Making matzah in Ukraine

dnepropetrovsk | It’s not as easy as baking biscuits, but for many in this Ukrainian city, working in the shmurah matzah factory is not such a bad job.

Except for the owner and a supervisor who are Israeli, the other 100 people involved in the production are all local Jews.

Salaries and energy costs are much lower in Ukraine than in Israel, which is why the owner decided to start his matzah bakery here rather than in the Jewish state.

The workers say they are happy — even if some of them do piecework and have to perform monotonous tasks for eight hours a day.

“Oh, it’s easy,” says a smiling Sonya, a middle-aged woman who recently lost her position as a food-store manager prior to taking the job as a matzah roller. “I like it here a lot.”

Maybe the pay has something to do with her feelings: The workers are paid per piece, and Sonya can make more than $200 a month, triple the nation’s average salary.

Shmurah, or guarded, matzah is supervised from the harvest of the wheat until it is packed for shipment to ensure that the grain or flour does not come in contact with liquid and thereby become chametz — leavened bread that is forbidden on Passover.

All day long, Sonya stands at a long paper-covered table alongside three dozen fellow female workers who work their rolling pins to produce the round matzah — the way all matzah looked until matzah-baking became mechanized less than a century ago.

The average roller here can roll 15 matzahs during an 18-minute cycle — before the matzah turns into bread, according to Jewish law. When a piece of matzah is finished, the woman yells out her number so a clerk gives her credit in the registry for her work.

The rolled dough is draped on long poles and placed in an oven and baked for only a few seconds.

But before that, each round piece comes to a young man at the end of the table who uses a roller to poke the matzah with multiple holes so it will not rise while in the oven.

Gena, the man who operates the tool, said it didn’t take him long to learn the craft. He says he enjoys his job because it allows him to work elsewhere at nights: He’s a disc jockey at a popular Dnepropetrovsk disco.

Zhenya Gorodnitzky, who only recently has started working at the bakery, has a more physically challenging task. He kneads lumps of dough, pressing a lever against a metal table. The kneaders sweat heavily, and some of the men wear just shorts under their white robes.

Gorodnitzky is a professional butcher. He lived in Israel for nine years, served in the army and studied at a yeshiva before returning to Ukraine last year.

Unlike most of the matzah bakeries elsewhere around the world that operate only for several months prior to Passover, this one stays open for most of the year. Demand for production is high, but the workers at this new facility lack the experience to step up output, bakery managers say.

“This season we started training people in June and baked the first matzah in August,” says Oleg Brekhov, manager at Tiferes Hamatzos, which is believed to be the largest matzah bakery in the former Soviet Union.

In Israel, he said, “they have entire dynasties, people who worked with matzah for generations. And to us it’s all new.”

The baking of shmurah matzah involves more costly techniques than most store-bought matzah. Nowhere inside the bakery can the grain or flour touch the ground, so the sacks are stacked on special trays.

Water used in the baking process is taken from a 430-foot-deep underground well. And for those for whom strictly kosher is not good enough, the bakery recently began making limited amounts of super-kosher matzahs produced with hand-milled flour.

The matzah, packed in yellow boxes with Hebrew and English writing, is mostly exported to Israel, Western Europe and the United States, where it retails at about $10 a pound — twice as much as it is sold for in Ukraine and several times more than machine-made matzah.

Not many local Jews can afford the shmurah matzah, which costs 10 times as much as the machine-made Israeli matzah available here.

For Ukrainian Jewry, the bakery in Dnepropetrovsk, which is in its second year of operation, presents a striking contrast with the communist past, when only a couple of cities were allowed to operate matzah bakeries and people often risked their life while baking underground matzah for the community.

The bakery, started by members of Israel’s Chabad-Lubavitch community, is located among rows of ugly Soviet-era warehouse-type buildings in the industrial zone on Dnepropetrovsk’s outskirts. It is probably the only place in the former Soviet Union that makes shmurah matzah, which is especially prized among fervently religious Jews.

Two years ago, a rabbi flew here from Israel to select and approve a wheat field near Dnepropetrovsk, and local yeshiva students look after it for days before the grain for the matzah is harvested.

“Our Ukrainian grain is of a very high quality,” Brekhov says proudly.

During Soviet times, Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s largest wheat producer.

As it turned out, last year’s harvest was very poor, leading to a bread price hike that generated a wave of protest in this former Soviet republic. But the matzah facility had already opened, so the management decided to work with grain imported from Israel.

Shmuel Kaminetzky, an Israeli-born Chabad rabbi who has been the city’s chief rabbi for 14 years, says the bakery and other Jewish traditional businesses that sprang up in his community in recent years can help solve acute social problems.

“There are many more of those who want to work at the bakery, but we can take only Jews, as only Jews are allowed to work with matzah dough,’ says Brekhov, the manager.

This industrial city in eastern Ukraine has witnessed an explosion of traditional Jewish businesses that cater to the needs of Orthodox Jews in Israel and elsewhere.

Affordable manpower and the many Chabad emissaries attracted to Dnepropetrovsk by the charismatic and well-connected Kaminetzky are increasing employment in Jewish industries.