SHMURA MATZOH BAKING IN CROWN HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN:
A PROSELYTOURIST PRODUCTION
by Craig Rosa
A thesis submitted
in partial fulfillment of
the Master of Arts degree
in the Department of Performance Studies
New York University
This history is best described, not by the all-or-nothing scenarios of "fatal impact" in which colonial culture uniformly and irresistibly penetrates a defenceless native culture, but by the messy account book of cultural and economic exchange in which the institutions, rituals, and objects of both cultures are selectively appropriated, recontextualized, indigenized, and used for strategic purposes often quite alien to the ideological makeup of these foreign bodies... Cultural contact was (and is) a two way contest. However unequal the balance of forces, the advantage sometimes lay on the weaker side.
--Andrew Ross, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life
Each Sunday during the six months prior to Passover, Rabbi Beryl Epstein leads a guided heritage tour of his neighborhood: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the world headquarters for the Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish community. The tour features a behind-the-scenes look at the Dubrowsky and Tannenbaum Shmura Matzoh Bakery at 460 Albany Avenue, where the faithful bake shmura or "guarded" matzoh for the Passover holiday. The tour, often referred to as the "bakery tour," draws primarily Jews from all over North America for an afternoon's immersion in Hasidic Jewish life.
The Lubavitch are the only Hasidic group in New York--and possibly the entire world--to conduct guided tours of their community as part of their everyday social and spiritual practices. They are also the only proselytizing Jewish sect, who support a public relations and media effort of international proportions.
Despite their success in spreading their message in the media and increasing their numbers several fold in the last 4 decades through missionary activities, the Lubavitch struggle against negative public stereotypes. They wish to dispel public lingering impressions of militancy, racism, fanaticism and close-mindedness. These image problems rest not only with their post-riot African-American neighbors (with whom they share and often contest space) or their cross-town Hasidic rivals in the Satmar court, but the whole of the Jewish diaspora. This struggle interferes with the desires, hopes, and aims of the Lubavitch community.
The Lubavitch bring in tourists to do mo re than just marvel at the process of baking unleavened bread. A guided tour is a willingly entered shared experience in which heritage can be orchestrated to "transvalue difference" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1994, 20). By combining their proselytizing effort with the public relations power of a tourist production, the Lubavitch create a hybrid spiritual-representational practice I will call Proselytourism.
Proselytourism is a performance of impression management, which enables diasporic groups to create positive value from representations of their heritage. In the dynamic economy of cultural contact, the Lubavitch can measure value in improved public image, profit, and new conscripts for their mission. In the words of their late leader Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, that mission is "to bring the world a soul."
Shared cultural contact experiences such as guided heritage tours are examples of what James Clifford (Routes 1997, 7) has recently called "contact zones."Contact zones are encounters in which identities are made and re-made through purposeful, tactical performances of culture, exchanges where "stasis and purity are asserted--creatively and violently--against historical forces of movement and contamination ."
The Lubavitch wish to highlight their openness and righteous way of life in order to encourage people to join them. Their marked differences from outsiders, so important to their self-awareness and identity, do not always have value in ways that serve their long- and short-term goals; they know from experience that differences are hard to manage, and can degrade into perceptions of stigma.
Beyond a doubt, the Lubavitch are a stigmatized group--stigma being defined as "disqualified from full social acceptance" in Erving Goffman's seminal work of the same name. A proselytourist performance like the bakery tour actively plays upon the stigma associated with their difference, and reverse its effect.
In his work Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian offers that "Time, like language or money, is a carrier of significance, a force through which we define the content of relations between the self and the other." (Fabian 1983, ix) The Lubavitch also tactically apply notions of past and present in order to control the contact zone, and make their case for authenticity.
For most of its history as a topic of study, tourism has been regarded as a degrading or diluting social force for those who are the subject of the tour. Proselytourism opens the door for affirming tourist representations that are generated by the community, rather than something parasitic and debilitating. Instead of fostering a contact zone in the form of a tourist production to attempt to preserve their culture against an outside world that seeks to assimilate it, they courageously use proselytourism to bring in and assimilate that outside world. In this case study of the Lubavitch bakery tour, proselytourism creates an opportunity for the tourist to truly "go native."
The Lubavitch Enigma
Permanent conditions of relative powerlessness and minority status justify and render relatively harmless ethnocentric survival tactics--for example, imposing marks of distinction on the body (special clothing, hairstyles, circumcision), or restricting charity and community self-help to "our people." In conditions of permanent exile--or what amounts to the same thing, in an exile that can end only with the Messiah--ethnocentrism is just one tactic, never an absolute end unto itself.
--James Clifford, Routes
The Lubavitch Hasidim operate on their own terms while still remaining a part of Haredi tradition. Like most other Hasidim the Lubavitch get their name from their town of origin; in this case, the now Byelorussian town of Lubav, which in Russian means "love." Love for family, God, and all Jews or followers of the laws of Noah is a core principle of Lubavitch Hasides, or philosophical tenets of belief.
This far-ranging spirit of love might seem contradictory to common perceptions of Hasidim, who as a rule tend to their own and are cautious with outsiders. Jerome Mintz, in Hasidic People: a Place in the New World , attributes this difference to their reliance on recruitment and proselytizing:
Lubavitch is therefore the only present-day court that seeks out other Jews in order to awaken them their Jewish heritage and bring them back into the Orthodox fold. In particular they seek to direct baltshuves (ba'alei teshuvah: returnees to Orthodoxy) to join the worldwide Lubavitcher circle. (Mintz 1992, 43)
More than any other Hasidic group, the Lubavitch have enlarged their community not merely through large families (average of 5 children per household, and often upwards of 8 or 10), but also through the absorption of interested outsiders. Baltshuves not only begin a new life with the Lubavitch, but also bring a lifetime of immersion with the "outside" world they have willingly left behind.
