Oven Innovation Creates Matzo for All – AND Makes Matzo Square!

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As a product manager who manages a line of commercial ovens, I have a soft spot for stories of innovation that open new markets.   The funny thing is that conveyor ovens are all the rage now, especially in pizza food service.   Consistency and efficiency are making conveyor oven baked pizza a chipotle-like enterprise.   You can pick your toppings and load it into a conveyor oven and in minutes have hot fresh ready pizza.   But conveyor ovens have been around since the late 1800s.   And, such is the story behind the Manischewitz Matzo Empire.

The matzo cracker might seem simple to the naked shiksha eye.   But the laws of kosher have made it complicated.     Among a host of other regulations, matzo dough must not be allowed to rise, so the entire process must be able to be completed in under 18 minutes. Now in antebellum America, 18 minutes from mix to bake was considered fast food.   Before the mid 19th century matzo was baked in synagogues with ovens specifically designed for that purpose. But, after the mid 19th century, indie bakeries started making matzo.   Matzo making machines were designed to make the process more efficient.   But to many Jews, the new processes were not in line with kosher law. So, to the faithful, matzo was a luxury only the wealthy could afford.

That changed about a century ago when Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz started baking matzo in Cincinnati in 1889.   He designed and patented a machine that cut and baked matzo in uniform squares and packaged in shippable boxes.   This made matzo an essential staple for the common Jew.   And, this is probably around the time matzo soup, the Jewish penicillin, became the staple of Hebrew cooking.

Behr Manischewitz came to Cincinnati in 1885 with his wife, Nesha, and three small children to serve as a kosher butcher for a group of Orthodox Jews from his hometown in Lithuania.     By the turn of the 19th century, the Queen city was a mecca of Reform Judaism, with our Hebrew Union College in Clifton, a community made up of mostly German Jews of means.   The last quarter of the 19th century saw an influx of poor Eastern European Jews who were more orthodox in their Judaism.   They didn’t assimilate with the German Jews, spoke Yiddish, and created their own community of schools, synagogues and social clubs in Cincinnati.

The Manischewitz family grew to eight children and they settled in the tenement cramped West End, the epicenter of the Cincinnati Jewish community.   As a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, Behr would have been responsible for the gangly job of preparing cattle and sheep for consumption to kosher law.   He wrote to his parents in Lithuania in April 1887 that he and his wife spent Pesach very pleasantly, even though it was hard with small children to do without chametz, or any foods with leavened grains.   Behr saw an opportunity in this and the next hear he started baking matzo.

By 1889 ads for Manischewitz matzo were appearing in The American Israelite, offering the “kosherest of matzos, matzo meal.”   Three years later he announced in an ad, “new matzos machines whereby this year’s matzos will be most beautiful to behold and most palatable to the taste.”   In ten years Behr bought his competitor, Bing Bakery, around the corner from his West 6th Street baker.   Every year he would bake earlier, and when he had hired the eligible Orthodox men, he’d hire elderly orthodox women, because childbearing women couldn’t work in kosher food facilities.

Behr’s 1911 patent for a conveyor belt sandwiched between upper and lower heating elements indicates his spirit of creativity and innovation, despite his conservative Orthodoxy.  This allowed Manischevitz to produce more, better, and cheaper matzo than ever before.   The square crackers were considered top quality and marketed as a luxury item, coming in a wooden box.

Being able to ship around the country and internationally helped him grow the business. In 1913 he opened a second bakery in West 8th street in Lower Price hill, adding capacity to the existing bakery on West 6th Street.     The family moved to Walnut hills to rub elbows with the Fleishmann family and other rich Jews.

When Behr died in 1914 his will stipulated his five sons take over the business, and that the unwed son, Meyer, wed an orthodox woman to receive his full share.   His daughters were also only able to receive their $12,000 share if they wed an Orthodox man.   One tenth of the profits went to charity – 60% to Palestine and 40% to local charities.

The company grew and grew, and when East Coast customers dominated the demand, they opened a bakery in New Jersey in 1932 and moved their headquarters there in the 1950s.     One by one the Manischewitz family moved to the New York area, except Howard, who oversaw the Lower Price Hill factory until its closing in 1958.   The family sold the company in 1990 to Kohlberg & Co. for $42.5 million, at the time controlling 80% of the world matzo market.

Only the Price Hill plant is standing today of all the buildings the Manischewitz family owned. In a corner of the Covedale Cemetery in Western Hills is Behr’s final resting place.   On his tombstone, in Hebrew: “Distinguished among ten thousand, and a man among men… the heavens on high will tell; What this righteous man for all ages has accomplished.”   Quite an epitaph for the man who made matzo square.

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