of Satmar.
The young girl at the front desk shows surprise at the sight of the “outsiders,” but when she hears that we’re there to meet with Reb Yida Lazer Jacobowitz, she picks up her phone and murmurs into it. Reb Yida Lazer rushes out to greet us, quickly pulling us past all other office workers before we cause a stir. Once inside his office, Reb Yida Lazer relaxes and greets us. He’s not curt, just cautious about the commotion a journalist and photographer can cause.
Welcome to the world of Satmar, where everyone is welcome — but please don’t take pictures.
Much More than a Bakery
Reb Yida Lazer Jacobowitz is the secretary of the Satmar kehillah, a job that doesn’t sound nearly as daunting as it is.
“Everything is run through the central office,” he explains as he straightens mounds of papers on his desk. “From the matzoh bakery to the chevra kadisha — it all goes through this office. We just opened a new chelka [burial area] in the cemetery in Kiryas Yoel [in Monroe, New York], and the spots are sold through us.”
Far from a paper pusher, Reb Yida Lazer proves to be an encyclopedia of anything Satmar. Events are filed away in his head, with names and dates, and anything that doesn’t roll off his tongue is quickly retrieved from documents crammed into his office cabinets. His demeanor is serious, as behooves a person responsible for maintaining the smooth operation of every aspect of a community of tens of thousands. And logistics are a crucial component in the administration of the Satmar matzoh bakery, which, we were told, has some legendary stories behind it. The bakery was a project of Reb Yoelish himself, and in its construction he wasn’t just providing a Yom Tov necessity; he wanted to engender a resurgence in dikduk (punctiliousness) in mitzvos that had been lost in the Holocaust.
“There’s no mitzvah that chassidishe Yidden take such serious steps to guard as that of matzoh,” says Reb Yida Lazer. “From the time that the matzos arrive in a person’s home until the Seder, he makes sure to keep them in a safe place, and his mind is always on them. The Rebbe wanted to make sure that the shemirah began in the bakery — and well before.”
Despite his relative youth, Reb Yida Lazer had the good fortune to be privy to a firsthand account of those early days. When the Rebbe decided to start a matzoh bakery, he charged a Holocaust survivor by the name of Reb Lipa Lowy, a”h, with the task. Shortly before Reb Lipa passed away, he summoned Reb Yida Lazer and recounted the early days of the matzoh bakery, “l’maan yeidi dor acharon” — so that later generations would know.
Reb Lipa arrived from Europe in 5706 (1946), shortly after World War II. He had relatives who owned a matzoh bakery, Beis Ofeh Anshei Ungarin, in Williamsburg. A small operation, it had just one oven. Reb Lipa started working in that matzoh bakery, and arranged for the Satmar kehillah to bake their matzos there. The owners of the bakery considered it such good PR that in the advertisements they posted in the Morgen Tag Journal, they mentioned that Rav Yoelish Teitelbaum and his kehillah baked matzos there, as did the Sigheter kehillah under Rav Moshe Teitelbaum (later to be the Beirach Moshe, Reb Yoelish’s successor as Rebbe of Satmar).
Three years later, the Beis Ofeh went out of business, and for two years, the kehillah baked in the Puppa-Tzhelemer matzoh bakery. In 5712 (1952), the Rebbe summoned Reb Lipa Lowy and informed him about a small, unused matzoh bakery, which the Rebbe wanted him to rent and use for the kehillah. The original rental contract stated that nothing could be done in the bakery without first consulting the Rebbe.
In 5716, ten years after that initial round of matzoh production, the kehillah bought the first of what would eventually expand to four buildings on Broadway Street that house the matzoh bakery. Ironically, when the non-Jew who owned the building saw that a “congregation” was purchasing his property, he was nervous that they wouldn’t have the means to pay in full, and he almost broke the contract at the last minute. Reb Lipa Lowy took it upon himself to see the sale through. He altered the contract so the buyer would be himself, taking personal responsibility for the payment, later transferring ownership to the kehillah. The Rebbe obligated every member of the kehillah to pay $5 to cover the purchase and startup costs. The bakery was, and will always be, joint property of the entire kehillah, and the Rebbe considered it theft for anyone to cause harm to the bakery in any way.