A principle central to the worldview of the Lubavitch is Chabad.. Chabad is an acronym coined from the Hebrew words Hokmah, Binah, and Da'at-- wisdom, understanding & knowledge--as first put together by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi (1745-1813) The first Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe.
One communes with God directly through action, word and example. This personal, almost mystical covenant with God is typically Hasidic; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has noted in her work Performance and Perception that unlike other Orthodox approaches to collective religious practice, for Hasidim there is no deferral of ritual responsibility--"there are no cantors." The entire community is devoted to helping others towards the ultimate goal of Chabad--to bring Mosiach , or the Messiah, to save the world and take the Jews to the promised land of Israel.
Chabad is also the name of their social service and outreach organization, which is arguably the largest Jewish social service group in the world. There are over 2000 "Chabad Houses," around the globe. Lubavitch outreach spans lines of communication as well as travel; 1-800-4-Mosiach is a direct line a daily recording of the Rebbe's speeches or treatments of Hasidic texts, 24 hours a day, courtesy of a special arrangement made with MCI. The Lubavitch presence on the Internet and World Wide Web, at such sites as http://www.chabad.org, is so large as to merit its own focused study.
Fervent devotion to their late Rebbe, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (b. 1902, d 1994 , and the 7th in the dynasty) is a distinctive part of the Hasidic worldview. Although I never had the fortune to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe address his constituency, I witnessed the Bobover Rebbe, Rebbe Shlomo Hablerstaam, celebrate with his congregation during the 1994 Purim celebration. I was nearly crushed as a sea of hundreds of men and boys swarmed their leader, kicking and shoving, for the privilege of meeting his extraordinary gaze or touching the hem of his garment.
The massive outreach campaigns for which the Lubavitch are well known began soon after Rebbe Schneerson ascended to power in 1950. The campaigns signaled a clear departure from the markedly un-worldly, even anti-worldly positions of his forebearers and contemporaries. A formidable knowledge of Talmudic law and charismatic visage contributed to his leadership qualities,but what set him apart was his unusual background and life experience. Unlike most Hasidim of his time, the Lubavitcher Rebbe pursued engineering studies at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne until his emigration to the Unites States in 1941. More than any other past or present Hasidic Rebbe, he was extremely comfortable in using his comprehension of things technological in the service of his mission and people. Everything from his outreach plans to sermons were thick with images of machinery, military prowess, and technology (Mintz 1992, 44-45).
Success and risk-taking have brought the Lubavitch a liberal share of notoriety, especially from other Hasidim. Resentment of Lubavitch pressure on their communities has occasionally bubbled over into overt hostility and even violent clashes. As the Lubavitch roll through neighborhoods and towns in their outreach RVs, painted with the slogan "Mitzvah tanks against assimilation" the zealous young yeshiva students that operate them can find themselves in occasional hot water.
Sadly, the Lubavitch are perhaps most remembered by the general public for their involvement in the tragic events of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which tarnished not only their own credibility but that of all orthodox Jews. Relations with their African-American neighbors, with whom they clashed in the incident, remain extremely tense.
To reach their primary audience of non-observant Jews, things modern have been conscripted in the fight for orthodoxy. World salvation necessitates reaching out and preparing the world for the reception of God, what our tour guide Rabbi Epstein guardedly defines as "not much changing, just good becoming the norm."
The Rabbi as Tourguide
It seems possible for an individual to fail to live up to what we effectively demand of him, and yet be relatively untouched by this failure; insulated by his alienation, protected by identity beliefs of his own, he feels that he is a full-fledged normal human being, and that we are the ones who are not quite human. He bears a stigma but does not seem to be impressed or repentant about doing so. This possibility is celebrated in exemplary tales about Mennonites, Gypsies, shameless scoundrels, and very orthodox Jews.
--Erving Goffman, Stigma
The tour starts at 10 am with an orientation at 305 Kingston Avenue, at a place known as The Chassidic Welcome Center. The term "welcome" seems to be invoked on different levels; welcome as in hospitality to a guest, such as "anyone is welcome," as well as making a new community member feel invited and at home. We are invited in by a young, red-bearded Rabbi and encouraged to take a seat at one of the round reading tables.
Our tour guide introduces himself as Rabbi Beryl Epstein. He came to the community approximately 14 years ago from Chattanooga, Tennessee where the rest of his relatives still live. He has married into the Crown Heights Lubavitch community and has several children, all of whom he is raising in the Lubavitch tradition. He is a product of a Jewish household, but he makes it clear that although he is still close to them they have not followed his lead to Crown Heights. In fact, when he goes and visits his relatives, he is unable to eat in their homes, and partakes of his meals mostly in the town's tiny Lubavitch outpost.
He discloses his past in order to show that he, like normal people, has a real story. As Rabbi Epstein is judged, so is the community. The Rabbi's identity undergoes an shift, "from that of a discreditable person to that of a discredited one." (Goffman 1963, 100)
There is subtle but important distinction between discredited and discreditable. The stigma changes from hard fact, something past and already shown to be, into something in the present about which we as tourists can make up our minds. The Rabbims social acceptance becomes open to debate, subject to the outcome of the contact zone experience of the tour. Even more, it makes it the stigma in question the very focus and subject of the experience. As is Hasidic custom, all Lubavitch men adopt the manner of dress of their Rebbe, in solidarity with their own and in defiance of the outside world. As their Rebbe eschewed some of the most typical Hasidic fashions (the shtreyml, or cylindrical fur hat, long peyes, or side curls, and flowing black embroidered caftans) so do his followers. In this tradition our guide dons a simple fedora, opts for a staid dark business suit without tie and keeps his short peyes tucked behind the ears.
As part of his introduction, the Rabbi explains that after the riots he was one of the founders of a recreational basketball league created to bring youths from both sides of the conflict together. Easygoing, enthusiastic, and disarmingly frank, he is obviously well prepared to handle even the most caustic of non-believers. Even though he could be no older that his mid-30's, his cascading auburn beard and fatherly disposition set most people at ease.
