This gripping documentary about unleavened bread and the people who need it asks us to consider what we in the world owe one another — and demands that we do better.
The Yiddish Theater tunes that open it might make you expect Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream to be little more than schmaltz, palatable nostalgia for an antique cuisine, but you’d be wrong. The camera sweeps over the Lower East Side and into a factory where old machines are turning out long strips of dough that they stretch and pull and heave. The gloss of the shot is romantic in a way we’ve been taught to associate with Italian food, not Ashkenazi staples.
It swiftly becomes clear that Michael Levine’s film, which focuses on Streit’s, a family matzo business that thrived on Rivington Street for ninety years, is concerned with beautiful, exhausting struggles of the current generation. Anthony Zapata is one of many Streit’s employees who found an accidental career in the factory as a young man and stayed for thirty years. We see the Ashkenazi Jewish cousins who run Streit’s worry constantly about how to keep the doors open, attract customers, honor their family — and support their employees, many from the neighborhood and mostly men of color.
Everyone in this film feels the squeeze of gentrification. Zapata allows that the neighborhood is certainly safer and cleaner, but he’ll only know whether it was a good thing if he can still afford to live there ten years from now — sadly, the factory has left Manhattan since the film wrapped. This quandary extends the bounds of the film in all directions: The commercial and individual, the local and the international, all depend on one another. The Streit’s family, as the employees call one another, is unusual; they don’t look alike or share native languages, but their fates are bound up together.
Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream
Directed by Michael Levine
Distributed by Menemsha Films
Opens April 20, Film Forum