The modest Colonial’s garage doors roll up to reveal hundreds of pounds of handmade shmurah matzah stacked up in cardboard boxes. Rabbi Noach Kosofsky and his son, Rabbi Lavy Kosofsky, haul down a few of the bigger ones and transfer their contents into the trunk of their silver Hyundei Sonata.
It’s a week-and-a-half into their annual pre-Passover matzah distribution, and there are still hundreds of more Jewish people to visit on their list. The father-and-son team, along with two more rabbis at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow—a leafy suburb of Springfield—are continuing a Passover tradition that started more than six decades ago, when the late Rabbi Dovid Edelman first began delivering handmade shmurah matzah to his fellow Jews in Springfield and the wider Western Massachusetts area.
Over the course of the month, the Longmeadow-based rabbis will visit some 900 addresses—Jewish individuals, families and businesses—hand-delivering small boxes containing three shmurah matzahs for the seder.
Once regarded as a novelty item consumed only by the most religious of Jews, traditional handmade shmurah matzah has grown in popularity in the last half-century, and is now available in national stores such as Costco. Come Passover, the Longmeadow garage will be nearly empty. Like awareness and availability of the matzah itself, the operation has come a long way since Edelman—who passed away on Jan. 2, 2015, at the age of 90—first started the route in 1954, when he struggled to give out even five pounds of the round unleavened bread.
A Custom Reinstituted
In 1950, a newly married Edelman and his wife, Leah, were sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to helm the Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy, at the time located in Springfield. Four years later, the Rebbe addressed a small crowd at his synagogue on 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was a week before Passover, and the Rebbe told those gathered that since Passover was so innately connected to customs, it was time to revive an old rabbinical custom that had for whatever reason been discontinued.
“There was once a custom among community rabbis to distribute shmurah matzah to their congregants before Passover,” said the Rebbe. “Although this custom may have been associated with the livelihood of those rabbis … practically, all those who received it had matzah of the highest grade of kosher … I would like to say, that if I were able to, I would ask that the custom of distributing matzah be reinstituted and that rabbis distribute shmurah matzah to their congregants. This applies not only to rabbis, but to anyone in the position to give to another … Thousands of Jews will benefit, and as a result of this they will have handmade kosher shmurah matzah.”
In Springfield, only 150 miles to the northeast but a world away from the religious cocoon of New York City, a young Rabbi Dovid Edelman answered the Rebbe’s call to action. Each year from that moment, the month before Passover became dedicated to distributing shmurah matzah to every single Jew he encountered. Edelman sought out Jewish shopkeepers in Springfield, but also Jewish lawyers in Lenox, Jewish farmers in Pittsfield, and Jewish judge in Stockbridge. In the process, with his warmth, humility, wise words and, of course, the shmurah matzah, Edelman touched thousands of Jews, children, parents and grandparents alike.
When President Barack Obama initiated and participated in the first White House seder in 2009, a tradition he has maintained throughout his presidency, a young aide from Springfield named Eric Lesser was tasked with bringing shmurah matzah. The source? Eric’s father, Dr. Martin Lesser, who had been receiving it from Edelman for years.
“His biggest joy was hearing from someone: ‘Rabbi, our family ate your matzah at our seder,’ says Cyrel Deitsch, Edelman’s daughter.
A Family Affair
With bigger and newer factories producing ever larger amounts of square, machine-made matzah, the 1950s were a time when most American Jews had hardly ever seen round, handmade shmurah matzah, let alone used it for their own Passover seder.
In those first years, “nobody recognized what it was,” remembers another of Edelman’s eight children, his eldest daughter Seema Goldstein. “My father would just explain what shmurah matzah was, how it was guarded and watched throughout the whole process, and then handmade in a bakery. After the first year, they knew exactly what to expect.”
“The first year,” adds Deitsch, “some of the older people in Springfield complained that the shmurah matzah hurt their teeth.”
Beginning a month before Passover, Rabbi Edelman the Jewish day-school principal became Rabbi Edelman the matzah distributor, a man on a singular mission. He’d drive down to Brooklyn, pick up matzah and make the trek back to Springfield. Yet he wasn’t the only one doing the work; his entire family was involved. The Edelman basement would transform into a matzah-packing factory, as the children took the matzah out of the large boxes it came in and repacked them into smaller cardboard boxes big enough to fit two or three matzahs.
