'Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream': Film Review

Courtesy of Menemsha Films
Far tastier than the product it celebrates.
4/20/2016

Michael Levine's documentary relates the history of the venerable matzo company that lasted for over a century in the Lower East Side.

Arriving just in time for Passover is Michael Levine's documentary about the famed matzo manufacturing company Streit's and its factory in Manhattan's Lower East Side that operated, against the odds, for nearly a century. Depicting the Jewish family-owned business — now in its fifth generation, no less — as a defiant bulwark against the increasing gentrification of the neighborhood, Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream is such a loving paean to its subject that you'll have a hard time eating Manischewitz after seeing it. The film is receiving its world theatrical premiere at NYC's Film Forum.

The company was founded in 1915 by Australian immigrant Aron Streit, and in 1925 found a home in a five-story building on Rivington Street. It's been there ever since (until recently, more on that later), becoming one of the few manufacturing companies remaining in Manhattan and one of the last Jewish-oriented businesses in the neighborhood.

"It's a mitzvah to make matzos for Passover," declares one of the current owners. He and the other executives interviewed are clearly proud of their product, the quality of which they credit to, among other things, the factory's vintage machinery — it's practically all original — and the New York City water ("The best water in the world!" one exclaims). As for the recipe: "It's in the Bible."

The film guides us through the matzo-making process, in more detail than most viewers will appreciate. We learn that the machinery is so old that replacement parts often have to be man-made, and that the kosher product is made under strict rabbinical supervision.

We're also introduced to several of the company's 60 employees, many of whom have worked there for decades. The most colorful is Anthony Zapata, hired in 1983 by then-owner Jack Streit, who spotted him on the street and offered him a job on the spot. Having worked at Streit's for his entire adult life and watched the now trendy neighborhood become ever more expensive, he worries about how he'll survive should Streit's close.

It's a worry that's shared by the owners, who find their company's fortunes battered by cheaper imports and shifting demographics. "If I opened a vodka bar next door, I'd do very well," one of them observes.

Despite their valiant efforts, they were eventually forced to sell the building, with a new, larger and more modern factory opening in 2017 in Rockland County. The original building is slated to be torn down and replaced, naturally, with expensive condos. All of the employees have been given the opportunity to keep their jobs, but Anthony, who doesn't own a car, is not making the transition.

Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream is more than slightly hagiographic in its approach, and, as its title might indicate, gets too heavy-handed in its moralizing. It also feels much too long — this is the sort of subject for which short films were invented. But the doc will nonetheless strike an emotional chord with anyone who's grown up eating the product it celebrates. And over the course of 100 years, that's a lot of matzos.  

Distributor: Menemsha Films
Director-executive producer-director of photography-editor: Michael Levine
Producers: Michael Green, Michael Levine
Composer: Aaron Diskin

Not rated, 83 minutes

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