One year, a certain wealthy man wanted to obtain tanur rishon matzos (the first matzos baked in a “fresh” oven). When he learned that there was no way he could get those matzos, he got upset. He went to another matzoh bakery and bought his tanur rishon matzos there. When the Rebbe found out, he called the rosh kahal, Reb Sender Deutsch, a”h, and told him to write a letter stating that community members may only buy matzos in the kehillah’s matzoh bakery. He instructed Reb Sender to bring him the letter before sending it out, and he added the following lines: “The community’s decision regarding matzos stands, and it is prohibited for any member of our community to purchase matzos in any other place, for [if he does] he robs the public, and for several other reasons.”
Why would purchasing one’s matzos elsewhere be tantamount to gezel?
“Because the Rebbe felt that his steps in establishing chumros in the bakery were for the sake of the public,” explains Reb Yida Lazer, “and that anyone who jeopardized that unity of purpose was robbing the community at large.”
Not Just Any Wheat
In more than fifty years of existence, the Satmar matzoh bakery has never advertised, nor have community leaders seen a reason to share its storied roots. Even our interview was a one-time privilege, and the motivation was certainly not commercial. There is no shortage of demand — if anything, they simply can’t keep up.
“This is all kocho shel oso zukein, the Rebbe, zy”a,” Reb Yida Lazer declares. “At a gathering this year discussing how we could help people cut their expenses, the Rebbe shlita declared that one thing we won’t do is stray even an iota from what the Rebbe, zy”a, and his father the Beirach Moshe, ztz”l, instituted, even if it is more costly to do things their way, because our success stems from the fact that we never budge from the rules they established for us.”
Life on American soil meant translating halachos in Shulchan Aruch for new realities, and the Rebbe insisted on translating them in a way that would bring about the most scrupulous observance of mitzvos. “Every single chumrah that can possibly exist in industrial matzoh production, I have instituted in my bakery,” he would later declare. Even technicalities such as the areas in the United States from which wheat could be bought, how and when to cut it, store it, and transport it, were decided by the Rebbe.
The halachah states, for instance, that overripe wheat or kernels that have begun to split cannot be used for matzos, because at that point, the wheat no longer needs to be connected to the ground, and rain will cause it to become chometz. The Rebbe determined that because of this halachah, all wheat must be cut in a five-week period between Sivan and Tammuz.
Not every wheat field can be used to produce flour for matzos, because there is a halachah that a davar charif (sharp food, such as onion and garlic) ground along with the flour renders it chometz. Even if a farmer doesn’t actively plant these vegetables, the wind can easily transport some into a field. The Rebbe wasn’t willing to rely on any leniencies in this area, insisting that if rabbanim detected the slightest scent of onion or garlic in the wheat kernels or flour, they must discard the entire lot.
In order to avoid cutting down a large swath of wheat only to find that there was onion or garlic in the field, he instituted that a large contingent of rabbanim and trustworthy yungerleit, led by a close talmid, Reb Elya Duvid Tirnauer, a”h, would visit each field, crossing it diagonally in formation so they could check every inch. That remains the modus operandi today.
“Sending such a large group can cost us $40,000,” says Reb Yida Lazer, “and there are times when they make the trip, only to find something amiss and turn back without cutting a single stalk.
“And even our system is not foolproof,” he adds. “We’ve had situations in which an entire tractor-trailer full of wheat arrived from across the United States, and when they opened the doors of the trailer, the rav detected the presence of a davar charif. We immediately sold off the entire lot at a loss, for use during the year, in keeping with the Rebbe’s instructions.”
Another rule of Reb Yoel was that wheat be cut only between noon and five o’clock in the afternoon, to ensure that the sun has already evaporated the morning dew. This can be hard to explain to the non-Jewish field-owners, who suffer immensely from another chumrah: no water is allowed onto the combine harvester during the cutting process, to ensure that all the wheat remains absolutely dry. Considering the summer heat in states such as Indiana and Georgia in which wheat is commonly cut, it can be quite difficult for a befuddled farmer to deal with the rabbis from New York. But farmers know that it is worthwhile, and they know that as long as they don’t try to break any of the rules, they will be paid handsomely for their crops.
