Elie Levine, ‘16
Streit’s Matzo Factory is a neighborhood icon, recognizable to anyone who frequents the Lower East Side. The factory was founded by Aron and Nettie Streit, Eastern European immigrants, in 1925. Now it is a household name in the nation’s Jewish communities and beyond, producing 40% of the matzo consumed in the U.S. Matzo is a flat, unleavened bread, eaten primarily on the Jewish holiday of Passover. If you walk by the factory on Rivington Street and say hi to the workers inside, they’ll give you a fresh, hot sheet of it. The factory is the only remaining family-owned matzo bakery in the U.S. A monument to the rich, storied past of BHSEC’s neighborhood, the factory shows how well Jewish history has withstood the rapid changes that have swept the Lower East Side over the years.
In the early twentieth century, the Lower East Side was the world’s largest Jewish community. After the Holocaust, European Jewish eagerly established a flourishing community on the Lower East Side where they could freely embrace their heritage. Despite the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification in recent years, the area is still peppered with testaments to its history, such as Schapiro’s Kosher Winery (closed in 2008—the ground floor is now occupied by the Sugar Sweet Sunshine bakery). Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery and the world-famous Katz’s Deli still remain.
Streit’s Matzo Factory, unlike many other Lower East Side historic businesses, is still functioning. The factory has existed for 87 years, and it has seen the neighborhood change. “Through good and bad, they’ve been baking here,” says Rabbi Mayer Kirshner, the head supervising rabbi at the factory.
Surprisingly, the factory has changed very little in its eighty-seven years. It has occupied the same tenement buildings since its inception, and Aron Streit’s two great-grandsons and one great-great-grandson now run the factory. The machinery has stayed the same for decades. The original ovens are still in use. The recipe is simple—80 pounds of flour and 30 pounds of water—but the employees believe that the use of original ovens, combined with New York City water, is what makes their matzo taste so good. The company is proud of its heritage. “You’re walking back into history when you walk into Streit’s,” Kirshner says.
Although tradition has stayed strong over the years, many challenges are associated with conducting such a large-scale factory operation from a tenement building on the Lower East Side. The factory has five floors and no loading dock. Many modern factories have far fewer employees and more sophisticated, efficient machinery. In the 2013 film Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, Aron Yagoda, one of the factory’s owners, says “It’s hard to look at [our workers] in the face and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ you know, ‘We can replace you with a machine.’ ” He doesn’t mind sacrificing some efficiency when it comes to employees. His close relationship with the factory workers is more important.
Work is still challenging at Streit’s. The job is physically demanding. The building has no heat and no air conditioning. The ovens are the only source of warmth in the winter, and the oven heats matzo at 800 degrees, which can make the summer heat unbearable. The demand for matzo is so great that the factory needs to stay open all year long. Despite this, the workers don’t leave. “No one ever quits! They’ve been here forever,” Yagoda says of the factory workers. This may be because of the sense of purpose and stability at Streit’s. “The workers are very loyal to the family, and the family is very loyal to them,” says Kirshner.
Kirshner’s job at Streit’s is to make sure the guidelines for the baking of kosher matzo are met. On Passover, matzo must be unleavened, which means all mixing and baking has to be done in exactly eighteen minutes. This is because, according to the Bible story, Jews didn’t have time to bake their bread before running from slavery in Egypt. Modern matzo stays in keeping with that tradition. In the factory, a timer goes off every fifteen minutes, signaling to the rabbis that they have to start cleaning up in one mixer and making dough for the next batch in another mixer. This ensures that old dough doesn’t contaminate new batches. During Passover, six rabbis are stationed throughout the factory.
In the off-season, however, matzo is made in a giant trough. Only two rabbis are on duty. To prepare for Passover, the factory closes for two weeks to clean the equipment. Everything must be burned to avoid contamination. Streit’s typically starts preparing for Passover after the fall holiday of Sukkot. The Passover season at Streit’s lasts six months, but the actual holiday occupies an eight-day span in the spring, during which millions of Jews eat Streit’s matzo. The family is proud of its role in the nation’s Jewish community. “Every Jew in America grew up with Streit’s on the table,” Kirshner says. “We don’t even have to advertise.”
The company produces more than just eight million boxes of matzo each year. On Passover, it produces various additional food staples: matzo meal (crumbled matzo used for baking), macaroons, cake mixes, candies, and potato products. Throughout the year, Streit’s produces 8 flavors of matzo and even candles for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Regardless of religion, however, people love matzo. It’s healthy, cheap, has no preservatives, and lasts for two years.
Despite having to wake up at 4:30 every weekday morning to supervise the making of matzo, Kirshner is devoted to his job. He makes sure that the millions of Jewish people who eat Streit’s matzo on Passover are eating a 100% kosher-for-Passover product. This adds a spiritual aspect to his work. “There is a larger purpose to what we do,” says Kirshner. “We’re not just making crackers.”