Ari Greenspan knows his matzah. It's not the only thing he knows, but he definitely knows his matzah.
The former New Jersey resident has studied it inside and out, from the firebricks that line his own homemade oven in the basement of his house in Efrat, Israel, to the unbaked hidden particles that accumulate when the dough folds over in the oven, thus rendering it chametz.
He knows about rolling the reddeler -- the metal wheel that makes the little holes in the matzah -- the long spatulas used to place the dough into the oven and what differentiates matzah from bread.
"From the time flour and water mix, 18 minutes later we call that chametz," explained the 41-year-old Greenspan. "Wheat has carbohydrates and proteins, and the water allows enzymes to mix with those carbohydrates, break them down and create gas, and that gas is what's responsible for the dough rising. And those processes, indeed, scientifically happen in give or take 18 minutes, when you start to see the effects of that gas."
Understand that it's not just matzah that Greenspan knows. His high energy level and inquisitive mind have led him to become proficient in many disciplines.
Greenspan is a religious scribe; an artist, who makes stained-glass windows for synagogues and has built a stone-and-metal ark; a ritual circumciser and a ritual slaughterer -- "I've never gotten the knives mixed up" -- and if you have problems with your teeth, dentistry is his day job.
He is perhaps best known to those who wear prayer shawls as the man who helped rediscover and implement tekhelet, the strand of tzitzit made with the blue dye from snails. It was during his research on tekhelet that he discovered little-known historical facts about matzah, like how the Jews in the Shoah risked their lives to fulfill the commandment.
"I went to meet the brother-in-law of the last Radziner rebbe about tekhelet, and he told me that while he was in hiding with the partisans in the forest, he managed to bake some matzah," Greenspan said. "They have a piece of it till this day."
He's heard and read many such stories and is now compiling them for a book he and his partner, Ari Zivotofsky, are writing on the history of matzah and the Jews who made it. It will touch on Jewish culture and geography from Uzbekistan and Morocco in the 1800s to the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 20th century to Russia during the Cold War. Topics will include the science of bread, literature from medieval manuscripts and tidbits like how in 1919, the Pacific Biscuit Co. used a swastika as its logo for matzah.
Baking and learning about matzah has always been a particular love, an annual pleasure for Greenspan. It started 1987 in Long Island, N.Y., when he and his friend Zivotofsky -- today a professor of brain sciences at Bar-Ilan University -- hand built a small oven in a neighbor's back yard.
"It never dawned on me that real people actually bake matzot," Greenspan said. "I thought you could only buy matzah in a store from a factory."
"So," he continued, "Ari and I went to a store in Bayonne, N.J., bought some firebricks and built this ziggurat-pyramid-shaped thing that held one matzah, if we were lucky. It was so much fun. We got maybe two kosher matzot the whole time, but that was the beginning of it."
Greenspan moved to Israel a year later and built one in his basement, then tore it down and built another and then did it again. It's not that he's trying to perfect a commercial operation. Greenspan just bakes for his family, his community in Efrat and for schoolchildren who come to his house before Pesach to learn about this fundamental Jewish rite.
"One of the things that's tricky is that when a matzah comes out of the oven, sometimes if the matzah is thick, or there's a lot of moisture in the dough, the outside will cook but the inside is soft," Greenspan said. "It's tricky because it could look beautiful and soft when it comes out, but after it cools down and gets hard, you don't realize it, but you could be eating chametz."
"So we don't mess around," he explained. "Every single matzah that comes out of the oven is held and tested by hand by bending it and playing with it before it has cooled down."
It was the school visits that started Greenspan on the book.
"I prepared a two-page pamphlet to teach the groups about the laws of matzah, and as part of it, I photocopied engravings and woodcuts from medieval hagaddot," Greenspan said. "It amazed me that we still do it exactly the same way, and those images were what started me researching the topic."
Never one to be satisfied doing one project at a time, Greenspan is currently working on another aspect of food: the kosher slaughtering and eating of quail, pigeon, dove and geese. These exotic animals are halachicly kosher but fell out of favor on kosher menus within the last 200 years. He and Zivotofsky have been speaking to old-time shochtim from Jewish communities around the world, collecting the oral tradition on which these birds and other animals were slaughtered.
"We joke that we are halachic adventurers, pushing the envelope within the boundaries of Jewish law," Greenspan said.
He and Zivotofsky will lecture at a May conference in New York, under the aegis of the Orthodox Union, on exotic kosher animals and their tradition. That will be followed with a dinner that night that will include exotic fowl and animals.
In the meantime, research on the matzah book continues, and the authors are asking anyone with stories and photos of anything to do with matzah to e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Many people have special memories of matzah," Greenspan said. "Ask any soldier, for example, what was his most special religious experience, and almost to an army or a war they will tell you the seder. It was and is for many the quintessential Jewish experience."
The two authors have no illusions about the book being a bestseller, but that's not the point, Greenspan said.
"I think it will appeal to many people, but in reality, I am doing it for myself," he said. "I love the research. Digging up the stories and photos is fascinating, interesting and fun. Traveling around to dozens of factories and granaries is like going on school trips, and the colorful people you get to meet are very unusual."
"But I think this book will have a very wide appeal, because matzah is possibly the most universal Jewish icon," Greenspan said. "There is something about reliving the experience of the Exodus and every subsequent oppression and redemption that exists in the crunch of the matzah."
Elli Wohlgelernter is former editor of Diaspora Affairs for the Jerusalem Post.
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