click here for info

loette quanto costa Filmmaker Michael Levine at Streit's matzo factory on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk streets.

Filmmaker Michael Levine at Streit’s matzo factory on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk streets.

It all started with a hot matzo.

When filmmaker Michael Levine stepped out of a nightclub and onto Rivington Street one night four years ago, he noticed a quiet buzz of activity across the street—people coming and going from an unmarked cluster of tenement houses. Another trendy speakeasy, he thought, and went on his way.

But when he walked by again a few days later, he heard the whir of machinery. Curious, he peered through the open door. Someone thrust a fresh, hot cracker in his hand and ushered him into Streit’s matzo factory, where the flatbreads have been made since 1925.

Mr. Levine gazed at the prewar machinery powered by chain belts. He ducked to avoid wire baskets strung on an elevated conveyor belt, swinging with the weight of stacked fresh matzos. He looked back through the window at a stylish storefront across the street. “You have the new Lower East Side right there, five feet away, and you walk in this place that hasn’t changed in 80 years,” he said. “It was pretty hard to look around and not think there’s a story to be told.”

Isabella Lee (with sign) after moving into the original Streit's factory on Pitt Street in 1953.
Isabella Lee (with sign) after moving into the original Streit’s factory on Pitt Street in 1953. LEE/LAWRENCE FAMILY PHOTO

So he spoke with the Streit family and learned that they’ve been making matzo on Rivington Street for five generations. Today, Streit’s produces 40% of the nation’s matzo. The family agreed to give him the rights to make a film. “I was shocked that no one had approached them before,” he said.

Lacking an investor, Mr. Levine, who is 31, moved on to other projects—cable network shows and a feature-length documentary about urban sprawl—and pushed the matzo to the back burner. Then last summer, while he was working on a video for wine and spirits expert Michael Green, he related the story of one of the last remaining vestiges of Jewish culture on the Lower East Side.

Mr. Green was inspired. “On my life bucket list was working on a film, and although I had no idea in what capacity I could be involved, I told Michael, ‘I will get you to the starting gate,'” he said.

Mr. Green signed on as producer, began networking, and launched an online fundraising campaign to cover post-production costs. He and Mr. Levine expect to wrap up filming in a few weeks and start editing this summer, with the goal of making the festival circuit and a full release timed for Passover next year.

Ms. Lee stills lives in the building—as does a three-story matzo oven.
Ms. Lee stills lives in the building—as does a three-story matzo oven. JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

On the surface, “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream” reads as a story about New York Jews making a movie about New York Jews. But it’s also about capturing the characters within the story, not least the factory’s employees, some of whom have been making matzo at Streit’s for decades—like the emigre who boxed for the Soviets in the 1964 Olympics, the Honduran former lawyer, and the Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan, once forced to make matzo in secret in their native country, now doing so with pride at Streit’s.

Their stories are the continuation of the immigrant dream, said Mr. Levine, whose own family has roots on the Lower East Side, and lift the film out of a mere lamentation of the old New York lost to modernity. “Nostalgia is the selling point of their product, but this is a living history and a story of resistance and not falling to the forces,” he said.

Alan Adler, whose great-grandfather, Aron Streit, founded the company, at first wondered how anyone would make a film about a matzo factory, but, he said, “in time we became more aware of the role we play in preserving the history of the Lower East Side.”

“The story we have to tell [is] the connection we have to generations of Jews over hundreds of years, who came for a better life,” said Mr. Adler, Streit’s chief operating officer. And that is palpable for him: He and his cousin, Aron Yagoda, share the same factory office their forebears did and sit at their respective grandfathers’ desks. There they run the factory with a third cousin, Aaron Gross.

“Today, to maintain a business down here, costs a lot of bucks,” said Mr. Yagoda, a vice president of operations. He hasn’t disturbed the contents of his desk, which include an ancestor’s false teeth, passport and a ledger from 1947. “We’re practically the only ones left. There’s a lot of pride in here.”

Added Mr. Gross, “We’re a tradition-based company and you can tell your grandmother this is the same matzo you had on the table in the ’50s. And it really is.”

The story of Streit’s, though, is not confined to the factory on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk. During filming, a longtime factory hand told Mr. Levine about the townhouse on Pitt Street where Aron Streit and a partner, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, made matzo from 1916 to 1925, at which point Streit’s moved four blocks to its current location and Weinbrger stayed behind, making matzos into the ’40s. Research revealed more provenance: The house was purchased in 1953 for $9,000 by two couples, the Lees and the Lawrences, who renovated it into separate apartments with shared common space. The three-story matzo oven once used by Aron Streit and Rabbi Weinberger remains in the house to this day, unused for decades.

With a few mouse clicks, Mr. Levine found the sole, surviving occupant of that quartet, 91-year-old Isabella Lee, a former educator who still lives in the apartment she and her husband shared. A longtime family friend who lives on another floor helped connect the filmmaker and Ms. Lee. When told about the film, Ms. Lee, an avid and articulate historian, was pleased to learn her home was still the subject of historical interest.

“I never thought there would be anyone as crazy as I to be interested in that [oven],” she said. “We preserved it because there’s so little of the interesting parts of New York left.”

Messrs. Levine and Green will be onsite with camera when the current generation of Streit cousins revisits their ancestral home. “It’s a classic story of taking the family owners back to the beginning,” Mr. Green said.

Click for Original Story.