By Joseph Berger
JAN. 6, 2015

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people who abandoned the squalor of the Lower East Side tenements have been moving back into those very same buildings, paying sums like $3,000 to rent apartments that a few decades before went for under $50, turning the neighborhood into one of New York City’s hippest.

Yet Streit’s matzo factory in four converted 19th-century brick tenements on Rivington Street has withstood the tides of gentrification, one of the last vestiges of the classic Lower East Side that was the foothold in America for millions of immigrants and that one scholar calls “the Jewish Plymouth Rock.”

On Tuesday, however, the descendants of the founding Streit (rhymes with “right”) family announced that they will be shutting down their ovens sometime after Passover, baking matzos elsewhere, possibly in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. The factory is being sold to a real estate developer.

That will leave only a handful of places like Katz’s DelicatessenYonah Schimmel Knish Bakery and Russ & Daughters on Houston Street and Economy Candy on Rivington Street among the remnants of the traditional Lower East Side. Well-known outposts like Ratner’s dairy restaurant, Schapiro Wine Company and Schmulka Bernstein’s, famous for its kosher Chinese food, are all gone.

“For the last few years, it’s been clear we are the last remaining connection many Jews can relate to because their parents and grandparents came through the Lower East Side,” said Alan M. Adler, a great-grandson of Aron Streit, the business’s founder. “Most of these places don’t exist anymore, and it’s very sad this one will be closing as well.”

Streit’s matzo factory at 148-154 Rivington Street in Manhattan. 
Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

 

The closing was first reported on Tuesday by the blog Bowery Boogie.

Annie Polland, senior vice president for programs and education at the Tenement Museum, said that there had been something sweet about alumni of the Lower East Side descending on Sundays to shop and still find mainstays of the old neighborhood.

“They could go on walking tours and afterward have the experience of stores selling Jewish food, Jewish pickles, Judaica shops,” she said. “In the early 2000s they could still have that experience. It’s mostly gone.”

The pressure of gentrification, Mr. Adler said, is not the reason the factory is closing, since the family has resisted offers to sell for years. Rather, he said, “the reality is that operating a modern factory in four old buildings has finally caught up with us.”

The two 75-foot ovens, which produce 900 pounds of matzo per hour, are slowing down with age, and “we can’t find anyone to repair them,” Mr. Adler said. The factory has no loading dock, and delivery trucks cannot find parking. “It’s tough to do business in Manhattan,” he said.

The American matzo business has also been battered by the popularity of cheaper Israeli brands, some of which supermarkets give away free as Passover come-ons. (A five-pound package of Streit’s matzos that can feed a family throughout the eight days of Passover can cost about $18.) Many Jews also splurge on the more expensive shmura matzos that are baked by hand in small factories in Hasidic neighborhoods and undergo more extensive rabbinical supervision.

A rabbi and a packaging employee at Streit’s matzo factory. 
Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

 

Streit’s describes itself as the last family-owned major matzo producer in the United States. Manischewitz, which considers itself the world’s largest matzo baker, was also a family business until 1990 but is now owned by an arm of the private equity firm Bain Capital and owns or manufactures two other leading brands, Goodman’s and Horowitz Margareten. Streit’s has a second factory in Moonachie, N.J., that produces macaroons, matzo ball mix and other popular Passover products, and it may be the site of new ovens, though Mr. Adler cautioned that the family — there are 11 shareholders — is still deliberating over a location.

Mr. Adler and his relatives informed the factory’s 50 workers on Monday, telling them they would find jobs at the company’s New Jersey site if they could accommodate the commute.

Streit’s was started around 1915 by Aron Streit, an Austrian immigrant, who teamed up with a rabbi to open his first handmade matzo factory on nearby Pitt Street. A decade later, Aron and his oldest son, Irving, opened the Rivington Street factory in a single tenement. Another son, Jack, joined the business, and it did so well that it expanded into three adjoining tenements. Aron died in 1935.

Today the business is run by Mr. Adler, a great-grandson of Aron’s; Aron Yagoda, another of the founder’s great-grandsons; and Aaron Gross, a great-great-grandson and the fifth generation in the business. Matzo-making was so woven into the family that the 63-year-old Mr. Adler gave up a legal career 15 years ago to become a vice president in charge of operations.

Though matzo is a simple mixture of wheat flour and water, producing it is an intricate affair. During Passover, observant Jews are forbidden to eat grain products that have been allowed to leaven, or ferment and rise, so the flour and water must be placed in an oven within 18 minutes after they are mixed. The entire process is supervised by what are known as mashgichim — Orthodox people trained in the fine points of kosher law. Streit’s employs seven of them.

At Streit’s, the mixing and baking are done by machine. Three minutes of mixing, followed by a flattening of the dough and the punching of the characteristic holes and then a trip lasting 1 minute 40 seconds through the oven. But the aging ovens are taking longer to process the mixture, which can change the taste and helps explain why the factory is moving.

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