Question the kosherness of Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer's matzo recipe, and he'll respond with a profanity stronger than "oy vey."
"You are the foremost authority on your own religious beliefs once you're past 13," says the Portland rabbi without portfolio, whose website, Religion Outside the Box, has a "congregation" of 3,000 email subscribers and social media followers. "If you're an adult, it's between you and God what you eat."
Mayer has been selling matzo and teaching matzo-making classes for five years, sometimes in partnership with Kim Boyce of Bakeshop in Northeast Portland. This year, he taught a class on Zoom, drawing more than 50 viewers from seven different states, as well as the U.K.
The main difference between homemade matzo and the boxed stuff is that homemade matzo actually tastes good—and there's a reason for that. Strictly speaking, Mayer's recipe, which includes flour, honey, eggs, olive oil, salt and black pepper, does not meet kosher guidelines. Those rules demand that matzo be made out of nothing more than flour and water, not even salt. The "bread of affliction" also has to be mixed and baked in less than 18 minutes, theoretically simulating food preparation before the Jewish people's hasty exodus from Egypt.
But the way Mayer sees it, so-called traditional rabbis "have brainwashed you to think that they have a monopoly on saying what's kosher and what's not kosher. I think the quibbling on 'Is it kosher or not?' takes the focus off where it should be, which is about celebrating freedom in the midst of oppression."
Mayer's matzo recipe dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, where it was made in secret by a woman named Angelina de Leon. Her story was unearthed by academics and first published in The New York Times in 1997, which is how Mayer first saw it. He found de Leon to be more relatable than Moses.
"Slaves in Egypt, I can't get my head around," he says. "But living in Spain in hiding, making matzo, I get a sense of that a little better. It gave me a much better sense of Passover, to eat this matzo, and to have solidarity with this ancestor. Especially in this age, it doesn't feel that far off."
On his website, Mayer sells a "DIY kosher kit." It includes a lengthy deconstruction of Passover traditions, but mostly it works like Field of Dreams: If you say it's kosher, then it is. Mayer's personal philosophy is simply to follow common sense. Stay away from bread and breadlike things, such as bagels, muffins and pastries. Otherwise, make your matzo however you want.
"We went with the letter of the law and missed the spirit of the law," he says. "The spirit of the law is, don't eat things that are puffed up. Don't eat things that are full of themselves."
Of course, during this pandemic Passover, people have to do what they can with whatever they can—even some Orthodox rabbis are saying it's all right to go on Zoom for Seder. So if you're Jewish and can't or won't go to the store, or can't find matzo in stock, the home-baked version is an easy solution. And if you're not Jewish, well, you don't need hard-to-find yeast or slow-developing sourdough to make homemade flatbread.
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons honey
- 4 large eggs, beaten
- 4 teaspoons olive oil
- 8 tablespoons water
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, salt and pepper and whisk. Add the beaten eggs, honey and olive oil, and just enough of the water to make a very dry dough. Mix well, but do not overmix.
3. Divide into 12 equal portions and shape into balls. On a lightly floured surface, use a rolling pin to shape each ball into a thin disk, about 8 inches in diameter. Pierce all over with a fork, dough docker, or pattern tracing wheel
4. Bake on a sheet pan or cookie sheet for 10 minutes, or until matzos are puffed and begin to brown. Cool on racks. Should yield 12 8-inch matzos."Eat, remembering that freedom is found on the inside."