For many Jews, the annual Passover Seder is many things: the celebration of freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt, the welcoming of spring and rebirth. But mostly, it's the feast of the year, unrivaled in length and scope, as the story is retold through symbolic foods and stories, songs and prayers, and, of course, debates about everything long into the night.
Traditions vary throughout the world, but there are constants. Wherever you live, whether you're religious or just a foodie-Jew, for eight days or one night, leavened bread is forbidden. In fleeing from Egypt, we are told, Jews had no time for bread-rising. So we eat matzah, giant sheets of rabbi-blessed flatbread ripped from supermarket boxes once a year. It's central to Passover, but hardly the life of the Seder party. Matzah is basically a sad cracker, the culinary equivalent of suffering.
Unless you live in Portland, Oregon. Where else would anyone—a rabbi, no less—claim to witness a “cage match” over matzah at the Seder table? Or dare to describe matzah, swooningly, as akin to strudel pastry?
Yet these are the words of Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer, the freethinker behind Religion Outside the Box, a humanistic, Internet-based congregation. He has reason to kvell. Portland's most unorthodox rabbi has jump-started what might be America's only handmade artisan matzah revival. Unlike their cardboard cousins, these sheets are golden, crackly, even sensuous. Dare I say, this is sexy matzah.
The idea dates back to 1997, when Mayer read a New York Times article about Jewish recipes from the Spanish Inquisition—when Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism and practicing religion outside of the Church was punishable by death. As one story goes, a convert (and secret Jew) named Angelina de Leon was tried and executed in 1503 for making matzah, turned in by her maid. Per the Times, contemporary food scholars have retraced lost crypto-Jewish recipes, including de Leon's matzah.
Mayer, then a rabbinical student in California, had to try it—not just for the profound meaning or the culinary challenge, but for the flavor. Who ever heard of matzah blissing out on fresh cracked pepper, honey, and olive oil? He's made it ever since. Once, after moving to Portland, he brought a fresh batch to a board of rabbi directors' meeting. “They loved it,” he tells me over FaceTime, throwing his head back in laughter. “I felt like a crack dealer.”
His next target: Bakeshop owner Kim Boyce, another LA expat. In 2016, they formed 1503 Matzah, a micro-business selling “handmade, historic matzah, made with the best ingredients,” based on Angelina De Leon's recipe. Since then, 1503 has grown as a word-of-mouth passion project. Advertising is limited to blasts on Rabbi Brian's weekly newsletter, which now has 35,000 subscribers. Mayer ships around the country, while Boyce offers pick-up at Bakeshop.
Boyce, known for gorgeous grain-laced pastries, never thought about making matzah before. Why would she? There are no home traditions, no defining version to chase. Now, she says, there's no going back. She tweaked de Leon's recipe a bit, bumping up the pepper, adding salt, and tapping local Old Blue Raw Honey for its floral fragrance. The biggest challenge is rolling the dough thin enough to blister on the surface.
“To me, that's the beauty of every bite, that blistering,” says Boyce. “To open up the oven, to see this thin, flatbread blistered in heat. I've never seen anything like it. It's probably what matzah was supposed to be. Mass production probably killed this version of it. To have something like this, using beautiful olive oil and local honey, is a game changer.”
So has the rabbi blessed 1503 Matzah? Is it officially “kosher for Passover”? The very question draws an eye roll. It's far from his heart and philosophy: "Take your spirituality more seriously. And less seriously." You want it blessed? Do a little blessing for yourself. That's his M.O. He even sells D.I.Y (declare-it-yourself) kosher kits on his Etsy site.
“So many of us, when it comes to Passover, we get uptight about the laws. It's anathema to the spirit of the holiday, which is about remembering our religious freedom. I have a sense of Angelina. That's why I like to eat this matzah.”
HOW TO ORDER 1503 MATZAH
Pre-orders are essential, as the matzah is handmade in small batches. Orders available until they sell out.
Pickup at Bakeshop: pre-order online between March 14-18 for pickup on March 20-21. Or pre-order between March 21-25 for pickup on March 27-28. bakeshoppdx.com; 5351 NE Sandy Blvd.
Shipping from Rabbi Brian: Orders must be placed on Etsy by March 14.