Before the cutting begins, the combine is put through a thorough cleaning to ensure that no remainders of other crops or moisture remain in the cogs of the machine. A rav then climbs into the harvester together with the farmer, and he turns on the machine so that the wheat is cut l’sheim matzos mitzvah. The harvester accomplishes many tasks at once — cutting the wheat, threshing it, and separating the wheat kernels from the chaff so that it can be packed as grain that is ready for grinding.
The grain is then packed and placed into tractor-trailers, which are inspected first by rabbanim for any signs of weakness. The slightest leak in the casing of the trailer can disqualify the entire lot if rain seeps in during the trip to New York. The wheat is locked in the trailer with a double seal, and only the rabbanim have access to the keys. There have been some sticky situations. A driver once jimmied open the door to his trailer to retrieve a tool he needed. When the lot arrived in New York and the rabbanim noticed that the seal was no longer intact, they ruled that the entire trailer would not be used — in keeping with a ruling from the Rebbe.
This entire process is undertaken in Idaho, Maryland, and Long Island, New York, along with Georgia and Indiana — all in that one five-week period.
Not in the Heim Anymore
Two years after the bakery opened, the Rebbe called in Reb Lipa Lowy and told him that he wanted to buy his own mill to grind the wheat. A mill was a considerable expense, and Reb Lipa told the Rebbe that he’d have to obtain permission from the kahal, because he wasn’t authorized to spend more than $100 without their consent.
Reb Getzel Berger, the rosh kahal of Satmar in London and one of the biggest supporters of the community, was present when this exchange took place. “The Rebbe has to ask for permission to do something in his own bakery?” he asked incredulously.
“Zei meinen az m’iz nuch in der heim in Satmar, vee m’hut mir genemen altz ruv,” replied the Rebbe sharply. “They think that we’re still in the heim in Satmar, where they hired me as rav. They don’t yet understand that I built this community, and I make the rules.”
Reb Lipa understood his instructions; he went straight to the task, purchasing a large mill, parts of which are still stored in the matzoh bakery. Years after Reb Lipa’s tenure, when Reb Yeedle Rosenberg, a”h, was running the bakery, the old mill stopped working properly. He wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to do away with the old mill as long as it was still functioning to some extent, since it would cost the kehillah money. They called together a beis din to rule on the matter, but before it met, they went to discuss it with the Rebbe. When the Rebbe heard that the old mill wasn’t working properly, he instructed Reb Yeedle to purchase new equipment, obviating the need for the beis din’s decision.
“Today, all 700,000 pounds of wheat are ground in the bakery on Broadway,” Reb Yida Leizer reports. “Much of the flour is used in the matzoh bakery as well, but some is bought by other Satmar matzoh bakeries around the world. There is also an ever-increasing demand for reichayim shel yad (hand-ground) matzos, and a separate division in the bakery deals with that demand.”
Even after he had labored to establish procedures that met his standards, the Rebbe kept a constant watch on the bakery. He would arrive unannounced at the matzoh bakery from time to time in order to ensure that everything was running according to his instructions.
“The Rebbe would walk out of shul after Shacharis,” Reb Yida Lazer relates, “and bechvodo ube’atzmo he would stop a school bus that had just dropped off children in the Satmar Cheder, and instruct the driver to take him to the matzoh bakery so he could perform a spot inspection.”
The Beirach Moshe and Reb Zalman Leib of Satmar have maintained this practice. “Last year,” recalls Reb Yida Leizer, “the Rebbe caused quite a stir, because instead of summoning his driver, he left his house on foot, walking quite a distance to the bakery, so that no one would know that he was coming.”
Once, when Reb Yoelish arrived for an inspection, he encountered a locked door. All the workers were on the lower floor grinding wheat, and with the deafening noise of the mill, they didn’t hear the Rebbe knocking. The Rebbe returned home, and that night he summoned the community leaders and told them that he needed his own key to the bakery. He needed to be able to pop in without warning to ensure that all of his standards were being kept.