The tour costs $10 and is a charitable donation. As he collects the fee, Rabbi Epstein tells us that the tzedakah, (charity) raised through the tour will be put towards the construction of a Chassidic International Welcome Center, a visitor complex planned for a recently-acquired neighborhood lot. This expanded welcome center is a dream of Rabbi Epstein's. In his words, the center is absolutely necessary "because the Hasidim are among the most misunderstood people in the world." His goal is to provide a fitting and respectable welcome to all those visiting the home base of the Lubavitch worldwide family. He refers repeatedly to themes of expansion, building, and planning for the future. He is confident--even jubilant at times--in the righteousness of his tour activities.
Although anyone who makes arrangements and pays the fee is welcome, the intended audience for the tour is the non-observant Jew. Our tour group consists of everyone from atheistic skeptics to observant and curious participants. Also included are a couple of journalists, and official contingents from both the Brooklyn Children's Museum and the Brooklyn Historical Society. Lastly, joining the tour are about a dozen members of a Jewish teen summer camp group from Wisconsin. I do not see a Lubavitcher, or any other Hasidim for that matter, with us on the tour.
A short matzoh video is also shown, which explains the steps from the supervised growing of the wheat to the careful milling of the flour. The video provides as brief overview of wheat and fermentation as well.
I mention that one of my hobbies was brewing beer from scratch, which I offhandedly characterize as the antithesis to making matzoh. Rabbi Epstein is so intrigued by my proposition that he sincerely suggests we get together after Passover so I can teach him how to make beer from raw grain. This is just one of countless surprises Rabbi Epstein offers to those who get to know him.
The Rabbi is not without a sense of humor when faced with pointed inquiries about his choice to come to the community. As we leave the Welcome Center and exit into the bustling activity of Kingston Avenue, an older woman in our tour group asks him why he does not have peyes like the other Hasidim she has seen in New York. "I do have them," he replies, "but they are just very short."
She seems a bit unsatisfied with his answer, so he turns to the rest of us and says with a smile, " I guess I've disappointed y'all," with his signature Yiddish-Tennessee southern drawl. "The Lubavitch are modern Hasidim," he states firmly. A younger Lubavitch man who had stopped on the street to greet Rabbi Epstein heard this and said, "Not modern, khasvesholem! We're normal."
Our group then exits walks down the street to wind through the neighborhood with quick stops for a visit or a brief talk. These places include the mikvah, or ritual bath; the yeshivah, or place of learning; the main bes medresh, or place of prayer at 770 Eastern Parkway; the local kosher deli; a Lubavitch dairy pizza joint; the bookstore and even a Lubavitch art gallery.
The tour takes a turn down a residential lane. During this two block stretch, Rabbi Epstein stops to greet passersby he knows, and points out his modest brick home amongst the rows of identical residences. At the end of the street the group turns right onto Albany Boulevard, which aside from the impressive new yeshivah occupying one full block, appears to be a run-of-the-mill commercial thoroughfare. Without warning, he abruptly halts the group in front of an unmarked storefront and announces, "I want to congratulate everybody. We're halfway there."
The stigmatized and the normal are part of each other; if one can prove vulnerable, it must be expected that the other can be too. For in imputing identities to individuals, discreditable or not, the wider social setting and it's inhabitants have in a away compromised themselves; they have set themselves up to be proven the fool.
--Erving Goffman, Stigma
Puzzled, we search in vain for a sign. The smiling Rabbi gestures towards a shabby, windowless exterior door. A cluster of grime-covered Hebrew stickers comes into focus from behind a veil of dust. Rabbi Epstein says , "Not what you expected, Right? You probably expected big smokestacks and a sign. Well, if you look up in the second story window, there it is. The smokestack is way in the back and you can see it from the other side of the street." Indeed, there is a barely visible Hebrew sign, painted in red, black, and white on wood. We are now at the front door to the Dubrowsky and Tannenbaum Shmura Matzoh Bakery.
If we weren't sure, it soon becomes apparent as people stream in and out carrying heaps of cardboard boxes tied with string. With each swing of the door a sweet, heady aroma of baking wheat surrounds our anxious group. Rabbi Epstein nods and states, "Inside these doors, we make the matzoh exactly as it has been made for thousands of years. This is the real thing."
The apparently unremarkable storefront is in reality highly staged. It is quite consciously (un)maintained, offered to our tour group as an illustration of a guiding principle of the community--humility. It is a foil to the careful, meticulous, and vital activities within.
As we hover at the door, Rabbi Epstein prepares us for a transition, not just from outside to inside, but from outsider to insider. Rabbi Epstein divides the tourists into groups of six or less, and passes out simple black yarmulkes to any men without a head covering. Unprepared women are asked to improvise with scarves and hats. This is not just a tour of a bakery, but a "behind-the-scenes" tour, where we get to look behind the normally closed door of the bakery. Goffman dubs this practice "impression management:"
Since the vital secrets of a show are visible backstage and since performers behave out of character while there, it is natural to expect the passage from the front region to the back region will be kept closed to members of the audience or that the entire back region will be kept hidden from them. This is a widely practiced technique of impression management (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , 113)
Normally, a group of strangers would not be allowed to go into the back region of the bakery. Keeping up appearances would usually require hiding the hard work out of view. However, to invite people in demonstrated an elevated level of trust and in return, commands respect and care not to disrupt the goings on inside the bakery.
The workers in the bakery know to expect the tour groups, but the tour is presented "as if" the tourists were voyeurs peeking behind the scenes. Still we feel an excitement and sense of privilege. The passage through the threshold serves to reinforce this little suspension of disbelief, this travel back in time, and lays out the behavioral protocols for the contact zone.
