Is There No End to This Man's Talents? Rabbi, Chemist, Baker: Gluten-free Matza Maker

Kestenbaum, an industrial chemist in London who is also a rabbi, has spent close to 20 years devising and perfecting matzot which are made of gluten-free oats and considered kosher for Pesach according to the most stringent of Rabbinical authorities.

Rabbi Ephraim Kestenbaum's daughter, who has Celiac Disease, wanted to eat matza like everybody else.

The lifelong digestive disease - which prevents millions of sufferers around the world from eating wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt because of their gluten content - poses particular difficulties for Jews, who are commanded to eat matzot (unleavened bread) during the festival of Passover.

The disease, which can be life-threatening, may be as old as the commandment, but for Kestenbaum's daughter - and other Jews around the world who wish to fully partake in the Passover Seder - there is at long last a palatable solution.

Kestenbaum, an industrial chemist in London who is also a rabbi, has spent close to 20 years devising and perfecting matzot which are made of gluten-free oats and considered kosher for Pesach according to the most stringent of Rabbinical authorities.

Kestenbaum first embarked on his mission some 18 years ago when his then-nine-year-old daughter became distressed that even when she became bat mitzvah she would be unable to fulfil the commandment of eating matzot on Pesach because of her Celiac Disease.

"I told my little girl that I would try and make matza without gluten," says the chemist, who owns a small chemical plant and makes special cements and concrete treatments. "She was sure I would succeed."

Others, it seems, viewed the task Kestenbaum set for himself to be unattainable. "It's an impossibility," one inquirer on a Jewish Internet emailing list was told after posting a question about whether gluten-free matza exists. "The grains that matza can be made of are precisely those grains which contain gluten," continued the response.

Undeterred, Kestenbaum began by approaching - and gaining the support of - Dayan (judge) Osher Westheim of the Manchester Beit Din (Religious Court), before setting out to find totally natural (non- genetically modified) oats with the lowest gluten content possible.

Kestenbaum, who was educated at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and lived for over 25 years in the United States, asked farmers across the UK - and also in France, the United States, Italy and Israel - to test their oats. To his delight, he found a very small patch of such oats on a farm in Scotland, north of Edinburgh.

Official testing in laboratories confirmed that these oats were exceptional in that they had no gluten, but were normal in every other way. Very determined, Kestenbaum used them for seeding at the same farm and the following year, a crop of gluten-free oats were harvested. After being milled and ground at the Beit Din in Manchester, the grain was transported to London, where Kestenbaum painstakingly baked matzot by hand in a small bakery in North London.

Most of the flour failed, recalls Kestenbaum, because there was so little time to get it into the oven after the water has been added to the oat flour to make the dough; After adding the water, there are just 18 minutes before the dough becomes hametz, or leavened, and therefore is not kosher for Pesach.

"The real problem," he says, speaking from his home in the North West London suburb of Golders Green this week, "is that the low gluten content made it very diffcult to make dough, and even more difficult to roll it out and make it thinner. It is the gluten which holds it together and give it its elasticity." The result: Most of the dough turned to crumbs.

Despite these problems, the first Pesach after his daughter became bat mitzvah - three years after beginning his quest - Kestenbaum succeeded in hand-baking enough matzot for 15 people to eat during the Seder meal.

"`How many people could want them?' I thought to myself," says Kestenbaum. Yet, within days, he recalls, word had got around and a long line of takers gathered outside his house on the day before Pesach to get hold of the matzot, which had been carefully packed into brown paper bags by his wife and daughter.

Reserving just one small portion for his daughter, Kestenbaum distributed them. At that point, the matzot were free of charge; Kestenbaum received contributions towards them from the ultra-Orthodox Beit Din of London and his local ultra-Orthodox synagogue.

"The happiness was indescribable," says Kestenbaum of the first seder night that he was able to distribute matzot to all his six children.

The following year, Kestenbaum made enough matzot for 200 people, yet demand continued to outstrip supply. The year after, he doubled his output, but there was still not enough.

After experimenting in many machine bakeries, in 1988 he finally located one - in Atarot near Ramallah - where staff were willing to be trained over a long period in the extremely laborious production of these matzot. It allowed Kestenbaum to expand his operations, but there were still numerous other problems.

Seeds are planted in March and the fields must be watched carefully, so they do not not get contaminated by any other grains or plants that contain gluten, explains Kestenbaum, who needs little encouragement to go into the fine details of the process.

The oats must be harvested in August only once they have received five consecutive days of sunshine to ensure that they are fully dry and therefore not at risk of becoming hametz. Sunshine is in short supply in Scotland, points out Kestenbaum, who - typically - operates the combine harvester himself.

The crops cannot be harvested in the mornings when there is dew on the ground, which would dampen and thereby invalidate the harvest; only in the afternoons. Rain during the actual harvesting process - and of course rain is not in short supply in Scotland - will ruin the crops. Kestenbaum estimates this happens with over 50 percent of the harvest.

