Streit’s Documentary is a Smash, Extended 2 More Weeks at Film Forum
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Aron Streit holding the matzo on opening day, 1925The numbers are in, and the critically acclaimed documentary about Streit’s Matzo was a home run. In its short one-week residency at the Film Forum, intended to coincide with Passover, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream surpassed expectations. It became the highest grossing film at the movie house this past week.
Due to the success, daily screenings were extended for an additional fortnight. You now have until May 10 to see this on the big screen. Check the official movie website for tickets and showtimes.
In the meantime, filmmaker Michael Levine shares with us an incredible behind-the-scenes story from the making of Matzo and the American Dream…
In the spring of 2015, we screened an earlier version of the film in South Florida for two weeks, at a theater where I don’t believe a single patron was under eighty years old. Most of them were regulars at the theater, who would show up once or twice a week and decide what movie they were going to see on the spot. So, I spent most of my time in theater lobby, pitching the film to potential audiences.
Thankfully, they were generally familiar with the subject matter – a good half of the them or more had grown up on the Lower East Side, and many had fond memories of visiting the Streit’s factory as children, often recalling how free matzos from the factory’s broken matzo bin got their family through the Great Depression. Some of the stories were just incredible, and a world removed from the Lower East Side of today (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I suppose).
One day, after I’d been there a week or so, and word was getting around about the film, I noticed a woman in her 80s with a binder glancing at the various film posters in the lobby. I walked over to her and began my pitch, when she stopped me and opened the binder. It was full of photos from a life thoroughly lived – she flipped the pages back from her current life in Florida, past her time as a fashion designer in New York and, before that, as a fashion model, all the way back to her childhood on the Lower East Side.
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Then she flipped back a couple more pages to reveal a photo taken several years before she was born. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a picture from opening day of the Streit’s Matzo factory on Rivington Street, 1925.
In all the photos hidden in the corners of desks and closets at the Streit’s factory, I had never seen anything like it. There was the brand new, shiny oven, free of the foot-thick layer of plaster that I was used to seeing, and young workers, their first day on a job that would continue for their successors for the next 90 years. And to the right, more workers and and the founder of Streit’s himself, Aron Streit, with a cigar in his mouth and hands full of matzos, with his son Irving Streit – who would help run the factory for the following 60 years – by his side.
To his other side, the woman explained, the man in white was her grandfather, a Cantor, who sang at the factory on opening day and remained a good friend of the Streit family for the rest of his life. She said she thought I might be curious to see the photo – an understatement to be sure.
I couldn’t remove the plastic covering on the photo in the album, for fear of damaging it, but I managed to snap a couple pictures on my phone, which I immediately sent along to the Streit family, who were as shocked as I was. I spoke for a little while with the woman and eventually we parted ways, and a couple days later I was back in New York.
Fast forward one year to this March. By this time, Streit’s had cleared out of the Rivington Street factory and were in the midst of their transition to the new factory in Rockland County, NY. They were busy going over plans with engineers and various manufacturers, trying to find exactly the right machinery to replicate taste of their Rivington Street matzos – a taste indelibly marked in the senses of generations of Lower East Siders.
They had worried for months over the new oven, going through plans from various manufacturers, rejecting them one after another, until finally, they saw one from a company called Baker Perkins that seemed right, and went forward with its construction.
On a whim, I glanced back at the photos on my phone from opening day, 1925, and zoomed in.
There, hidden from from for decades, but clear as day in this photo, was the nameplate on the Rivington Street oven: Baker Perkins.
Even in their efforts to modernize, it seems, this a family whose ties to their history are not easily broken.