A quick warning comes from Rabbi Epstein: "Now, about your cameras. Pictures are fine, but please make sure you don't take pictures of the women who are rolling the matzoh. They are on the right side of the room as you go in. Many of the women are illegal immigrants from Russia and are worried the KGB or Immigration might see them. Don't point you camera in their direction, okay? Ready? When we go in, watch me and try to stay out of the way. It's going to be tight."
The Rabbi's solemn warning gives us the sense that we are trusted with some inside information about those who we are going to observe. Do they know that we know? We glimpse not only behind the closed doors of a bakery, but into the personal and political struggles of the community. Goffman refers to this tactic as a temporary extension of "wise" status to outsiders from members of a stigmatized community (Stigma, 117). It reduces tension in the encounter and is a significant lowering of the guard, as well as a social cue for outsiders, tourists like ourselves, to be equally as open if the opportunity arises.
Where the situation at hand differs from the typical extension of "wise" status may not be apparent at first glance, but is at the heart of the tour's message. To the Lubavitch, most of us are already members of the club, but just don't know it yet. Our wisdom is something is to be revealed, awakened, restored. The trip back in time to the way matzoh "has always been made" is not so much an excursion into the other around the corner, or the globe, as it is into the other within. This kind of experience in a contact zone might not so much result in a distinction between self/other, but between multiple, internal understandings of self--some familar, some unclear, some slowly or quickly unfolding over the course of an encounter. a heritage tour of bakery becomes a return, a reaching back through our own heritage, identity and origin.
Rabbi Epstein pushes the door open and greets the people inside. This first room is dark, cramped, and stacked to the ceiling on three sides with cardboard boxes, huge bolts of brown butcher paper, and impossibly crowded shelves. There are a few people buying matzoh, and by the looks of their attire, not all of them are local. Twenty feet away through a tiny square window there are people moving about in a pale green light, and sounds of shuffling feet and pattering speech can be heard in the heavy air.
Here we get our first glimpse of matzoh. The focus in this narrow utilitarian chamber is a stern older Lubavitch gentleman who packs the round, flat, sometimes blackened pieces eight to a box. A dilapidated electric cash register rings up eleven dollars for every one-pound package, and most customers seem to be buying several. The cash moves very quickly.
One young man from our tour asks if now is the time to buy. The Rabbi raises his hand to get our attention and turns toward the second door: "No, not yet. After we see the matzoh made and everyone has gone through, we will come back around and you can buy matzoh before you leave."
Behind a white swinging door is a whirlwind of activity. Rabbi Epstein consults with a tiny, bent, white-bearded man in an old-fashioned black cardigan sweater who nods and quietly shifts across the room. "That man in the black sweater is Rabbi Dubrowsky." We learn that he is in charge of overseeing the baking process, and by his name it is assumed he is also a partner in the enterprise. Epstein goes on to explain: "Now, what you saw back there was round matzoh. Real matzoh for Passover has always been round. Square matzoh, like Manischewitz, has only been in existence for about 50 years* . Here everything is done by hand."
Our attention is directed towards the fore of the bright room, where there are two windowed booths that flank an alcove large enough for one adult. The alcove is entirely covered in brown butcher paper, and a stand holds a stainless steel mixing bowl--one of six that is in constant rotation. A travel clock and a cheap plastic digital stopwatch are taped to one wall. A serene looking man with muscular arms slips through to consult the timepieces. Rabbi Epstein cues us that the cycle from water and flour to matzoh is about to begin.
"The carefully approved grain must only be in contact with the water for eighteen minutes or less from start to finish," says our guide. "Matzoh is a question of time. Before eighteen minutes, matzoh. After eighteen minutes, leaven. Bread. Hametz.." Hametz translates literally to "leaven." Only unleavened bread is acceptable. Any matzoh not properly completed in time is impure, or hametz, and must be discarded. Any surface that touches the flour and water must be re-papered every eighteen minutes. The purity of the matzoh is of utmost importance.
In keeping with what was made obvious earlier when we stopped to reflect on the door of the bakery, everything points to the priority of making shmura matzoh over "worldly" concerns. Rough paper on the walls, a watch taped up above the mixing station--we are asked to notice that these things have in no way been put there or "preserved" for a bunch of tourists. Rabbi Epstein points them out to show us that the baking here is not showy. It is a sign that there is little signifying going on, just the real thing.
This is also the point at which we hear about the religious implications of shmura matzoh baking. The papering is just one way in which proper Passover matzoh fulfills its destiny as a solemn commandment, to be made "with intention," in the words of our guide. When the burly fellow by the bowl senses his cue, he shouts "L'shem matzoh mitzvah!" which translates to "In the name of the commandment of matzoh." With this invocation, the race begins.
The start of the ritual is marked not only for the workers, but for us as well. A tiny door slides open from the booth on the left and in one swift motion, a level scoop of flour is dumped into the bowl. The door shimmies shut. A similar hatch on the right opens and a single arm clutching a tin ladle expertly metes out a precise measure of water before vanishing into the booth with a click. The mixing man kneads the flour and water. Rabbi Epstein points out that all of the flour and water must coalesce in the bowl; if any is left after the stiff ball of dough is produced, then the entire batch is hametz and no good. The clock is ticking.
"The man who measures and adds the flour does his job 8 hours a day, 6 months a year and does nothing else." adds Rabbi Epstein. He stays inside the booth so that the chance of flour touching water accidentally, which might cause fermentation, is all but nil. The same is said about the man responsible for the water. As if on cue, a dumbfounded and naive tour participant asks just how far they have to take their separation. Rabbi Epstein shrugs and quips, "I'm sure they'd be good friends if they ever met." The tourists laugh uproariously. Our guide beams.
This juncture in our tour proves a good time for the guide to wax philosophical, and share an important Lubavitch lesson nestled in the making of guarded Passover matzoh. Rabbi Epstein explains that the water used is not ordinary tap water but sacred well water, "come down from the sky as rain." With proper ceremonial respect it is drawn from a well in front of 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters' address, at sundown the day before it is to be used. This is done to "still" the water, and for good reason.
