By Luis Ayala
Tucked between the urban intimacy of Suffolk and Clinton Streets, a hallmark of the ever-changing Lower East Side continues to thrive in defiance of all modern commodity. From afar, a pedestrian might mistake Streit’s Matzo Factory for being nothing more than an abandoned garage next to a quaint corner store, but inside lies a vintage labyrinth, a thriving business. Mysterious, yet of obvious historical appeal, Streit’s is a New York City staple, a business in and of the neighborhood serving the needs of Jewish and Gentile communities alike since 1925. Aron Streit, a Jewish immigrant from Austria, started his first hand bakery on Pitt Street with the help of business partner, Rabbi Weinberger in 1916. As the Jewish community became more and more present in the Lower East Side, Streit grew to meet the demands of his neighbors, establishing a full service matzo factory less than a decade later. Alan Adler, the great grandson of founder Aron Streit, continues in his great grandfather’s tradition, serving as the factory’s Director of Operations.
Matzo, or unleavened bread, requires a meticulous procedure for mass production, an art that Streit’s has managed to capture in every signature box. On an average day, one worker first manually dumps flour and water into a mixing bowl. The matza is transported into two main convection ovens from which two thousand pounds of matza are produced hourly. The matza’s cooked to cracker consistency with the help of two burners, both operating anywhere from seven hundred to nine hundred degrees, causing one side of the matza to always be darker than the other. Fresh matza then cools as it travels on hangers to where it is wrapped in plastic and placed onto a conveyer belt to be boxed by human hands, different from the modern technicalities of the contemporary factory. Adler, who recognizes that the factory is “a mish mosh of construction,” notes that much of the equipment resembles the original, almost operating as it did nearly 80 years ago.
Passover, undeniably one of the most important Jewish holidays in the calendar year, is a critical time for Streit’s. Passover commemorates the story of Exodus as told in the Old Testament of the Bible. The story, which chronicles the emancipation of ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, explains how God ignited the ten plagues upon the Egyptians from which the Children of Israel, or the “chosen ones” were exempt and were then freed by the pharaoh. As the Bible says, the Israelites left in such hurry that they could not wait for the bread dough to rise, and in remembrance, unleavened bread is consumed by Jews during Passover. The months of September and October mark Streit’s preparation for the holiday annually, a process devoted to upholding both religious and manufacture standards for mass consumption. Four full time rabbis are employed during Passover season to overlook that the creation of matzo is kosher, and that prayers are said over the bread from time to time. “For Passover the matza has to be timed to be done within 18 minutes,” says Adler, referring to the precision with which matzo must be made, adding that the equipment also has to be cleaned every 15 minutes. “18 minutes is kosher enough for everybody.”
Amidst strong competition from other leading matza manufacturers such as Manischewitz and Israeli matza, Streit’s continues to sell more matza than it’s competitors according to Adler. A growing issue is however, the overall efficiency of the factory, an issue that has led Adler and his family to contemplate moving to a modern facility in New Jersey. “My family doesn’t want to sell the building because it’s so valuable…there is a history to this, a marketing angle to it, people like it, but in the long run the business itself would be better off in a modern factory.” It is rumored that the factory was listed on New York blog, “Curbed” for $25 Million dollars back in 2007, but as of recent, Adler and his family have signed on for five more years at its Rivington Street home. As for Adler’s favorite part of the job at Streit’s, “talking to NYU students.”
Passover begins on Friday, April 6th and ends on April 14th. L’chiam.