Last spring when Michael Levine, the filmmaker of “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream” was in the final days of editing and had already shipped a copy off to film festivals, he received word from the Streit family that the factory he had been documenting over the past two years was closing and moving to a larger facility in Rockland county.
For years the family had faced difficulties from aging ovens and a changing neighborhood. The 72-foot long convection oven slowed down and often broke. The Lower East Side gave way to hip bars and partygoers were oblivious to the factory. Manufacturing became expensive in Manhattan. Time and time again, brokers approached the three vice presidents, also cousins, to sell their four converted tenement buildings on Suffolk and Rivington streets for seductively high prices. The vice presidents turned the offers down because, they say, they didn’t have the heart to sell. In a version of the film shown at the JCC in Manhattan this time last year, Streit’s is portrayed as one of the last family-owned businesses to withstand the gentrification of a neighborhood that was once an enclave of immigrant culture.
After Levine heard the news of Streit’s closure, he felt saddened and it took several months for him to pick up the camera again, but he realized the film wasn’t finished. The version opening at the Film Forum April 20 and playing through the 26th, and in theaters in Los Angeles, has been updated to reflect the new future of Streit’s. It also coincides with the demolition of the old factory.
“I think it’s great,” he said of Streit’s being able to still operate and not have to close completely. “But you have to balance that with the loss for the Lower East Side.”
Levine grew up in New Jersey, but his great-grandfather emigrated from Russia and settled on Grand Street in Manhattan where he took up tailoring. His father grew up in Stuyvesant Town, but Levine still spent time in the Lower East Side visiting his grandfather and grandmother at work at PS 188 on East Houston.
He moved to the familiar neighborhood when he started NYU in 2000 and has lived there the 16 years since. He often walked by Streit’s without noticing it, which was a common occurrence as the small windows have bars over them and at night when the metal gates came down, it looked like another brick apartment building.
One day in 2009, he curiously poked his head through a window and saw the fresh matzo gliding out of the oven. Without turning around, one of the pickers, the men who separate and stack the matzo, handed him a warm piece and several minutes later when he noticed Levine still lingering, invited him inside.
“They thought I was nuts at first,” said Levine about approaching the family to document their lives.
He put the project aside for several years and began filming in 2013. He accumulated 195 hours of footage, which he edited down to 80 minutes. He wanted to show the gentrification of the neighborhood through the perseverance of the Streit family.
It’s a sweet film that does a fine job of bringing out the charm and humor that embodied the factory. In one scene, one of the vice presidents opens up his desk drawer to show us a box containing someone’s old dentures, his grandmother’s passport, and several dollar bills. The floor workers have attended the family’s funerals and weddings, and Alan Adler, the 63-year-old vice president, rides his motorcycle to work with a license plate that reads “MATZO.” We’re led on to believe that this gem of the Lower East Side has endured despite mounting challenges and we root for its triumph as the underdog.
The film plays this way because when Levine found out about the factory’s closure, he decided to keep the original cut and tack on an updated ending instead of redoing the entire thing. So, unless you know the outcome already, it seems like the factory is still on Rivington Street. The result though is that it feels like a slap in the face when we learn toward the end that it shuttered last summer.
The film focuses less on the family’s stress and trepidation of moving into a new facility, where they have to replace almost all of their original 1930s equipment and modernize in a way they haven’t done for 90 years.
Aaron Gross, the youngest vice president, anticipates Streit’s will reopen this summer and claims robots will replace the pickers. Of the 40 previous workers, only seven plan to work at the new facility.
Gross had a hunch last year that Streit’s might have to outsource its matzo in this interim period and recently confirmed they are baking this season’s Passover matzo in another facility. Gross wouldn’t comment on whether they are baking at Manischewitz, and Sara Stromer, the assistant brand manager there said she didn’t know, but that company remains Streit’s only domestic competitor with a headquarters located nearby in Newark, New Jersey.
Gross insists this year’s product doesn’t taste the same since they couldn’t use a convection oven, and instead had to work with an oven that applies heat directly to the top of the cracker, like the one Manischewitz uses.
“It was a very tough year,” he said. “It’s behind us. I felt we put out the best product we put out without our machinery.”
The final scenes of the film show the workers wearing white coats in the Streit’s warehouse in Moonachie, New Jersey where they manufacture other products like macaroons, carefully weighing flour and churning dough with modern machines.
It ends with Aron Yagoda, another vice president, walking alone down an aisle in the warehouse. He stops to run his hand along his grandfather’s mahogany desk, shipped in from the old office. Despite the cheery jig playing in the background, it’s a lonely, nostalgic ending. Right before the credits roll though, the screen flashes, “To be continued –Spring 2017” in anticipation that both the film’s final ending and the future of Streit’s have not yet been written.