‘Resistance, resilience’ in a changing world
Documentary charts decades of Streit’s, iconic matza maker
Just in time for Passover, filmmaker and New Jersey native Michael Levine’s documentary Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream will premiere nationwide on April 20, with screenings through April 26 at the Film Forum in New York City.
The result of a three-year-long filming and production process, the 83-minute film chronicles the story of Streit’s matza factory, a fifth-generation Jewish family business that opened in 1925 and operated in a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on Rivington Street in New York’s Lower East Side. The film highlights what is considered the last family-owned matza factory in the United States (with an estimated 40 percent share of the domestic matza market) and its diverse and loyal team of employees within the context of challenging economic forces and the rapidly changing neighborhood it called home.
The story, Levine said, is of “a rare manufacturing business that remained in New York City at a time when most manufacturing had modernized and moved overseas and of a family whose commitment to tradition, family, and community — both in terms of the product they make and the way they conduct business — is steadfast and inspiring.”
“Overall, it’s a story of resistance and resilience in a neighborhood and world that’s changed drastically since the company first opened its doors.”
An unexpected and bittersweet aspect of the Streit’s story was the company’s decision to close its Rivington Street factory in June 2015, a victim of aging machinery, difficult operating conditions in the city, and other competitive challenges. Does that mean the shelves are Streit’s matza-free this year? Hardly. Now in the process of moving its operation to a new 102,000-square-foot facility in Orangeburg, NY — which it expects to open in time for Passover next year — Levine said that “the Streit’s team made as much matza as they could to cover the market’s needs for this Passover and has temporarily moved many of its activities and employees to its warehouse and macaroon bakery in Moonachie, NJ, which the company has operated for over 15 years.”
Though initially challenged by news of the closure and the impact it might have on the film’s direction, Levine said, he adjusted its content to reflect the company’s real-time business decision.
“I realized that their current transition doesn’t affect their 90-year history,” Levine said. “While their move represents the loss of an iconic Lower East Side landmark, the film celebrates a decision that will allow them to keep a tradition going for faithful patrons and employees alike. And, he added, with the added footage of the Moonachie operation, “the ending of the film now actually takes place in New Jersey.”
‘Story to be told’
Levine is a native of West Windsor who grew up with a Jewish father and Lutheran mother. “Jewish history, tradition, and identity strongly influenced my development and have always been a part of my life,” he said. “My father’s family came from Russia at the turn of the century and settled on the Lower East Side, mere blocks from the Streit’s factory, and I spent a good deal of time growing up visiting family in that neighborhood, which is where I now live.”
Spending time at Streit’s and learning about its history and the history of the Lower East Side for the film, Levine said, “has provided a wonderful opportunity to connect more deeply to my Jewish heritage.”
He first got the idea to do a documentary several years ago after walking past the factory and seeing workers buzzing around the gears and pulleys of decades-old machinery. He watched as rabbis closed oversaw the making of the dough, its under-18-minute journey from mixing bowl to finished product, and the matzas’ circuitous conveyor belt ride and final packaging. “I didn’t know much about Streit’s story at that point,” Levine said, “but from that moment, I knew there was a story to be told.”
As Streit’s makes its national premiere in New York City and Los Angeles on April 20 and then opens across the country, Levine said he feels “great about the way the film turned out.”
“It was important to me that it accurately represented the Streit’s story and family because I so admire them…,” he said. “It’s exciting to have captured this special story for posterity and to help future generations be able to see and understand what it was all about.”