"You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's," claimed a celebrated 1960s rye bread ad campaign, and the same is true about "Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream."
Nominally the story of an arcane food product that even Jews eat en masse only once a year, during the upcoming Passover holiday, this lively and engaged documentary lives up to its name. It uses the story of the paradigmatic matzo manufacturer to examine what the American dream meant back in the day and what it has turned into now.
"Streit's" is something of a one-man project for Michael Levine, who directed, photographed, edited and co-produced this brisk 83-minute film after stumbling on the Streit's factory on New York's Lower East Side and not believing what he saw.
Located in four ancient tenement buildings on Rivington Street that were shoehorned together, the Streit's establishment is virtually the same as when it opened in 1925. The matzo-making machines were so old, for instance, that the names of the companies that made them could no longer be read, so replacement parts have to be jury-rigged on site.
More than that, alone among matzo giants, Streit's is still family-owned into the fifth generation. Aron Yagoda, one of three cousins who co-own it, not only sits at his grandfather's desk, after 18 years he still keeps his papers only on the top, leaving the drawers just as the old man left them. And Alan Adler, another cousin, tools around the neighborhood on a motorcycle with a "MATZO" license plate.
Even the Streit's employees have worked there a long time, often for decades, making them a kind of family as well.
Its main matzo spokesman is the loquacious Anthony Zapata, who all but bursts with pride when he says, "Making matzo is an art. We have tourists from all over the world coming just to get a glimpse of how we do it."
With the co-owners as guides, "Streit's" takes us through the eccentric factory, showing us the processes that have not changed since the old days when members of the three top matzo families — Streit's, Horowitz Margareten and Manischewitz — intermarried and fought every Passover over whose product would get pride of place at the family Seder. Says Aron Yagoda, "No one in their right mind would do it this way."
If things are unchanged in the factory, it's quite a different story in the outside world. Gentrification has come to the Lower East Side, displacing neighborhood standards like Ratner's restaurant and Shapiro's wine with wine bars and co-ops. When Alan Adler says, "We're the last of the Mohicans," he is being literal, not literary.
One of the dynamics specific to Streit's is the changing nature of its customer base. When the factory opened more than 90 years ago, the Lower East Side had a population density that rivaled Calcutta's, and selling to the neighborhood was the name of the game.
Now, Streit's is making matzo to ship to a national and international clientele, which makes the inefficient character of its factory problematic. Also, the nature of matzo sales has altered: Supermarket chains now use the product as a loss leader, meaning they want to buy it as cheaply as possible, and with competition from overseas matzo makers looming large, cost reductions for Streit's could happen only if they closed up and moved out of the city.
So the question underlying "Streit's" is, in simplest terms, should they stay or should they go? The pull of tradition is ultra-powerful for the owners (remember that unchanged desk) and many of the factory's loyal workforce live in the neighborhood, but the force of global capitalism is not to be denied. The American dream of the film's title meant one thing to founder Aron Streit; it means something quite different to his descendants.
'Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream'
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Town Center, Encino