Backstory is a CJN column recalling some of the most bizarre, unique, and important moments in Jewish history. Click here for last week’s instalment.
One good thing about matzah is that even after the passage of many months, it often tastes no more stale coming out of the box than when it was first baked. In a parallel vein, I hope the following tales concerning an early matzah factory in Toronto won’t seem too stale, even if they go back more than a century.
In March 1908, the Toronto Star reported about the existence of a matzah factory on Ontario Street in the city’s east end, near a sizeable cluster of Jewish families who then lived in the neighbourhood. The Star didn’t think it important to mention the name of the matzah factory (it was the National Matzo and Biscuit Company), but noted that its employees were working night and day on the production of kosher matzah for the upcoming Passover holiday.
Jews eat matzah at Passover “in remembrance of the curse which in the old days passed over Egypt,” the newspaper explained, but it neglected to mention that the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt was so swift there was not enough time for the dough to rise.
However, the Star noted that every stage of the manufacturing process was conducted under strict rabbinical supervision, from the grinding of the flour to the mixing of the flour and water. “The machine used to mix them is only in operation 15 minutes, at the expiration of which time the rabbi orders its removal. One perfectly clean is substituted, and it is used for 15 minutes in its turn.”
The dough was rolled under a heavy roller, perforated and cut. Then the unbaked matzah was placed on a conveyer belt, which carried it through a 50-foot-long oven. “The heat of the oven is easily regulated, and by the time the matzah passes through it, it is delicately brown and baked to a turn.”
The matzah sold for seven cents a pound, but there was also a tastier and more costly variety available. “The wealthier Jews demand a more expensive matzah, and to gratify them wine, eggs and flour are used in its manufacture,” the story reported.
The Ontario Street matzah factory was Canada’s first matzah factory. Previously, the Jewish community had to import matzah from the United States and pay an import duty of 25 per cent.
One Sunday in 1909, a team of police constables raided the factory from a second-storey window, charging some workers with violating the Christian Sabbath. Toronto mayor Joseph Oliver was publicly annoyed at this, and was not alone in asking the force to adopt a more tolerant posture toward Jewish bakers.
In a letter to a Mr. J. W. Gurofsky, the mayor elaborated: “I received your letter regarding the action of Police Sergeant Pogue, and a constable, in climbing through a second-storey window of the National Matzo and Biscuit Company, Limited, at the rear of 105 Ontario St., where some employees of the company were found preparing dough for baking purposes. You call attention to the fact that nearly all the large bakeries in the city have employees working on Sunday, but that police activity seems to be directed only against bakeries owned by Jews. You also point out that Jews should, if anything, be given a little more latitude than gentiles, inasmuch as the former are permitted to work on Saturday, while the latter are not.
“My own opinion is that the police department should be more tolerant in cases of this kind, and I think some arrangement should be made whereby the police should not interfere in the case of Jewish bakeries… It is my intention to place your letter before the Board of Police Commissioners for consideration at its next meeting.”
Sadly, a fire swept through the factory one night in 1908, killing Ephraim Gelman, the night watchman. His wife and five children were still in Minsk at the time, and eventually settled in the United States. (Last summer, one of his great-grandchildren asked me to uncover more information about the tragedy, about which the family had retained only the barest details.)
Apparently, for reasons unknown, the matzah factory on Ontario Street ceased operation after only a few seasons.