From the moment Michael Levine poked his head into a first-floor window of the tenement buildings that house Streit’s Matzo factory, he knew there was an incredible story just waiting to be told.
Streit’s Matzo is not your average large-scale food manufacturer. The last family-owned matzo factory in America, it remains in the same four tenement buildings on Rivington Street in New York City where it’s been in since 1925, using the same machines. Despite what other manufacturers might consider handicaps, Streit’s is thriving.
“We did consider moving to a different factory several years ago, but ultimately we decided to stay where we are. A lot of it has to do with tradition,” said Alan Adler, director of operations, who noted that the modern equipment at other matzo plants is bigger than the older equipment that Streit still uses.
“There was a concern that if we moved to a modern facility, we wouldn’t be able to re-create the exact flavor,” he said.
Streit’s Matzo has won several blind taste tests in multiple states. Its secret to success, Adler said, is that unlike so many “greedy corporations” out there, his company cares about its workers and customers.
“If anyone calls in with a problem, they’ll get the owner on the phone,” said Adler. “Our customers feel like they’re part of the family, not just buying food at a supermarket.”
Employees, too, know they’re valued; some have been working at Streit’s for more than 30 years, sending their children through college under Streit’s employ.
“I’ve always [been aware] of the buildings, but I never really knew what happened inside them,” said Levine, 31.
Levine, who lives in Manhattan, has been working in the film and television industry for nine years, and is in the process of creating a documentary called “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream.”
Although he grew up in New Jersey, Levine has deep family connections to Streit’s. In addition to living on the Lower East Side for 12 years, his father’s family settled on Rivington Street when they immigrated to America in 1910.
“I was just walking by the factory, and I poked my head in the window. A worker saw me,” Levine said.
“Well, the ovens are right next to the window, so he just grabbed a piece of matzo straight from the oven and gave it to me. I was amazed. He saw that on my face and invited me in. With the 80-year-old machinery, rabbis on every floor, people running around … it was like walking through a time warp. It was unbelievable.”
Levine did not immediately run to make a movie about the matzo factory, but there was little doubt in his mind that he would at some point.
“I didn’t know what their story was, but I knew that it was a story worth telling,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in stories of resilience and resistance, places that are expected to move out but stay and thrive.”
When Levine, the director, met Michael Green, his desire to tell Streit’s story came one step closer to reality. Green, the film’s producer, is an acclaimed foodie. His 19 years at Gourmet Magazine and his appearances on the Food Network have made him an invaluable asset to the documentary’s production. The two set up Rivington Pictures, which will be producing and distributing the film.
Still, there are many hurdles to overcome before they can release their film, hopefully before next Passover. Filming should conclude within the month, but necessary archival material has not been so easily accessible.
“To tell the story the way it needs to be told requires archival images and stills because so much of the content is old,” said Levine. “And of those cost money.”
To fund the many costs of the documentary, Rivington Pictures has started a Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter is a website used to fund independent projects in which project creators set a goal and a deadline and individual backers pledge money. If a project does not reach its monetary goal by the set deadline, it doesn’t receive a cent. Rivington Pictures currently has about half of its $60,000 goal with less than a week until its deadline.
“If it’s not funded, it’s going to be very difficult,” Levine said. “It could delay the film for years or even indefinitely.”
“It’s been great getting to know everyone at Streit’s,” Levine said. “When you’re filming a documentary, you essentially have to get complete strangers to tell you very personal things about their lives and their work. So we’ve spent a lot of time at Streit’s, just getting to know everyone. It’s been awesome building trust, because they all are amazing.”
Hanna T. Glicksman is a JT intern. — firstname.lastname@example.org