Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Streit’s: Matzo Once Baked Fresh on the Lower East Side

When Streit’s packed up their matzo bakery and moved to Rockland County, it really was the end of an era. You can still see remnants of the neighborhood’s Jewish heritage (Katz’s Deli, Economy Candy), but blue collar factory jobs are few and far between. The Streit family and their friends reflect on the company’s cultural significance in Michael Levine’s Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream (trailer here), which opens today in New York at Film Forum.

Aron Streit and his brother Irving founded Streit’s in 1916, but for decades, the former’s son Jack served as the company’s charismatic leader. It was strictly kosher, but you did not need to be Jewish to work there. In fact, their workforce reflected the diversity of the neighborhood. They survived after the other competing matzo companies were corporately absorbed, becoming brands without a box. Yet, even the most traditional among the three cousins who own and operate the company have to concede their Rivington location is no longer viable.

Frankly, it would be interesting to learn the state of the company’s ledger before they made the move, especially since they owned their much coveted building. Nobody doubts they were operating in the red, but it would be instructive to see just exactly why. It obviously was not rent, but presumably taxes and mandated health insurance costs were considerable.

Unfortunately, Levine is not interested in this kind of nitty-gritty reality. He would rather bemoan the despised gentrification phenomenon, which the film does, over and over again. Frankly, talking heads like LES historian Elissa Sampson are like a broken record repeatedly making the same complaints. You could easily forget it was conceived as a documentary about a matzo-making family.

It is kind of cool to see how matzo is made the ultra-old school way and the Streit family history is a fascinating bootstrap success story. Frustratingly, Levine does not do them justice. He would rather agonize over the uncertain future of Streit’s’ employees, particularly the morose Anthony Zapata, who probably gets more screen time than the three Streit cousins put together.

It turns out many of their Rivington employees opted to follow the company to Rockland County, but who knows? Maybe if they had voted to de-authorize their union a few years earlier, Streit’s would have had greater flexibility during this difficult juncture. More about gentrification gripes than its ostensive subject, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream is really not recommended when it opens today (4/20) in New York, at Film Forum.