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Documenting a New York City Matzoh Institution

Two young filmmakers are bringing the story of Streit’s Matzo Factory to life

Jillian Scheinfeld
May 21, 2013
Workers at Streit’s Matzo factory on the lower east side of New York prepare matzo wafers on May 9, 2012.(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages)
Workers at Streit’s Matzo factory on the lower east side of New York prepare matzo wafers on May 9, 2012.(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages)

In a dark wooden desk in the office at Streit’s Matzo Factory sit the Ellis Island immigration papers of Nettie Streit. In 1890 Nettie and Aron Streit emigrated from Europe to America, and in 1925 they set up shop on Rivington Street. The contents of Mr. Streit’s desk have remained untouched ever since.

One of the last remaining factories in New York City, Streit’s Matzo Factory is not only a producer of Passover fare, but a defender of Jewish history that has withstood the rapid transformation of the Lower East Side. Although the factory has been around for 88 years, many newcomers to the hip and trendy neighborhood have little knowledge of its existence.

“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, and a few years back I was DJing at a bar on Rivington, and I looked across the street and saw a factory operation going on at 2 a.m.,” recalled Michael Levine, a director and producer. “I had no idea what they were doing then, but they were making matzoh 24 hours a day in preparation for Passover.” Now, Levine and TV producer Michael Green are the creative team behind the Kickstarter project “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream,” a documentary on the inner workings of the venerable factory and its sustained presence as a symbol of the Jewish immigrant experience in New York City.

While Levine immediately knew there was a story waiting to be told, he didn’t realize the core of his unfolding narrative until he walked by another morning and got handed a warm piece of matzoh at the window, and was invited in for a tour of the matzoh plant. Shortly afterwards he approached the Streit family with the idea for a documentary. “This is a bit more involved than the usual media request, but when they came and asked, it seemed like a natural evolution of the things we have been doing for years,” said Alan Adler, fifth generation proprietor of Streit’s.

The family debated closing down the matzoh factory in 2007, as buyers approached them with offers, but a strong tie to their history and the fear of not being able to recreate the same flavors kept them stationed on Rivington Street. As Adler put it, making matzoh is more “an art than a science.”

The Streit’s operation employs nearly 80 employees, many of whom have worked there for decades. Anthony Zapata, a 50 year-old master of every piece of machinery in the factory, has been at Streit’s for 30 years. “I think Zapata represents the feeling of 99 percent of the employees,” explained Aron Yagoda, great-grandson of Aaron Streit. “Most of the employees have been here for years and years, decades and decades.”

As one of the few Jewish family-owned gems in the Lower East Side still standing, Streit’s has endured years of change, though it has remarkably managed to stay pretty much the same.

Jillian Scheinfeld is a journalist living in New York City.