On one of the Rebbe’s visits to the bakery, workers were in middle of cleaning the reidler (the apparatus used to make holes in matzos), which is done with libun (scorching it until any morsels of leftover dough or flour are burned away). Reb Lipa Lowy, who was a redhead, took the opportunity to ask the Rebbe how much libun was necessary.
“I want it be as red-hot as your beard,” the Rebbe replied with his characteristic humor — but he meant it. No cutting corners in his bakery.
Every milestone that the bakery reached was a source of joy for the Rebbe. During the first year of bakery’s existence, every rav or rosh yeshivah who came to visit the Rebbe was invited for a tour of the bakery.
In the early years, the Satmar chassidim relied on nearby wells to draw the mayim shelanu. (Halachically, water for matzos must be drawn from a well during twilight, and then left overnight — hence the moniker “shelanu,” meaning “that has rested.”) It was difficult for the workers to schlep barrels of water, and two years after they bought the bakery, the Rebbe decided it was time to dig their own well on the bakery premises. The problem was that the waterways near Williamsburg all contain saltwater, and samples from wells in farms that existed back then in the vicinity had all tested positive for salt content. When the Rebbe gave instructions to start digging a well, Reb Lipa Lowy was concerned that the investment would be for naught, because saltwater can’t be used for matzos. But the Rebbe told him to dig anyway.
“It doesn’t take long to reach water in Williamsburg,” explains Reb Yida Lazer. “In some parts of the neighborhood, the water level is so close to the surface — just six feet beneath the ground in certain spots — that it is nearly impossible to pour a proper foundation for a large building. This has caused us trouble when we try to build buildings for yeshivos or chadarim.”
For the purpose of mayim shelanu, however, watery Williamsburg had its advantages. Digging began on a Friday morning. The Rebbe summoned Reb Lipa at midday, and asked him to try to see to it that samples were sent for testing early enough that the results would come back before Shabbos. The workers struck water several hours after they began to dig, and they quickly collected a sample and sent it out to a lab. Right before Shabbos, as Reb Lipa was about to walk out to shul, the results came in: the water was pure!
Reb Lipa ran to tell the Rebbe. “The Rebbe was overjoyed for that entire Shabbos,” he recounted, “because he would soon have his own mayim shelanu.”
When the well had been completed, Reb Yoel Klein, who was then the rosh kahal of Satmar, went to inform the Rebbe. The Rebbe grabbed his tilip (overcoat) and went straight to the matzoh bakery. He sent someone for the Shoproner Rav, one of the great tzaddikim to make it to American shores, whom he had appointed as the rav hamachshir of the bakery. When they arrived at the new well, the Rebbe drew a cup of water and poured it onto the corner of his beketshe. He knew that if there was salt or any other chemical in the water, it would leave some sort of discoloration when it dried. They waited several minutes, and it dried clear.
“Ah,” the Rebbe exclaimed with joy, “eigineh vasser — our own water!” (Perhaps a play on the word shelanu, which can also mean “ours.”)
The matzah bakery was the only thing the Rebbe granted his hechsher to in America, and he didn’t confine his strict rulings in halachah to Hilchos Pesach. Once, shortly after the basement was renovated to serve as a storage area for grain, the Rebbe came to visit the bakery. He noticed a hole in the ground that served as a dumbwaiter via which the grain was brought up to the main floor of the bakery. He asked why there was no gate around the hole. Those in charge explained that it would be too difficult to get a hilo around the hole if there was a gate around it.
“This bakery is my achrayus,” the Rebbe said emphatically, “and according to halachah, we need a maakah (gate) here. I’m not moving until you build one.”
Workers were hired immediately, and there was a gate before nightfall.
When it came time for Reb Lipa Lowy to retire, the Rebbe appointed Reb Yeedle Rosenberg, who had been running Satmar camps until then, to run the bakery.
“Reb Yeedle was the most patient man in the world,” says Reb Yida Lazer. “He was able to deal with thousands of customers — in a season that lasted six months — without ever losing patience.”
As demand steadily increased and it became impossible to keep up, Reb Yeedle purchased an adjoining building to expand the bakery in 5722 (1962), and he would eventually add on another two buildings.
