APR 24, 2016
Emily Anne Epstein

Last year, Streit’s closed its 90-year-old matzo factory on the Lower East Side of New York City. The Rivington Street location that produced unleavened bread for the Passover holiday had been a hallmark of the one-time Jewish enclave, alongside mainstays like Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Deli. Filmmaker Michael Levine documented the family-owned company’s final year in their original location, capturing the unique ovens, odd architecture, and personalities before the matzo makers moved to their new Rockland County location. His film, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, premieres this week and to mark the occasion, he has shared select images from the company’s archive with The Atlantic.

An undated photo of Yeshiva students looking at matzo coming out of the first floor oven at Streit’s. 

Streit’s Matzos

Freshly ground matzo farfel is pictured in 2015. To make farfel, matzo was dropped onto a conveyor belt, breaking it into pieces. The pieces were then broken down further by a large, coffin-sized shaking machine. When the pieces were small enough, they fell through tanks like the one seen here, to the floor below to be packaged. Pieces that were too small for farfel became matzo meal or cake meal.

Joseph O. Holmes

A Streit’s truck outside the Rivington Street factory, circa 1935. Initially, Streit’s operated on the ground floor of the building at 150 Rivington Street, with the floors above containing tenement apartments. Streit’s would later purchase all four buildings at 148-154 Rivington Street, devoting the entire space to matzo production.

Streit’s Matzos

Part of the matzo-making process that was unique to the Rivington Street factory was the sheeting process, in which the dough was repeatedly folded, creating air pockets that provided an extra crispness to the finished product.

Streit’s Matzos

Workers mix flour and water in front of cameras in this image from the 1940s.

Streit’s Matzos

The oldest piece of machinery in the factory, this five-pound bundling machine dates to the 1920s. Approximately twenty feet long, and with a dizzying array of gears and levers, its sole purpose was to gather five single-pound matzo boxes into a bundle and overwrap them for retail. It’s pictured in 2015.

Joseph O. Holmes

A grocery store’s Passover display featuring Streit’s products from the mid-20th century.

Streit’s Matzos

Visitors look on as a factory worker tests dough consistency after its been through the sheeting machine. From here, the dough will pass through additional rollers, the stippler, and the cutting machine, before making its way into the oven. In the background are poster sized Streit’s advertising, circa 1940s, which appeared regularly in The Jewish Daily Forward and other Jewish publications.

Streit’s Matzos

A Rabbi smiles for a photograph inside the factory. He lived in the Lower East Side and was a Streit’s regular, according to the company.

Streit’s Matzos

 

A photograph of the oven dampers on the 90-year-old, third-floor matzo oven from 2015. Each damper controlled the heat flow to a specific portion of the oven, which workers adjusted throughout the day. Occasionally the 900-degree heat of the ovens would melt the dampers, requiring local metalsmiths to produce replacements.

Joseph O. Holmes

 

Irving Streit, right, the son of founder Aron Streit, at Grossingers in the Catskills in 1951. He is the grandfather and great-grandfather, respectively, to two of the company’s current owners, Alan Adler and Aaron Gross.

Streit’s Matzos

One of the earliest photos from inside the Streit’s factory, circa 1930.

Streit’s Matzos

 

Left: Streit’s founder, Aron Streit, is pictured with his family around the time they immigrated to the United States, circa 1900. At bottom left is his son Irving Streit, who would run the factory with his younger brother, Jack, from 1925 until his death in 1982. Right: The exterior of the Rivington Street factory circa 1960, when the factory was a central gathering place for the Jewish community in the Lower East Side.

Streit’s Matzos

 

In the 1920s, when the factory only occupied one floor of the building, transporting matzo for packaging was simple. But by the late 1930s, the factory operated across all five floors, necessitating a system to transport matzo from the ovens to the packaging room. This system of Carnegie Steel conveyors, pictured in 2015, was developed to move and cool the matzo before it was packed.

Joseph O. Holmes

 

A Streit’s Matzos truck rolls down Spring Valley’s Main Street in Rockland County, New York, in this photo from the 1940s. Streit’s new location will be in Orangeburg, Rockland County, just a few miles from where this photo was taken.

Streit’s Matzos

 

Men pose behind the cutting machine in this photo from the 1940s. The machine, which is attached to the sheeter, sliced perforated matzo into properly sized pieces. Those pieces were then separated by hand at the far end of the oven once the matzo had been baked.

Streit’s Matzos

A woman packages Streit’s matzo to be sent to Berlin during World War II. According to the company, only two-thirds of each box was filled with matzo, the rest was secretly filled with bullets for the resistance movement.

Streit’s Matzos

 

Charlie, a longtime employee of Streit’s, sits for a portrait in the factory lunch room in 2015. He knew the current generation of factory owners when they were children, playing amidst the machinery and workers.

Joseph O. Holmes

 

Workers pose with Streit’s matzos for a photograph at a grocery store in the mid 20th century.

Streit’s Matzos

 

An undated photo on the factory floor. The ovens on the first and third floor of the factory were each 73 feet long, nearly the length of the buildings. One of the determining factors in Streit’s eventual decision to leave the Rivington Street factory was that the ovens were slowing with age. A matzo bake that used to take 90 seconds was now taking nearly two minutes, limiting the amount of matzo Streit’s could produce. Numerous oven technicians were called, but none could find a permanent fix, and a modern replacement oven would need to be 200-300 feet long, far too large for the buildings there.

Streit’s Matzos

 

Ramon, a worker at the factory who oversees the production of daily matzo, poses for a photograph in 2015. Unlike Passover matzo, where each batch of flour and water must be mixed separately in accordance with Jewish law, non-Passover, or daily matzo, can be mixed using a less labor-intensive continuous mixer. Daily matzo can be handled by a single worker, rather than the four or five needed to produce a batch of Passover matzo dough.

Joseph O. Holmes

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