By Tanya Silverman
Matzo in baskets on the first floor of Streit’s.
“Flour and water,” announces Aron Yagoda in the office of Streit’s, America’s last family-owned matzo factory. “Someone asked for the recipe yesterday on one of the tours and I’m like, ‘It’s flour and water, it’s in the bible.’”
“What’s up, rabbi?” he calls out the door of his office, across the hall.
“Everything’s all right,” the rabbi responds to assure that all’s Kosher as the final stretch of Passover orders get baked.
Though Yagoda jokes about the fundamental simplicity of the ancient unleavened-bread recipe, a few minutes prior, Anthony Zapata–a Streit’s employee of over three decades–noted the significance of the particular water used: New York City tap.
Matzo dough about to be baked.
The factory’s location in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan–on Rivington Street, to be exact–is significant, as it remains as one of the last Jewish cultural institutions there today. Both Yagoda and Zapata are well aware of the “last of the Mohicans” reality they face within the rapidly gentrifying surroundings where Streit’s is situated.
Aron Yagoda is a great grandson of Aaron Streit, the Jewish immigrant who founded the bakery where it stands in 1925.
Michael Levine, director of a documentary film about the factory, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, relates some of the history to BTR.
“They started on the ground floor here when there were apartments above,” he says about Aaron Streit and his two sons, Jack and Irving.
As the business grew and tenants left, Streit’s expanded their baking facilities upward–then sideways into the surrounding tenement buildings, tearing down the walls and ultimately creating a five-story factory.
Matzo baskets travel through former tenement windows.
“So you see, the floors are uneven because when it was built it was four completely separate buildings,” Levine says. “It’s not what you’d normally think of as a factory space.”
Yagoda now runs the factory with his cousin, Alan Adler, as well as Aaron Streit’s great, great-grandson, Aaron Gross, making the factory a five-generation business that manufactures matzo and assorted kosher foods.
Streit’s from outside on Rivington Street.
Families have patronized the business for generations too. Arriving to Streit’s the Monday morning before Passover found longtime Lower Manhattan local Rita Herse in front of the factory store. She was standing with her yearly matzo order, waiting on Rivington Street for her daughter to pick her up. Upon loading their purchased items into the car, Heidi, Rita’s daughter, spoke with BTR about their annual tradition.
“For as far as I can remember, from the time I was a tiny little girl, I’ve been coming here every year to taste the matzo, to help my mom shop,” she says. Streit’s and Passover are synonymous for her—she went there with her Hebrew school, with her grandparents, and now, she takes her son to visit.
The window outside Streit’s factory store.
While Rita and Heidi’s family tradition endures, Yagoda says that such annual Streit’s Passover shopping pilgrimages are becoming rarer and rarer. Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, families would take yearly field trips down to the Lower East Side, Yagoda explains, making their rounds around Orchard Street, buying wine at Shapiro’s, eating at Katz’s Delicatessen, stopping at the pickle guy.
“They used to go to Ratner’s,” Yagoda refers to the famous kosher dairy restaurant that shut its doors in 2002. He adds, sardonically, “Ratner’s is now a Sleepy’s.”
Working on the first floor of the factory.
As such classic Lower East Side spots vanish, Yagoda admits that it’s getting increasingly harder to run a factory in Manhattan with all the challenges and inconveniences entailed–for instance, racking up daily parking tickets on their delivery truck.
But they stay.
“I’m sitting at the desk where my grandfather sat; my cousin Alan sits where his grandfather sat,” Yagoda says of the factory’s office.
A set of teeth in the desk.
And it really is the same immense, antique wooden desk of Yagoda’s grandfather, Jack Streit. Yagoda keeps all his current paperwork piled high up on top, leaving the drawers’ contents the same as his elder left them. Opening these drawers, Yagoda pulls out some interesting relics: hand-written immigration papers from Ellis Island, a passport, even a pair of dentures (whose owner remains unidentified).
Yagoda shows an aged photograph.
He also displays a decades-old, black-and-white print that depicts three men working on the first-floor processing line. Two of them still stand in the assembly line at Streit’s today–in almost the same positions as are seen in the photograph–breaking up the matzo crackers.
Sitting at his grandfather Irving’s former desk, Alan Adler offers some perspective.
“Not much has changed since I was 8 years old,” he tells BTR. “Not much has changed since my mother remembers the place as a kid.”
Adler also talks about how when Michael Levine was gathering archival footage for his film, they’d compare old photos or footage to the factory’s scenery today and note the similarities.
“It’s truly amazing–the basket system is still the same. Some of the broken baskets still look the same, they haven’t changed in 30 or 40 years,” Adler says.
Most of the machinery used by Streit’s dates back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, Levine explains. Angelo, a full time mechanic, is on staff, but since some of the employees have been at Streit’s for decades, they’re familiar with the intricacies of the equipment.
Part of the reason Streit’s keeps using such old equipment is because modern baking devices would not fit into their factory–they’re too big. Adler says they’re also apprehensive about using a modern oven because the matzo might not taste as good as it does with their old ones.
A mixing station at Streit’s.
“We have an oven on the first floor, and an oven on the third floor, and the matzo looks and tastes a little different [between the two],” Adler says. “When I started working here the chief mixer told me he actually used to use a different flour-to-water ratio on the two floors because of humidity and the difference in barometric pressure. During the day, the guys feel the dough–it’s more of an art than a science.”
Technically speaking–to be produced and packed–the matzo actually travels between all five floors of the building within 30 minutes.
“The flour comes into the basement in the morning,” says Levine. “It gets shot up through tubes to the fifth floor, where it gets dumped down to the fourth floor–or the second floor for the first floor oven–and it gets mixed and then baked and then goes to the second floor to get packaged.”
The rabbi cleans off mixing equipment.
Religious supervision is required. Up at the fourth-floor mixing station, the rabbi watches his timer, because the dough has to be made and put in the oven all under 18 minutes to be considered kosher. After a batch is mixed, he takes a spatula to clean the surface of the mixing equipment spic and span from any residual flour before the next session can commence.
Through his work on the documentary, Levine has cultivated a deep understanding of the factory’s dynamics and was even able to uncover some of the Streit’s forgotten history. For instance, prior to moving to the current location in 1925, it was known that Aaron Streit’s original bakery was a few blocks over, on Pitt Street, but the old bakery’s exact whereabouts were unknown.
Digging through archives, Levine couldn’t find anything. One day, he says, about four to five months into production, he brought up the old bakery mystery to Anthony Zapata, who surprisingly responded that he knew where it was: 65 Pitt.
Heading to the address, Levine discovered that 65 Pitt Street’s current resident, Dr. Isabella Lee, is in her 90s. She bought that same house in the ‘50s and renovated it extensively. Alas, she still had kept the old Matzo oven preserved in the property.
Boxes of matzo on their way out.
The Streit’s factory is not just connected to Streit family heritage, or solely the Jewish history of the neighborhood, but also the Lower East Side’s greater diversity, Levine tells BTR. Many of the workers are from places like Puerto Rico or Bangladesh, some of whose parents were also Steit’s employees.
Levine says the documentary itself is mostly completed, and at this point, is busy raising funds for things like digitizing archival footage, obtaining the rights to soundtracks, distribution, and submitting the film to festivals.
Packages ready for delivery.
Developed around a simple recipe of flour and a very distinct source of tap water, Streit’s has come to encompass a uniquely lasting legacy that transcends time, harboring a history that should be preserved and embraced.
Photos courtesy of Tanya Silverman.