To the Lubavitch water is commonly seen as a metaphor for passion, desire, and the bodily humors. It is free-flowing, messy, and when it is loose it has an unpredictable will of its own. The Rabbi tells us to picture something wet, "like a juicy steak." In order to be worthy of guarded matzoh, the water must be brought under control. This parallels the Chabad principle that the love of the heart must be subdued by the cool and spiritual love of the intellect. Rabbi Epstein reiterates that "mind rules the heart." In proper balance, one is ready for Chabad and consequently, Mosiach. He hums a snippet of the water-drawing song for us. As the melody fades, the lump of dough is lifted from the bowl, held aloft, and carried on over our heads.
Every worker in the cramped and bustling room is toiling intently and precisely. Idle conversation is non-existent. As if to squelch any disbelief on the part of the tourist that these men and women can do their repetitive jobs without imploding from sheer boredom, our guide shares a quintessential Hasidic proverb: "Station in life is not important--it is the direction on the ladder that matters."
The ball of dough is passed off to another man who negotiates, with some difficulty, the densely-packed floor of the bakery. It seems that we keep getting in the way, and a few of us squirm and hop to avoid blocking easy passage of the dough to the next station. Our interference in the process is troubling, but it is also a decadent thrill; we are unavoidably part of the danger, a player in the moral drama of purity and corruption. The workers must work extra hard when we tourists are present. Ignorant and unholy, we could at any moment bring the whole chain of events grinding to a halt. Yet, it is still just another day at the bakery, so the baking must go on.
The space of the bakery is not just a bakery, or a tourist show, or a place of business. Functions of a space and the practices that define that space are not mutually exclusive, and may at any given moment in time be operating concurrently, in opposition, or in unison. This follows a key point made by Goffman:
"It must be kept in mind that in speaking of front and back regions, we speak from the reference point of a particular performance, and we speak of the function of that the place happens to serve at that time for that given performance." (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life 127-8)
Different performances and contexts of meaning may be operating at the same time, so it follows that in a tourist production the performance can be meaningful for both the tourist and the toured.
Seeing a camera lens pointing in his direction, the man who divides the dough pauses, grins, and presents his tan-colored blob for a quick picture. In a flash, the dough disappears to the first visible station occupied by women--a long, paper-covered table where bits of dough will be formed into the hubcap-sized, translucent disc of uncooked matzoh.
Each of the approximately two dozen women accepts a clump of dough and begins to work. Rabbi Epstein informs us that the women exchange the rolling pin, which resembles a skinny piece of broomstick, for a freshly sanded one after every rolled-out matzoh. This precludes the chance that dough from a previous batch might get mixed in with the new and cause it to be hametz.
That would explain the two or three fidgeting young men who perch next to the table. They each clutch a clean stick or two and wait for their cue. When one of the women yells out "matzoh!", one of boys dutifully exchanges a fresh pin for a stick with a raw matzoh. One kid hesitates, and the delay causes a displeasure that transcends any language barriers between the almost exclusively Russian-speaking women and the Yiddish-speaking young men. Rabbi Epstein estimates a good roller can produce four, five, or even six raw matzohs every cycle.
And just like the water-pourer, the kneader, and the flour dispenser, the women do their grueling work devotedly, without variation, for the entire baking season. Many in our group are again amazed at the women's diligence in such a repetitive task. Rabbi Epstein explains that these women are paid "really well," often enough to sustain them during the six months a year when shmura matzoh is not being produced.
It is obvious to the observers that the workers are able to do such repetitive work because the rewards are more than financial. The monetary compensation is certainly welcome for most, but the true reward is providing a vital social service in the name of Chabad, performing mitzvahs. It is part of the practicing fabric of the community; for to perform mitzvahs is to expressly "be" Lubavitch, and above all, Jewish.
In this contact zone, the community then both performs and produces a model image of Jewishness. The matzoh as a product and the performance of creating it inspire and inform the tourists who watch them work. This is, in effect, outreach.
Every person who celebrates Passover with shmura matzoh is performing a mitzvah. Helping others to perform a mitzvah is a mitzvah in its own right, and part of the Lubavitch social norm. Rabbi Epstein tells us that in addition to being sold and distributed locally, this matzoh is shipped worldwide to all Jewish American servicemen, incarcerated, or infirm for the purpose of fulfilling this mitzvah. The matzoh is a microcosm of the mitzvah that made it. It is a global goodwill ambassador.
Earlier, the simple decay of the facade was shown to have become a useful and successful framing of space that is as "produced" as the matzoh baked within. Henri Lefebvre offers a definition of space that is not architectural, but social and practical in nature:
"To speak of 'producing space' sounds bizarre, so great is the sway still held by the idea that space is empty prior to whatever ends up filling it... Everyone knows what is meant when we speak of a 'room' in an apartment, the 'corner' of the street, a 'marketplace,' a shopping or cultural 'centre' a public 'place' and so on. These terms of everyday discourse serve to distinguish, but not to isolate, particular spaces, and in general to describe a social space. They correspond to a specific use of that space, and hence to a spatial practice that they express and constitute." (The Production of Space 1991, 16)
The performances in that space, multiple as they may be, do not just define the uses of the space as a neutral entity, but are made up of performances of cultural contact that actually bring into consciousness the space itself. The contact zone of the bakery is both a place, and a collection of practices.
The bakery is where we as tourists are paraded in front of the chosen. Our presence inspires the Lubavitch to reclaim their heritage and come closer to Chabad. The community can then demonstrate its own state of grace by comparing and contrasting themselves, their practice, and consequently the space to us. The tourist gazes and judges. The baker gazes and judges as well. Who is empowering whom?