“The biggest thing you could do was fold those boxes,” says Goldstein. “There was no such thing then as a small matzah box in those days, so my father would buy pizza boxes, and we had to assemble them. Of course, we also needed to cover the word ‘pizza’ with a big sticker.”
With boxes packed, the rabbi would load them into his car—described as a big boat of a Cadillac—and set off in search of recipients. When his children got older, they joined him, as did his grandchildren years later, many of them learning how to drive on Edelman’s treks.
“He was incredibly dedicated to his work, and he was a scholar, too,” says Springfield-based philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, a real estate magnate who, aside from supporting many Jewish charities, among them Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy, is the force behind PJ Library, which mails free Jewish books and music to young children in North America. “I always liked that he brought it,” he says, referring to the shmurah matzah.
“And there was always a little bit of Torah,” adds his wife, Diane Troderman. “There was always as much Torah as you wanted.”
A Special Flavor
The town of Deerfield in Massachusetts’ northern Pioneer Valley seems an unlikely place to find one of the last independent Jewish bookstores in the country. But there, in an old converted WPA-built firehouse sits Schoen Books. The books smell old and sweet, a quixotic mixture of aged Yiddish texts, rabbinics and Kafka, much of it out-of-print, some 30,000 volumes in all. Surrounding the stacks are pieces of Jewish art, menorahs and an old synagogue chart splitting up the six orders of the Mishnah.
The store’s proprietor is Ken Schoen, a native of Queens, N.Y., who relocated to Western Massachusetts with his wife, Jane Trigere, and their family back in the early 1980s. Six years later, Schoen became a book dealer, which he calls his labor of love, opening his own store in 1990.
“Ken probably gives away more books than he sells,” laughs Trigere, an accomplished artist.
Similar to many of the other Jews living in the wider area, Schoen and his family moved to Deerfield to embrace a gentler, slower-paced mode of life. “Here, we’re surrounded by nature and valleys,” says Schoen. “We live in a village; it’s a different world.”
Still, there’s a tradeoff. “There are times we miss New York terribly, miss all of that Yiddishkeit. There is a lot of Yiddishkeit here, but there’s something about living in a large Jewish community. In some ways, my Jewish books have become my companions on this journey.”
Into the peace and loneliness of the valley walked Rabbi Edelman, whose arrival on the doorstep of Schoen Books was a welcome surprise.
“It was a kind, gentle soul—a very happy person who showed up here,” recalls Schoen. “He rang the doorbell, kissed the mezuzah and wished us a chag sameach.
“Here comes Rabbi Edelman, in his beat-up old Cadillac. The visit each year let me know that spring was in the air, and Pesach was coming. We’d talk. He’d always tell me not to worry, that we’d have parnassah [livelihood].”
Raised in a household where the family Passover seder was a firm family tradition, Schoen doesn’t remember seeing shmurah matzah growing up.
“We welcomed Rabbi Edelman’s matzah,” he says. “It gave a special flavor to the holiday.”
The area has a much larger Jewish presence today, and aside from Chabad at Amherst, which opened in 1974, there are additional Chabad centers in Northampton, Greenfield and Pittsfield. The couple’s daughter attends Chabad in Northampton, and it’s seeing their grandson Emmet grow up with shmurah matzah that gives them a special joy.
“I had this cloth container for the matzah, and it was round, but I always had square matzah,” says Trigere. “Then we started having round shmurah matzah, and my grandson looked at it and says ‘Oh, it’s the same shape!’
“Having this shmurah matzah delivered here,” she adds, “it’s a mitzvah that makes us feel connected out here in the boondocks.”
On a recent afternoon, as did his grandfather before him, the younger Kosofsky walked into Schoen Books with a box of shmurah matzah in hand. And on the nights of Passover, multiple generations of Schoens will eat the same handmade matzah their great-grandparents once did.
‘He Knew Every Tiny Town’
An area encompassing quintessential New England towns and the Berkshire Mountains, the country roads of Western Massachusetts are scenic, twisting and confusing. They weren’t for Edelman.
“It’s really unbelievable, but he knew every tiny town in Massachusetts,” says Deitsch. “Everyone was always shocked how he always knew exactly where to go.”