“Everyone knew that the matzos were produced on standards that only the Rebbe, zy”a, could introduce,” explains Reb Yida Lazer, “and Yidden from every stripe came to bake there. Reb Yeedle would give preferential treatment to litvishe rabbanim and roshei yeshivah who wanted to fulfill the mitzvah with the Rebbe’s chumros.”
Today, the bakery is run under the capable hands of Reb Duvid Rosenberg, Reb Yeedle’s son, and rabbanim and roshei yeshivah from the world over continue to visit. Last year, the matzoh bakery was graced with the presence of Rav Koppelman from Lucerne, a centenarian who is still able to travel. The rav was amazed by the standards that are a throwback to the days of Reb Yoel, as was Dayan Dunner of London, who visited the bakery on behalf of the Kedassiah hashgachah. Until today, if any of the rules instituted by the Rebbe, zy”a, are mistakenly overlooked, the entire day’s matzos are discarded.
And there are improvements, too. In the early years, many of the workers were immigrants who knew little about religious observance. Then the Rebbe decided that girls from Bnos Rochel (Satmar’s girls’ school) should work shifts in the matzoh bakery. The girls are taught all the relevant halachos and hiddurim, and until today, many matzos are produced by these ehrilche girls, and many continue to work there after they get married.
Last year, the Rebbe shlita decided to start producing “bnei Torah” matzos, in which men of the community take part in every step, including rolling out the dough. These matzos are in very high demand, and whereas in the past seasonal jobs were not very attractive, in the current economic climate, many yungeleit have embraced this employment opportunity.
Production begins immediately after Succos, and continues until close to the zman on Erev Pesach. From Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the bakery is open twenty-four hours a day, as chaburos from all over rent out the bakery. In total, 215,000 pounds of matzos are baked; some $400,000 worth are distributed through a kimcha dePischa fund.
“This is all in the zchus of the Rebbe, zy”a,” says Reb Yida Lazer resolutely.
The Rebbe’s Matzos
The Rebbe took part in every step of the process of producing his own matzos, except for cutting the wheat. This he entrusted to Reb Elya Duvid Tirnauer, whom he trusted implicitly, saying, “When Reb Elya Duvid does something, it’s as if I do it myself.”
When the wheat was ready to be milled, the Rebbe would come down to the bakery, donning a special beketshe for the occasion, placing thick, brown baking paper over his beketshe and tying his gartel on top of it.
Flour doesn’t start flowing properly until after several minutes of grinding, so the Rebbe would have Reb Elya Duvid begin turning the mill, and he would place his hand beneath it to catch the flour as it emerged. After a few minutes, when he determined that pure flour was coming out, he would take over, and grind his wheat himself.
On Erev Pesach, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the Rebbe would arrive in the bakery dressed in Yom Tov finery. Only a select group of his closest chassidim were allowed to participate in baking those matzos.
The feeling was surreal, recalled Yidden who were privileged to be part of that chaburah, the atmosphere charged with excitement. The Rebbe would first inspect the rolling pins to make sure that they had no dents that could catch some dough, and then he would stand at the head of the table and hand out the teiglach (pieces of dough) for his chaburah to roll out. He would take the last piece and roll it himself, and then hand it over to someone else to finish. Then he would wash his hands, and announce, in a refrain that had become famous, “Lumir gein tzim dem fin oiven — Let’s go to the oven” (oiven can also mean from above, and the Rebbe may have been expressing the uplifted feelings they had on this occasion).
The most memorable part of that chaburah was the Rebbe’s Hallel. As soon as he began to distribute the teiglach, he would begin to sing Hallel, with each nuance, as if he was standing at the amud in beis medrash.
“Yidden told me,” says Reb Yida Lazer, “that they felt an indescribable feeling of yearning for closeness with the Ribono shel Olam during that Hallel.”
And even now, two generations removed, you detect that yearning in the voice of this young secretary of the kehillah, who has been lucky enough to perceive that atmosphere from those who were up close. In fact, they are the subjects of his parting words: “Ashrei eiyin ra’asah kol eilah” — fortunate is the eye that has seen all this. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 355)
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