Out of the confusion of clacking sticks, bubbling chatter, and our gawking tour group arises a high-pitched mechanical whine. Rabbi Epstein leads the tourists to a cramped cubicle, no bigger than a phone booth, just past the rolling table. Up to his ankles in sawdust, a middle-aged man with a furrowed brow guides an unending stream of used rolling pins through a formidable industrial sander. From there they tumble into a cardboard box to cool, where another worker summarily dumps them through a paper-lined hatch into a stainless-steel bin. It is here that the pin-exchange boys replenish their supply.
The guide notices the raised eyebrows of the group, and explains that of course, there were not electric sanders thousands of years ago; in fact, the electric sander at three years old is a relatively recent addition to the bakery. As the production in the factory increased, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the sanding needed to remove any possible trace of dough from the sticks. The purity of the matzoh was in peril. People were just getting exhausted. Rabbi Epstein sighs, "I used have to sand them all day long. You think people look tired now. Talk about tired!"
A compromise between modern technology and simple hard work was in order. The guide explains that it is general policy to do things the old way because it is simpler and there is less to get in the way of the hyper-strict, "zero-tolerance" purity laws of the Passover season. The reason for adherence to work routines commonly replaced by modern factory processes is axiomatic to Rabbi Epstein: "because it's not fancy-shmancy, you can't mess it up."
He continues, "for regular Jewish laws you are not supposed to get too overwrought, but for Passover, you can go crazy. Normally one part in sixty loses its existence. On Passover, it does not." After a beat he drives it home: "If you can think of any more precautions, we will take them."
It is no accident that Rabbi Epstein is surprisingly modern to our to group, or that his sense of humor, secular past, and short peyes, make him more accessible. It helps overcome a common stigma applied to groups whose traditional ways are overtly marked: namely, that they are anachronistic. Rabbi Epstein's status as a baltshuve creates a shared time, where the toured and the tourist can experience each other in a way that is more subject-to-subject, as opposed to subject-to-object.
Fabian (Time and the Other 1991, 34) calls this bridged state as "coevalness," where self and other, subject and object, are positioned as equivalent for the contact zone to be a place of exchange. Although the tour and its guide are presented as being outside the corrupting reaches of modern times, room enough is left for some commonality, or "shared time" to exist.
The tool that perforates the matzoh has also been upgraded. Each matzoh must be pricked with hundreds of tiny holes, so it will not easily rise while in the oven. Because time is of the essence, the bakery purchased a most wondrous tool--a stainless steel, precision crafted matzoh docker. Our jaws collectively drop as Epstein estimates the cost of this custom-designed hand tool to be several thousand dollars. The lead Rabbis of the bakery worked with a machinist in Germany to meet the exacting needs of the baking process, and designed a tool that dramatically speeds perforation and insures a much more efficient pattern.
Almost directly behind the tour group, a teen turns the matzoh-laden sticks to lay out the discs on a six-foot long table. Two men work together, one passing the docker over the matzoh in two crisp strokes, the other catching the matzoh as it flung into the air. The catcher evidently sees us scramble to get the right position for photographs, and insists on pausing in mid-motion to fake the perfect action shot. Some vainly try to ask him to keep going. He faithfully poses before each flick of the wrist. From behind the buzz of a self-advancing 35-millimeter camera, one of the journalists breathes, "this is pure heaven."
The dockers shtick is more than simple hamming for the audience. It is not strictly necessary to make the matzoh gracefully or with panache. Aesthetic flourish, even in the workplace, is part of acting with intention; and it is certainly acting. One must not only make matzoh with intention, but make it known one is making matzoh with intention. This reflection of community, like matzoh, must be performed to be known. It is not just "known" through literature, text, or language. Since the mitzvah of eating matzoh is an incorporation of belief into the body, it is only fitting that the mitzvah of making shmura matzoh needs believing bodies as well.
After getting docked, the matzohs gently ride six or seven at a time onto a series of very long suspended wooden poles. These are the poles that will transport the raw matzohs to the glowing oven seen through a nearby papered portal.
In preparation for the next batch, new paper is spooled off of a bolt-sized reel at one end of docking the table. With the furious turning of a hand crank, the hametz table covering is dispatched cleanly and without fuss. The dockers clean up and place the docker in the center of the table.
Rabbi Dubrowsky descends on the docker and takes it upon himself to remove any trace of dough from it with the utmost care. He does so by first shaking it out. Then he pulls any pieces of visible dough from between the hundreds of minuscule points. Next, the docker is checked with magnifying eyeglasses to insure there is no hametz invisible to the naked eye. As if this were not enough, Rabbi Dubrowsky fastidiously brushes every crevice of the device with a fine-haired brush. Then, for good measure, he devotedly burnishes the one-of-a-kind item with a flywheel metal polisher. After a final once over, the gleaming docker is returned face down onto the freshly papered docking table. Without a pause Rabbi Dubrowsky then moves on to inspect the fingernails of the rollers, who have just completed their compulsory hand washing between batches.
The fusion of old (making matzoh by hand) and new (state-of-the-art German metalworking) is a reminder of the Lubavitch tendency towards careful technological adaptation rather than exclusion. Change is always presented as enhancing, not diminishing. All the while, our tour guide is careful to identify every custom, every practice, every act of tradition as historically Jewish--never specifically Lubavitch. The implication is that the Lubavitch are Jewishness personified. By giving the tour, and taking charge of it themselves, the Lubavitch promote (with an implication of dominance) a Judaism in the diaspora that is epochally recent, new, "emergent."
Emergent culture is defined by Raymond Williams as "new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships ... in relation to a full sense of the dominant."( Williams 1977, 122) The baltshuve, as one who knows and rejects the dominant in favor of the emergent, carries the ever-changing skills necessary for surviving, even thriving, in a contact zone.