“In later years, as we helped him more, he’d direct me,” says Goldstein, who lives in Brooklyn and continues to distribute matzah to those on her father’s list who now live in New York. “A couple of years ago, he sent me out and he tells me, ‘Go to this lawyer, down a street, you’ll make a right.’ I’m telling you, you’d never find this house. But he’d say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll see!’
“He knew every turn; no one came away without matzah.”
With each person he visited, Edelman would ask for more names, which is probably how he got to Michael Marcus.
Marcus was born to Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons camp in Munich, and following a childhood spent at Jewish schools in the Bronx and Manhattan, he moved up to the Berkshires. After studying Bizen pottery for four years in Japan, Marcus returned to the area and moved to the tiny hamlet of Monterey (population 961), outside of Great Barrington, where he built his 45-foot-long kiln.
“This had to have been in the early ‘90s,” says Marcus, who today owns a Japanese restaurant in Great Barrington. “He had such a gentle way of sharing what was such a great passion to him.”
Marcus laughs as he remembers detailing some of his more outlandish antics to the rabbi.
“He’d just sit there and go, ‘Aha, aha, aha.’ Never judgmental, just full of unlimited love.”
Always finding a common interest with whomever he visited, Edelman, an amateur painter himself, encouraged Marcus to continue with his pottery.
“He called me Betzalel, comparing what I did to the artistry in the Torah. He was always very enthusiastic about my work and look for a piece for his beloved wife. He always wanted me to do pottery after I stopped. He’d say, ‘When are you going to get back to your pottery? When are you going to get back to it?’”
Bizen is a type of unglazed Japanese pottery finished in a wood-fueled kiln fired days on end at an extremely high heat. As such, the pottery emerges containing traces of ash and other natural markings.
“I related to the shmurah matzah right away,” says Marcus. “On the box, you see the matzah being baked in the beautiful charcoal environment, so that was very resonant with my craft as well. I took care of every crumb of that matzah.”
A Passover Tradition
Many on the rabbi’s route came to rely on the special matzah he’d bring, a tradition on the part of the giver and the recipient.
In 1984 Judge Fredric Rutberg, now retired from the Massachusetts bench where he served for two decades, formed a law partnership with another Jewish lawyer in Lenox. The following year, when Edelman showed up with matzah, he now had two lawyers to give to.
“What cemented our warm relationship was when one year he came with his grandson,” remembers Rutberg, who grew up in Philadelphia and moved to the Berkshires in 1972. “We were sitting in our library, as we always did, and I asked him why his box only had two matzahs when you need three for the seder plate.”
The rabbi looked over at his grandson. “This man knows,” he said, pointing at Rutberg. “Go to the car and bring more matzah.”
“Here I was, the most casually observant of Jews, questioning this Orthodox rabbi,” recalls Rutberg. “After that, I got three matzahs.”
When Rutberg became a judge, Edelman would drop the matzah off at his home. The last year of Edelman’s life, Rutberg, on his way to Florida, dropped by the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Longmeadow to pick up matzah to bring to his seder. The next year, Rutberg, by now retired, was at his desk in his office when he saw a car pull up with Edelman’s grandson in it. “It’s become a special part of my seder, and I’ve become reliant on it.”
After Edelman’s passing a day after his 90th birthday, some did not expect to see his shmurah matzah again.
“Last year I went to a woman who lives in Longmeadow,” says Goldstein, “and she cried when I walked in. She told me that since her husband died, my father would drop by her house every once in a while just to see how she was doing, and before Pesach with the matzah. She was sure that would end and was so happy to see the matzah there again.”
“Matzah is, as the Holy Zohar explains, the food of healing and the food of faith,” said the Rebbe during his initial announcement of the matzah campaign. “Faith is the foundation of all the mitzvos and of Jewish life in general. When somebody fulfills this mitzvah [of eating matzah] in the best possible way, it enlivens their fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos for the entire year, which ensures they have a healthy year spiritually and therefore materially as well.”
These were the words that drove Rabbi Dovid Edelman to meet thousands of fellow Jews over the course of 60 years. Recognizing that the Jewish soul yearns to reconnect with its Creator, Edelman made it his mission to ensure that every Jew he came in contact with had handmade shmurah matzah at their Passover seder table. The matzah would do the rest.