After harvesting, the crops must remain absolutely dry. In order to be considered shemura (protected) - and thereby acceptable to the most stringent kashrut observers - the crops must be supervised by the mashgiach (kashrut supervisor, in this case from the Manchester Beit Din) from before the harvest until the baked matzot are sealed in boxes.

"Every year I have these worries," says Kestenbaum, who admits to feeling huge relief each time a successful batch of matzot are produced. "It's very risky. There is always a tremendous element of doubt as to whether I'll succeed."

One of the big problems with the early gluten-free matzot was the "terrible taste," says Kestenbaum. Oats contain a very bitter enzyme, and are normally injected with steam at the groat stage (just before the milling process) to improve their taste. However, such a process would make them hametz.

"Those people who wanted to keep the miztvot [commandments] were grateful to have them despite the taste," says Kestenbaum of his early efforts, "but then I found a way."

After lengthy experimentation, using five grinding and milling processes at different mills across Britain, Kestenbaum now proudly proclaims his matzot "taste even a little better than oats treated with steam." This process is perhaps the most technical and complex aspect part of Kestenbaum's recipe (see box).

The processed grain is then sent to Israel - despite frequent major hold-ups at customs - for the particularly delicate process of machine baking. One year, Kestenbaum was not present at the Atarot bakery to oversee the baking and attempted to pass the job over to his family in Israel. But he was called to fly here urgently because their efforts kept turning to crumbs.

"I'm not more intelligent than anybody," says Kestenbaum, "but I have the experience and the feel - whether to turn the humidity up or down, when to add the water. It's like conducting a symphony orchestra. You have to watch everything at the same time."

Making gluten free, wheat free, oat matzot, requires five disciplines, says Kestenbaum: An in-depth knowledge of halacha (Jewish law), agriculture (specifically gluten-free agriculture), food processing, milling and baking. The first four are scientific, he says, but "baking is an art." A little bit of chemistry helps too, he adds.

Though he is cagey about the exact number of boxes he produces, Kestenbaum says that every year the matzot he makes reach "thousands" of Jews with Celiac Disease or who are unable to eat regular wheat matzot. Despite continually enlarging his output, Kestenbaum says that he always runs out before Pesach.

He now makes three varieties of gluten-free, wheat-free, shemura oat products: machine-baked matzot, hand-baked matzot and matza meal, which is made from pieces broken during the baking process. A portion of the grain is not sent to Israel, but rather to the United States, where it is hand-baked in Lakewood, New Jersey for what Kestenbaum refers to as the "tiny minority," who are only satisfied with hand-baked matzot, an even more lengthy and therefore costly process.

In 1986, Kestenbaum began charging for the matzot, yet he says that he has never made a penny from the process and not all his expenses are covered. So what makes all his labor worthwhile? "I enable people to keep the commandment of eating matza," says Kestenabum. "At first I did it to help a little girl, now I help all these other people."

The lack of budget means little is spent on advertising, but Kestenbaum recently experienced some negative publicity. He learned of a rumor that the great Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem had been quoted as voicing doubts about the acceptability of his matzot. Kestenbaum immediately requested that Elyashiv clarify his comments and the great rabbi responded that his concerns related to other matzot and that Kestenbaum's were strictly kosher and consumers can make a blessing over them.

Kestenbaum, who is very keen for word of his matzot to continue to spread, says he gets continually gets calls from all over the world from Jews who tell him they have never eaten matza in their lives - or not for many years. He has set up an international distribution network, often using personal contacts, to cope with the demand.

One example is Haim Korolanski of Haifa, who after buying the matzot in Jerusalem for his seven-year-old son with Celiac Disease, decided to set up an outlet in his home, to ease access to the matzot for residents in the north of Israel. Korolanski sells them without a mark-up at NIS 60 for a half kilo box.

He says his customers - which include an 85-year-old man and the parents of young children with all kinds of medical conditions - are "not just happy," with their purchase, "they are delighted. They can finally keep the commandment of eating matza on Pesach."

For details of local distributors, call Ruth Perednik (02) 993-8078.

Not for mass consumption

Rabbi Ephraim Kestenbaum says his recipe for gluten-free shemura oat matzot is "only secret because nobody understands it." Except for the kashrut supervisors and rabbis, he adds quickly: "They must understand it in order to grant their stamp of kashrut."

Jews around the world ask for his recipe all the time, he says. "I tell them as much as they can absorb."

Kestenbaum has also been approached by non-Jews, notably Catholics, to produce gluten-free oat wafers, which could be given to believers with Celiac Disease during Mass. "But I don't sell it," he says. "It would be a big business. But I can barely cope with my own community."

He hopes his offspring and their spouses will continue his work, "so it doesn't disappear after I'm gone," and, in particular, has his eye on his son, Rabbi David Kestenbaum of Manchester, who he believes is developing "the touch."

All of his six children and their families, who are spread between Israel, the United States and Britain, are involved in baking or distributing the matzot in some way.

"When the family bakes in the bakery together, it's such a joyous event," says Kestenbaum. "They come with the children and the grandchildren. It's nicer then a bar mitzvah or a wedding. That's my reward in this world."