Matzo: 8 Fun Facts

Elisa Lichtenbaum | August 31, 2020

Man handles a pile of matzo in a matzo factory

Still from Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream. Credit: Menemsha Films

Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream receives an encore Sunday, September 6 at 4:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream explores the fascinating history of the Streit’s Matzo factory, which operated for nearly a century on New York’s Lower East Side.

Before you tune in to this film about the only family-owned matzo company in America, nosh on our 8 Fun Facts About Matzo.

1. The French Invented the Matzo Machine

The final packaging done in the former Streits factory on the Lower East Side of New York City, now closed. Credit: Menemsha Films

The first matzo-making machine was invented in 1838 by a French Jew named Isaac Singer – no relation to the famous sewing machine inventor. The pioneering machine rolled the dough instead of kneading it, decreased prep time and increased productivity. Many rabbis objected to the mass production of matzo, but Singer’s machine resulted in a larger supply, produced more cheaply, which benefited Jewish communities around the world. Automated matzo production also led to the shape of matzo changing from round to square.

2. After 18 Minutes, Matzo Dough Isn’t Kosher

Baking kosher matzo is like playing Beat the Clock. As Rabbi Daniel Senter says in Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, “Generally when you make production for kosher, if the equipment, process, and ingredients are all kosher, you’ll have a kosher product. With Passover matzo production, we’ve got this added component of time: if you mix flour and water together, you’ve got 18 minutes to get it through the system. Otherwise that dough will become ‘chametz’ (leavened) and not Kosher for Passover. If there’s any break in production for more than ten minutes, we have to start over again.”

3. The Tiny Holes in Matzo Are Key

Archival photo from Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream. Credit: Menemsha Films

Archival photo from Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream. Credit: Menemsha Films

Every square of matzo has hundreds of tiny holes. What’s up with that? The holes allow steam to pass through the dough, preventing it from rising and turning into leavened bread, like pita. The holes also play a crucial part in the koshering process, says Dan Pashman, host of the food podcast and blog The Sporkful.

“The rabbinical inspectors, who make sure the matzo is kosher when it comes off the assembly line, break it along those holes and then against the grain, to make sure it cooked through so it’s no longer leavening,” he says in this NPR interview.

4. Ohio Was a Matzo Mecca

You might expect America’s matzo history to be exclusively rooted in New York City’s Lower East Side, but Cincinnati, Ohio, can claim the country’s first matzo factory: the B. Manischewitz Company.

It was founded in 1888 by Rabbi Dov Behr Abramson, a Russian immigrant who bought the passport of a deceased man named Manischewitz to gain entry to the United States. The enterprising rabbi started baking matzo in his basement because the local Jewish community was having trouble finding Passover matzo. He called his popular product Cincinnati Matzos – but when other bakers started using his product name, he renamed his matzos and the Manischewitz brand was born.

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5. Barack Obama Brought Matzo to the White House

Barack Obama was the first U.S. President to have Passover seders in the White House – complete with Maxwell House Haggadahs and matzo. He and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted eight seders during his term as president.

“I’m proud that I’ve brought this tradition in to the White House,” he said in 2013, describing the story of Passover as “the story about finding freedom in your own land.”

Click here for photos of all the White House Passover Seders from 2009-2016.

6. Muppets Likes Matzo (And So Does Jake Gyllenhaal!)

Muppet extraordinaire Grover is super excited to celebrate Passover at his first seder in the Shalom Sesame episode, It’s Passover, Grover. (Shalom Sesame was an American version of the Israeli Sesame Street,which aired on some PBS stations.)

“I cannot wait to find the hidden matzo!” he says, excited about the part of the seder when children look for a hidden piece of matzo to exchange for a small gift. Grover and his friends have their work cut out for them. As guest star actor Jake Gyllenhaal explains, whoever finds the hidden matzo (the Afikoman) gets a prize – and he has hidden the matzo really well. (Watch him kvell here.)

Grover and “Les Matazrables” search high and low for “Matzah in the House” in this witty Les Misérables­-inspired musical number, below. (FYI, Les Misérables – Masterpiece­ premieres April 14 on THIRTEEN!)

7. Matzo Jingles Rock!

Retro commercial jingles are notoriously peppy, and they don’t get catchier than the deliciously tuneful Manischewitz Matzo jingle. Thanks to the Yiddish Radio Project’s CD, Music From the Yiddish Radio Project, you can enjoy this gem performed by The Barry Sisters and Jan Bart with Sam Medoff and the Yiddish Swingtet – and many other amazing archival recordings from the Golden Age of Yiddish Radio in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

8. You Can Make Your Own Matzo

We’ve come across lots of mouthwatering recipes that include matzo, such as Joan Nathan’s Passover cheesecake (adapted from Fania Lewando’s 1938 The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook) and Michele Streit Heilbrun’s Matzo Spanikopita (from her book Matzo: 35 Recipes for Passover and All Year Long). But who knew you could bake matzo at home? Matzo mavens and master chefs, give this tasty DIY Matzo recipe from KQED Food a shot – and let us know in the Comments, below, how you fare on your maiden matzo voyage!

Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream will be broadcast Sunday, September 6 at 4:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.