U City “matzah maven” takes his skills to Persian Gulf Jews

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Bill Motchan, Special For The Jewish Light

Ethan Schuman is a dentist, collector of Judaica, violinist, woodworker and, at this time of year, a matzah maven.

The earthen matzah oven in his University City garage was the subject of a 2016 story in the Jewish Light. Baking matzah from scratch is not easy. Kosher hardest foods for home chefs to master.

That hasn’t deterred Schuman, 66, who last month traveled to Bahrain, Kuwait and Dubai, where he perpared Matzah in a makeshift oven for Jews living in those Muslim countries. He described the challenges and rewards of his crispy matzah mitzvah.

“We possess skills that are very referring to his fellow travelers, including a rabbinical judge/ scholar, who frequently provide services to Jews living in far flung areas around the globe. Schuman and his two cohorts (Ari Greenspan and Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum) are resourceful and can serve as sort of Jewish MacGyvers.

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“We can lead services,” Schuman said. “We can speak to a congregation. If there’s a bris to be done, we can do a bris. If there are chickens or meat to be slaughtered in a kosher manner, we can do that. We have these skills that are valuable to the community. It’s a great thing to be able to do this. You can play a utility player in any position on the field.”

Matzah baking is one such specialized skill. It’s complicated because of the split-second timing involved. You may have seen competition baking shows on the Food Network in which chefs have to step away from the completed dish when time runs out. For matzah baking, seconds count.

“The difference between kosher matzah and non-kosher matzah is literally seconds,” Schuman said. “The entire process from when you introduce water to flour into the oven is exactly 18 minutes. We did it in Bahrain, Kuwait and Dubai.”

There are only a handful of Jewish families living in those predominantly Muslim countries. Most live there because that’s where their jobs placed them, although there are about 50 native Jews in Bahrain, Schuman said. In Bahrain and Kuwait, a number of Jews work at U.S. military bases there. Those nations have achieved a more peaceful co-existence with Israel in recent years, but for Jews living there, it often feels like being a stranger in a strange land.

Hence, Schuman’s “Jewish mission” to perform the custom of matzah baking in the homes of Jews to prepare for Passover. Could prepackaged kosher matzah be ordered online? Certainly. But the point of baking matzah at home is as symbolic as eating it during a Passover Seder. It’s a very direct connection to the Jews who fled Egypt and subsisted on unleavened bread in the desert.

Baking matzah in that very desert makes the process particularly meaningful for Jews there who are accustomed to worshiping and celebrating Jewish holidays covertly to avoid calling attention to the obvious differences between themselves and the vast majority of the population.

“They were beyond thrilled,” Schuman said. “We made their Passover, and we engaged them in the process of baking matzah, which certainly ranks up there with iconic symbols. Every Jew, no matter how assimilated or how distant from the faith, knows what matzah is.”

Since matzah baking is a precise and complex process, Schuman had to pack his luggage with rollers, bowls and kosher flour along with clothing. He and his fellow travelers are just one part of a substantial matzah distribution effort in the Persian Gulf region. The Association of Gulf Jewish Communities recently announced it would ship 775 pounds of matzah to Jews living in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. In those countries, it’s more complicated to get matzah than making a quick run to Schnucks or Dierbergs.

While tensions have eased between Israel and some of those Cooperation Council countries, the concept of baking matzah from scratch in the shadow of a mosque can be unsettling, even for a veteran baker like Schuman.

“What was a little bit eerie while we’re doing it, the muezzin (call to prayer) was going on, calling out from a minaret,” he said. “It starts before dawn, and it goes into the night, four times a day. And while we were conducting services on Shabbos morning, three doors away is a very big mosque, and the muezzin was carrying on while we were baking matzahs.

“Everywhere we baked, we took a lot of pictures. And our hosts said, ‘Don’t show our faces. Don’t speak of exactly where we are doing this. Don’t take pictures of the building.’ It’s for the same reason we didn’t wear a yarmulke on the street. There’s no need to advertise.”

On the other hand, Schuman witnessed a touching scene of religious solidarity during his trip.

“In Dubai during the prayers, in the middle of our services, the door opened and two Arabs walked in with full white gowns with the kafiya (Muslim head wrap), and it was a little bit shocking,” he said. “The rabbi goes over and gives them a nice ‘good Shabbos, Shabbat shalom’ welcome.

“They had been there before. He escorts them to a seat. Then they read along and stayed with us for kiddush.”