In the days leading up to Passover this year, something is missing on the Lower East Side. It’s all too apparent to anyone who walks down Rivington Street, where the aroma of fresh-baked matzo wafted from the Streit’s factory buildings for so many decades. But there’s some consolation. The new documentary film, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, debuted at the Film Forum Wednesday evening.
The factory closed last year, ending a 90-year-run in the historic neighborhood. The Streit family is preparing to open a new facility in Rockland County. Any day now, the collection of buildings at 148-154 Rivington St. will be demolished for more condos.
Last week, we talked with filmmaker Michael Levine about the documentary, which was shot inside the factory over a three-year period. The film, however, is not about the end of another Jewish institution on the Lower East Side. Instead, it’s a testament to one family’s determination to stay in a changing community, to persevere in spite of the odds stacked against the business.
Levine found out about the closure during his last week of editing. Once the crushing news was delivered, he decided pretty quickly not to make dramatic changes. “I was thankful to have been there at that time,” said Levine, and “I wanted to “keep that part of the history (of Streit’s) intact and then to show what happens as they try to make the transition.”
There were many reasons for the closure. Modernization was impossible in the cramped tenement buildings. Streit’s, the last family-owned matzo manufacturer, faced stiff competition from large food conglomerates. Plus it had been years since local customers lined up around the block to patronize the retail store on Rivington Street. But in spite of it all, the decision was a wrenching one for members of the family, who felt a powerful emotional pull on the LES.
“This was their entire life,” Levine explained. “For them to make a decision to get up and leave — that was really difficult. They loved the neighborhood. They had an attachment to everything there. It’s why they ended up bringing seven tractor-trailers, everything except the ovens… They were uprooting their entire lives.”
Over the years, the Streit family watched as other Jewish businesses closed or moved to neighborhoods with larger Jewish populations. In the past couple of years, the city has made some noise about retaining manufacturing firms. But there were definitely no heroic efforts to save Streit’s.
The owners, said Levine, “had asked over and over whether they could get some sort of small business tax break or something like that.” There wasn’t even a loading zone out front. The business was slapped with tickets just about every day. When the family finally announced they were moving the business, city officials offered tax incentives. “But at that point,” Levine said,” they had already sold the place. It’s not like people didn’t know they could have used it. I think it’s pretty clear the city was, in my opinion, happier to have condos on the Lower East Side than to have manufacturing going on there. They’d rather support that. That’s what they did.”
There are some legacy businesses that haven’t kept up with the times and have lost their customer base. That’s not what happened to Streit’s. Levine said it’s clear to him the factory should have been given a fighting chance to stay in the neighborhood. “It still was a living, breathing place,” he said. “It was a business… I feel that this is a case, given the proper tools — not only money but other forms of support — they could have had a future on the Lower East Side.”
The new factory site in Rockland County was chosen, in part, to accommodate employees, at least some of whom will be able to commute from the city. At the end of the day, Levine said the documentary tells the “story of a family that really does everything in their power to do right by their employees for the 90 years they were there” in the neighborhood.
Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream opens at the Film Forum on Wednesday. There are daily showings (except Sundays) through April 26. Click here to buy tickets. On Wednesday and Thursday, Levine and members of the Streit family will be present for post-screening talk backs. Lower East Side historian Elissa Sampson will be on hand for a conversation after the 8 p.m. showing on Monday, April 25.