Early next spring, a slice of Jewish culinary history will be cinematically served up by New Jersey native Michael Levine.
Levine, 32, will debut his documentary Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream, about the company that has produced a host of kosher products for nearly 90 years on Rivington Street on New York’s Lower East Side.
A few years ago, Levine, who lives nearby, glanced through a window at the Streit’s factory into the world he hadn’t even known was there.
“I didn’t know much about Streit’s story at that point,” he said, “but from that moment, I knew there was a story to be told.” NJJN got in touch with Levine to learn more about the film’s subject matter, his Mercer County upbringing, and the themes that speak to him and that he hopes will resonate with viewers.
NJJN: What compelled you to tell the story of this company?
Michael Levine: The feature-length documentary tells the story of the Streit’s Matzo factory, a fifth-generation Jewish family business on New York’s Lower East Side and the last family-owned matza factory in the U.S., set in the context of the rapidly changing neighborhood it calls home. It’s the story of the factory’s diverse group of workers, many of whom have worked at Streit’s for over 30 years. And it’s the story of a rare manufacturing business that’s remained in New York City at a time when most manufacturing has modernized and moved overseas. Taken as a whole, it’s the story 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.
NJJN: What was your motivation for making this film?
Levine: I’m drawn to stories about people or subjects that have made a conscious decision to not follow the path of least resistance, ones that understand that family, community, and tradition have a value that can’t be calculated in dollars and cents, and who make business decisions based on those values rather than strictly economic ones. I’m also fascinated by the fact that Streit’s has managed to continue to thrive as a business, despite commitments that might have otherwise been impediments to economic success.
NJJN: Who is the audience for this film and how are you promoting it?
Levine: We hope to bring the film to as wide an audience as possible via film festivals, a limited theatrical release, and plans for DVD and on-line distribution as well as television, PBS for example. I think the strongest potential for the film to make a positive impact is in community-based screenings at temples, community centers, etc., where the film can not only give people a glimpse of how matza is made, but provoke discussion about the societal issues the film raises.
This past spring, we ran a successful fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter, a website that allows the public to help fund creative projects. The response to the film’s trailer was overwhelmingly supportive and the contributions we received allowed us to finish filming the story and continue the editing process.
NJJN: Tell us a little about your background as a filmmaker.
Levine: I began making films nearly 10 years ago; my first documentary, called Losing Ground, was about suburban sprawl and farmland preservation in New Jersey and was inspired by my experience growing up in Mercer County, watching as development rapidly replaced the area’s farmland and seemed to obliterate much of the town’s history and sense of community in the process.
NJJN: What were the major influences of your upbringing?
Levine: Growing up in West Windsor with a Jewish father and Lutheran mother, I wasn’t raised religiously Jewish, but Jewish history, tradition, and identity strongly influenced my development and have always been a part of my life. 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. Having the opportunity to spend time at Streit’s and to learn more about their history and the history of the Lower East Side has provided a wonderful opportunity to connect more deeply to my Jewish heritage. I love New Jersey; my parents still live in West Windsor and I visit home regularly.
For more information, visit matzofilm.com.