Matzah crunch: Bay Area afflicted with shortage this Passover

Let the record show that George Gershwin was not pondering matzah when he penned a little ditty titled “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em.”

But, this year especially, he could have been. Typically, by the end of Passover week, many Jews are ready to swear off dry, dusty matzah forever. Apparently their wishes were granted a bit early. In the Bay Area, locating a box of the bread of affliction turned out to be an affliction of its own.

The local shortage appears to be the result of two matzah-related events amplifying each other like interacting waves.

First, as j. reported April 11, Bay Area Costco stores abruptly exited the matzah business this year, as did Trader Joe’s. Unknowing supermarkets and smaller shops — undersold by the volume giant Costco for years — stocked matzah at normal low levels and were swamped by desperate Jews, especially last-minute shoppers.

Also complicating things, the Manischewitz company announced in March that a computer malfunction at its Newark plant would render this the first Passover since 1940 in which Tam Tam crackers were not available (also put out of commission by Manischewitz’s horrifically timed glitch, according to the New York Times: Thin Tea Matzah, Yolk-Free Egg Matzah, White Grape Matzah, Concord Grape Matzah and Spelt Matzah).

By the end of last week, j. was flooded with reports of empty shelves in local Mollie Stone’s, Lucky and Safeway stores.

The manager of an Oakland Safeway confirmed her store sold out by the morning of April 17, a little more than 48 hours before the first night of Passover — and this was not atypical.

“We went to four Safeways, two different Trader Joe’s, a Whole Foods and a Lucky’s. And we struck out at all of them!” said Warren Leiber of Walnut Creek.

“We got lucky because my fiancée’s sister bought matzah in New York and she came out and brought it with her — but only one box. We don’t have enough for the rest of the Passover holiday. My dad lives in Los Angeles and we’re seriously talking about him sending some up.”

With matzah scarce, Mimi Wekselblatt of San Francisco jumped at the chance to buy the crackers when she found them at Tel Aviv Kosher market in the Outer Sunset. Anticipating a large seder, Wekselblatt splurged on five pounds of Osem matzah.

Now she’s left with most of it.

“I figured there was a run, so if they had a five-pound box I’d just get it,” she said. “We’ll have them for a while.”

Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal last week reported that kosher-for-Passover margarine is in short supply nationwide.

Locally, Costco has now managed to stump smaller Bay Area competitors by both entering and exiting the matzah market. When Costco first stocked matzah in 2001, smaller shops were left with hundreds of pounds of surplus crackers.

“Nobody will take it,” Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Market’s then-owner Mikhail “Misha” Treistman said at the time.

“I called the Salvation Army to give and they said there is no need. I need to give and nobody wants.”

In response to the outcry over this year’s shortage, Costco reportedly announced this week that they will stock matzah in at least 10 Bay Area stores next year, including San Francisco, Sunnyvale and Foster City.

For local residents who need their matzah before 2009, however, Tel Aviv Market was due to receive a shipment April 24 of “all kinds — egg, wheat, regular, Jerusalem,” said co-owner Sam Levi.

The shortage has forced some to resort to measures the original Israelites would have understood.

Berkeley’s Jon Rosenfield was planning a seder in the Mojave Desert. Assuming he’d be unable to get his hands on boxes of Manischewitz, Streit’s or Aviv, he and his friends resorted to the old school Plan B:

“[We] are currently practicing our camp stove matzah-making techniques,” he wrote in an email to j.

“Jews going to a desert in a big rush with no clue how to make matzah … Pesach doesn’t get more real than that!”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.