The Lubavitch wish to be seen as deeply connected to a past, but not limited to or museumized by it; they seek to show how that connection to the past defines their present, justifies and ennobles it; and lastly, they must assert that the future they offer is a continuation of an unbroken line from pre-diaspora Jewishness, and not a fragment of it. In short, they work to create an understanding of time that establishes them as the authentic Jews, from which all other living cultures of the Jewish diaspora are derivative. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has written about this tactic of valuation in contact zones, such as proselytourist productions:
"... some people create a "common" or "distinctive" or "homogeneous" culture, while others borrow from them. .. Where difference is positively valued on the powerful side of the distinction it marks, stigma becomes the ground of transvaluation, though not always." (Comments on J. Clifford, Diasporas 1994, 342)
The stigma in the context of the tourist performance can be removed by changing it to a sign of "that which is borrowed from." This positions the Lubavitch as ab origine, with the diaspora as derivative. Many would recognize this inversion as a standard strategy of nationalist efforts to establish dominance amongst competing interests; however in the case of proselytourism the application of the authentic is not so much about establishing an inalienable right to a place, as it is to claim of authority over heritage.
That heritage is definitely an application, a production. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has pointed out that in any tourist enterprise, "heritage is not lost or found, stolen and reclaimed. It is a mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past." (Destination Museum 1994, 21)
One of the tour's great performers peeks through the hole where the matzoh poles are received and grins. Our guide introduces him as David, from France. David's one and only job coordinate to coming and going of full and empty matzoh poles. He carefully lifts the matzoh-laden pole from its rack on the docking table and passes it on. Seconds later, a pole is tossed to him and clatters onto a slim rack. Even though the poles only go in the oven for a few seconds, they gets so hot they nearly ignite and must sufficiently cool lest the sandpaper, and David, get scorched. As soon as he finishes that task, he begins to sand the matzoh-less pole furiously while whooping, singing, and smiling broadly.
"How many of you have seen Fiddler on the Roof?" Asks the Rabbi. "David is the real thing." Rabbi Epstein no doubt refers to David's excellent showmanship. David, much like the photographically inclined matzoh dockers, plays to the crowd. He knows that he's being watched. Goffman identified this practice as being "on," a common coping tactic employed by someone who feels that they bear a real or perceived stigma. (Stigma 1963, 14)
Goffman describes being "on" as stressful or traumatic, an ultimately negative action. The perpetuation of stereotypes, avoidance of "real" interaction, and feelings of self-abasement on the part of the "on" individual are definitely possible downsides. In contrast, on this tour the results of "on" behavior are a net positive. By creating a fun, festive atmosphere David fortifies the outreach effort. He also replaces a negative stereotype--the Lubavitch (and all Hasidim for that matter) as a stuffy, serious and secretive community--with a more accessible one: an open, happy-go-lucky, even clownish village. By being a great performer, he performs a mitzvah.
The openness offered to us goes beyond mere show. It is a sign of acceptance. It reiterates a key difference--a difference meant to be positive--between the Lubavitch and other Hasidim. The Lubavitch are open enough to make outsiders feel welcome. Since one of the many goals of the tour is to encourage the participating non-observant Jews to join their cause, David's surprising show is a subtle invitation.
The exhaustive play-by-play commentary given by the tour guide portrays a blissful quotidian. Every detail of work, no matter how humble, glows with meaning, and basks in a refreshing uniformity of purpose. Since the redeemer may be around the corner, every day is lived with the very real sense of being a hair's breadth away from bringing the Messiah. Each act of goodness takes on enormous weight as it speeds the end of global suffering and strife. Watching shmura matzoh baking leaves the impression that for the Lubavitch, no day is the everyday.
We are next led around the partition to where David has been sanding. Rabbi Epstein asks us to move to the back of the room and push as close as they can to the woodpile. The baker and the oven are in plain view. Even at twenty paces we can appreciate the intense heat. Amidst piles of raw coal, scattered pieces of broken matzoh, and splinters of wood stands a steely older gentleman wearing a wool cap and a face mask. From here, we can get the best view of the dough as it is metamorphosed into the crisp, mottled matzoh.
"Now this is Rueven. He's the key here," intones Rabbi Epstein. We watch closely as Rueven takes one of the poles of matzoh and in one grand movement, rolls all of the matzoh out perfectly onto the floor of the oven. Our guide speaks: "It is truly an art. The oven is so hot, that the matzoh takes only about fifteen seconds to cook. After that, it goes up in flames and is charcoal. Timing is everything."
Rueven shuffles the matzoh around inside, navigating a ten-foot long peel in eighteen inches of clearance in the oven. With our backs against a pile of wood, the butt of the peel glances off of our shins in the crowded space. More than ever, it seems possible that visitors are going to cause the matzoh to be ruined. The embarrassment and guilt are profound as Rueven turns to us. From behind the mask emerges a pained expression and the words "Please, Please." Rabbi Epstein herds us quickly over near the back door.
We can't help but feel self-conscious and sheepish. We have just proven that we are in the way, even carriers of contamination. They know we are different. Our lack of understanding, clumsiness, and insensitivity is momentarily transformed into a kind of stigma. This reverses the roles between the tourist and the toured. Our sense of shame is all the more intense because we feel that we should know better. By wearing this stigma, albeit for a short time, we finds ourselves on the other side of the fence, and better sympathize with what it feels to be the object of a discrediting gaze.
Rabbi Epstein lets us know that the oven stays at over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, and is kept going around the clock for the entire baking season. At night and for the Sabbath the bakers fill the oven with coal completely and wood, then seal it. When they reopen the oven the following day, nearly all the fuel is gone and the brick interior is covered with a fine layer of embers and ash.
Rabbi Epstein takes this moment to tell us that this 1920's oven has been used to bake matzoh for about 10 years. Previously the matzoh was baked at another location. This surprises some of us, who had assumed that this bakery had a long and distinguished matzoh history. But Rabbi Epstein goes on to note: "Rueven has been baking matzoh all of his life. He risked his life in Russia in the 1930's baking underground matzoh for the community." Our guide nodes and solemnly breathes, "Now that's making matzoh." A woman in front of me is moved to tears.
