Saturday, June 29, 2013
Here, on a Christian farmer’s land five miles from the Mexican border, lies the holiest of fields for some of New York’s most observant Orthodox Jewish communities. Wheat harvested on these 40 acres is destined to become matzo, the unleavened bread eaten by Jews during the eight days of Passover.
It is not an everyday plant-and-pick operation, and the matzo made from this wheat is not everyday matzo.
Yisroel Tzvi Brody, rabbi of the Shaarei Orah synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, stood at the edge of one of the fields on Monday, stooping to rub a grain of wheat between his wrinkled thumb and index finger. Removing his glasses, he brought the grain close to his eyes and turned it from side to side, like a gemologist inspecting a precious stone.
“It is to ascertain that it’s not sprouted,” Rabbi Brody explained. “If it has, it’s not valid.”
For seven weeks, while the wheat grew in scorching heat under impossibly blue skies, two men clothed in the traditional black and white garments of the Hasidim stayed in a trailer overlooking the crop, to be able to attest that the wheat, once matured, had been untouched by rain or other moisture. Workers were prohibited from carrying water bottles in the field. Dust danced in the air as the wind blew, but unpaved roads could not be wet while the wheat was growing. The goal was to prevent any natural fermentation from taking place in the grains before they were milled into flour and the matzo was baked, sometime in the late fall.
Tradition calls for keeping watch over the matzo from the time the wheat is milled. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have carried that practice several steps further, guarding the grains before the wheat is harvested to ensure they are not overripe or wet from rainfall. That can be a challenging task on the rainy East Coast. Nonetheless, one segment of the Satmar sect, the largest Hasidic group in the United States, grows its wheat there, following seasonal weather forecasts to search for areas where rain is least likely to fall right before the wheat matures.
Five years ago, another Satmar group began shifting its wheat-growing operation here, where rain is rare at this time of year. That opened a new front line in the competition for the most rigorous standards in the production of matzo. (In a taste test, though, Vos Iz Neias?, a Jewish blog, chose neither, picking instead matzo made by the Pupa and Zehlem Matzoh Bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is run by Hasidic Jews of the Puppa sect. It is said that they, too, have used Yuma wheat.)
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York, whose research focuses on the social ethnography of Jewish Orthodox movements, said the competition between the two Satmar groups — each led by one of two brothers — was about one-upmanship.
“One is always looking to be more authoritative than the other,” Professor Heilman said, “and one of the ways they’re making this happen is over matzo — our matzo is more kosher than yours, we’re more scrupulous and careful over matzo baking than you are.”
Zalman Teitelbaum is the younger of the brothers and a rabbi in one of the Satmar congregations in Williamsburg, where many of the sect’s members live. The bakers who follow him use East Coast wheat.
Aaron Teitelbaum, the older brother, is the chief rabbi of the Satmar community based in the village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., settled by his uncle, Joel Teitelbaum, the dynasty’s founder and its grand rabbi. Wheat used there comes from Yuma.
On Monday, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum got something close to a rock star reception when he paid a visit to the farm, straight from New York, to bless the wheat harvest. Rabbis and congregants at the farm formed a tight knot around him, taking pictures and jostling for a chance to touch him.
Rabbi Brody, clad in a bekishe, a traditional ankle-length black coat, approached Tim Dunn, the farm’s owner. “How many degrees is now?” he asked.
“It’s about 108 degrees,” Mr. Dunn told him.
Rabbi Brody sighed.
Mr. Dunn remembers a call five years ago from a man who asked if he had any interest growing kosher wheat. He said yes, without any real idea about what working with ultra-Orthodox Jews would require. The first lesson came when his wife reached to shake hands with a visitor and the man, a rabbi, pulled back. (By custom, men and women are to avoid touching, unless they are related.)
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