Film Review: Streit’s: Matzo and the American DreamRich, often surprising and touching doc about the Lower East Side's storied matzo factory throws light on many interrelated issues, including the immigrant's plight and the ominous shadow of gentrification.
How fitting that a doc about unleavened bread gets equally tasty treatment, but leavened with history, important current trends and invaluable lessons of survival and loyalty. Streit’s is a top matzo brand across many decades and this doc engagingly tells its story and that of the family behind it.
At the same time, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream brings to the fore bigger themes like gentrification, the immigrant experience, business management, and the importance of family and American blue-collar workers. Yarmulkes off to director/photographer/editor/co-producer Michael Levine, who wore so many hats (and no doubt consumed a fair share of matzo) to bring so much so vividly to life.
Streit’s Matzo factory and retail store was a fixture from 1925 in the heart of New York’s renowned and inevitably changing Lower East Side. These changes also rattled the more than 90-year-old company, whose journey of triumph, struggle and survival finds a parallel of sorts in the biblical flight of the Jews from Egypt that Passover celebrates and where matzo (essentially a mix of flour and water) plays so important a role.
Matzo, of course, is traditionally identified with Passover, which conveniently coincides with the theatrical release of Streit’s this Friday. But the doc is most emphatically timely for other reasons. Among these are its grander messages and lesser business lessons that lurk within.
Over its long history, Streit’s has been and remains a family-run business, “the last of the independents,” as one of the three co-owners, all cousins and descendants of founder Aron Streit, calls it. Streit family values are clearly on view, as are its values with regard to the factory workers (about 60), several of whom include loyal, non-Jewish neighborhood guys. One of these, the colorful full-blown New Yorker Anthony Zapata, was an employee of over 30 years and a keen neighborhood observer of the seismic economic changes to the area.
Streit’s main matzo product (big five-pound boxes are the big sellers) has long been known to Ashkenazi Jews of Russian and European heritage. The company also offers variations like a premium brand that caters to the very religious and another with egg that appeals to the more southernly Sephardic Jews.
That Streit’s treats its workers well is a lesson in gaining loyalty and efficiency. And that it has taken measured and caring steps as it confronted its changing neighborhood is another lesson. Where Streit’s is today might require a spoiler alert. But suffice it to say that its property of four tenements combined into its factory long ago at the corner of Rivington and Suffolk Streets (hipsterland’s Hollywood and Vine) made it the area’s most highly assessed property.
Comically, the ancient machinery and movement of product within the factory facility which made it into the 21st century—giant vats, blowers, conveyer belts, baskets, chutes, etc.—scream Rube Goldberg as the inspiration. Rabbis are regularly in attendance to assure that all is kosher and clean.
No screen time is given to selling the product (no matzo ball soup recipes or suggestions for matzo spreads like horseradish or jams). But the doc, with its nice balance of archival and present-day material, accomplishes the basics: company and immigrant history back to the roots planted by founder Aron; insights and flashbacks to the storied neighborhood and the immigrant experience; warning shots often via montages of the cold, soulless new condos sprouting around Streit’s; and plenty of on-camera interviews with the three cousins (one a former trial lawyer who returned to another kind of battleground), workers, and historians like Elissa Sampson.
For old-timers, the doc may be a depiction of a neighborhood’s nightmare, but for most it’s a real-life tale of the American Dream come true. Levine, by the way, also gets credit for the sound and original music.
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