It is extremely hot where we are standing. We look around, but a fire extinguisher is nowhere to be seen, nor can we find any evidence of a sprinkler system. The standards of purity so exquisitely upheld are not those of safety, or mere cleanliness, but an infinitely higher moral ground. The matzoh must above all be ritually pure. The physical world becomes secondary.
David starts to applaud boisterously as the matzoh is plucked from the majestic, purifying flames. Caught in the spirit, the tourists cheer with every expertly-timed peel. Stacks of steaming matzoh are placed in paper-lined carts, where they undergo a thorough inspection by two serious men. Any section that is too light is snapped off, and the ragged matzoh is placed back in the pile. Matzohs that have an edge even slightly folded over are tossed under the cart or broken into pieces, as a fold may trap moist air and make the entire batch hametz. We are assured by Rabbi Epstein that with matzoh, "the burnt, the better," to insure complete cooking.
It is from a pile under the cart that Rabbi Epstein takes a piece of discarded, hametz matzoh and offers each of us a small bit to taste. Nobody refuses. He asks us to please take slow, tiny bites. As we chat over the surprisingly flavorful sample, a stately, frail Rabbi hails Rabbi Epstein worriedly from across the room. Our guide comes back and says, "That was Rabbi Greenberg, He asks that you not talk near the matzoh." Embarrassed, we have Rabbi Epstein ask him why. With a weary smile, Rabbi Greenberg comes over and remarks, "It would take me until next year to explain. The short answer is because moisture could fall on matzoh." We do our best to whisper and cover our mouths while talking. The threat of the matzoh getting wet from a speck of saliva is one that cannot be tolerated. It may not be the whole story, but it is enough to cause all of us to alter our behavior immediately.
We head back through the bakery floor towards the front, where the faithful and hungry may buy matzoh for the holiday. Purchasing matzoh is of course an integral part of the tour, just as shopping is a defining activity in most tourist experiences.
As we near our point of departure, Rabbi Epstein waves some of us over and gestures excitedly over to the niche between the cramped booths. A new matzoh cycle has begun. We watch as a young boy receives gentle instructions from the kneader as he tries to work the dough. The man passes the knowledge to the boy. This lesson insures the survival of the tradition.
--Erving Goffman, Stigma
Encounters with cultural difference are a quintessential part of modern life. Urry offers that "People are much of the time 'tourists' whether they like it or not." ( The Tourist Gaze , 82) A guided tour is a comfortable, "safe" medium of cultural exchange. No-one gets too close, and everyone understands the rules. The Lubavitch recognize the opportunity and take full advantage.
By giving a behind the scenes tour of the community, Rabbi Epstein creates a contact zone he can carefully orchestrate. He engages in a purposeful social action to separate the wheat from the chaff--remove undesired stigma from the desirable difference (Goffman 1963, 114).
Controlling the effects of difference is highly desirable, whether between nation-states or neighbors. The Lubavitch harness and apply one force of dispersal, tourism, to undo another--the greater Jewish diaspora with which they struggle for control. Rabbi Epstein will be the first to tell you that "everything is entrepreneurship to the Lubavitch."
Proselytourism is a both a preemptive strike against the outside world and an attempt to cull from that world converts, which the community desperately needs to fulfill its vision of a truly global Jewish culture. This proselytourist production not only constructs a model of Lubavitch identity, but collapses it with a greater notion of authentic Jewish tradition. The heritage tour is not seen as a necessary evil, or a sacrifice of dignity and pride. What is found here is a tourist production that is not out to rob any population of it soul, but to grant it one; the tour is consistent with thecultural aims and goals of the Lubavitch.
The Lubavitch offer tourists a performance of seductive difference. Much like the matzoh is ritually transformed from simple water and grain into a ritually pure work of wonder, the stigmatic aspects of Lubavitch difference have been transformed into complex, even elevated, marks of distinction. The tour is without shame an invitation to co-differentiate. Baltshuves , who have chosen to leave the secular world to follow the Lubavitch path, are qualified interpreters and fitting role models for the non-observant. Our guide is a telling example of a tourist that went native.
But the invitation to join this destiny-bound branch of the Jewish diaspora is not easily tied to a geographical sense of place. As Clifford(Routes 1997, 255) points out, "Whatever their eschatological longings, diaspora communities are knot-here to stay.'" What is the destination then, and what does an undoing of the diaspora look like for the Lubavitch?
The ultimate goal of Lubavitch proselytourism is to create one Jewish people, under one Rebbe, working together to receive Mosiach. The destination of the bakery tour is Lubav, Byelorussia, as manifest in Crown Heights Brooklyn. Every matzoh that leaves the bakery, and every lasting memory of the tourist experience lays a brick in the long and winding road to Jerusalem, towards a final reunification and return to prelapsarian times.
Inestimable thanks to Eve Jochnowitz--research partner, editor and invaluable counsel on things Hasidically Correct.
Clifford, James. Routes : Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press, 1997
Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, New York, Columbia University Press, 1983
Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Simon & Schuster, 1963
------ The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Anchor Books, 1959.
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Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Actualities, Virtualities, and Other Dilemmas of Display," Charles Seeger Lecture, Society for Ethnomusicology and American Folklore Society, 1994 Joint Annual Meeting, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 21, 1994.
------ "Spaces of Dispersal," Comments on J. Clifford, Diasporas. Cultural Anthropology 9 (3) 1994: 339-344.
------ Destination Museum: Issues of Heritage, Museums & Tourism Wellington, New Zealand: Museum Directors Federation of Aotearoa/New Zealand Inc., 1994) .
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Ross, Andrew. The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life : Nature's Debt to Society Verso Books, 1995
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Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press