Next week during passover some Lower East Siders may feel something missing from their annual celebration– for the first time in ninety years, Streit’s Matzo at 150 Rivington Street is closed. Adding insult to injury, its old building with the famous red “Streit’s” sign above it is slated for demolition that same week, to make way for a seven-story luxury condo building.
To soften the blow– and celebrate the amazing life of the place– there are, at least, some powerful mementos of Streit’s history on view. The documentary Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream, by Michael Levine, will make its theatrical debut at Film Forum starting April 20. Levine is also helping put on a gallery exhibit at Art on A, commemorating the Streit’s LES legacy. The owners and workers will be at the opening, so it’s also a chance to share memories (and perhaps shed a tear) with the real deal.
Levine says he first became interested in the Streit’s story back in 2009. He was strolling around his neighborhood when he noticed something he’d missed many times before– through the small window of a tenement building, a conveyor belt was spitting out thin panes of matzo bread. “One of the workers just took one and, without even looking at me, handed it out of the window,” Levine said “I was kind of in shock.”
He’d stumbled upon a treasure in plain sight: as the Lower East Side gentrified around it, Streit’s Matzo had barely changed in almost a century, still spinning matzos with a labyrinthine conveyor belt system spread over five floors.
“All of a sudden you are transported to the immigrant Lower East Side. All the machinery is from the ’20s and ’30s,” Levine said. “And you see people adjusting gears and levers, the sound and smell of baking, and rabbis running around making sure everything was being baked properly.”
Four years later, Levine came back with a camera to document the history and vibrant life continuing in the factory, including the owners (fourth and fifth generation descendants of the original Aron Streit) and the workers they treated like family.
Levine says when he first began filming, the family seemed determined to hang on and protect their legacy in the Lower East Side. But in a twist out of every documentarian’s nightmare, it wasn’t until his final week of editing that they made the difficult decision to move to a modern facility in upstate New York.
Not that it was impossible to see coming. Though the family owned the building and was at least protected from rent hikes, the old machinery was slowing down significantly. Competition was eating away at profits. The neighborhood was shifting to a party scene and the city seemed uninterested in helping them stay.
Levine thought about going back to the drawing board with his film, but ultimately realized it served more as a testament to the life of Streit’s on the LES, not an epitaph to its death.
“The hour or so of the film that was ready to go before that announcement was made, pretty much stayed completely intact,” he said. “I thought it was important to preserve the place when it was in the LES and it was truly alive there. The decision doesn’t erase the time they spent doing that.”
The exhibit, opening tomorrow night, will show archival images of the factory, Joseph Holmes’ photographs of Streit’s a few months before it closed, and gold-leaf matzos from the artist Judi Harvest (including pink-gold-leaf matzos in honor of Streit’s famous pink passover box). Levine also lugged up about 1,200 pounds of “vintage” matzo-making machinery from Streit’s temporary location in New Jersey, and 800 pounds of matzos. The show will run through May 5.
“It just sunk in for me this is going to be the first passover in 9o years that Streit’s is not going to be on the Lower East Side, and all these families have been going there for decades,” Levine said. “I had this horrible vision that they are going to be coming down and the building will be in the process of demolished, so I thought it would be a place for them to talk and gather.”
“Streit’s Matzo and The American Dream” opens April 14, 8-10 p.m., at Art on A, 24 Avenue A.
Film opens April 20 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street and runs through April 26.