Matzo Mitzvah

These days the history-rich Lower East Side is all about the future. Tenements and tailors have long since made way for outlandish lofts, couture boutiques, cocktail bars and eateries serving high-concept donuts and lard-fried latkes, tongue firmly in cheek. But on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk, one business still honors the past: a family-run factory called Aron Streit, Inc., has been baking matzo the same way since 1925.

Back then, says Alan Adler, Aron Streit’s great-great-grandson and the man who currently runs the company, the neighborhood was still an old testament to Jewish-American life. Boychicks kibitzed with bubelehs on street corners; bialy-makers, knisheries and appetizing shops dotted Clinton, Grand and Pitt. Now, there’s just one of each of those shops left in the neighborhood—or anywhere in the city, for that matter: Kossar’s for bialys, Yonah Schimmel for knish, Russ & Daughters for appetizing and Streit’s for matzo. All are long-established, somewhat schmutzy spaces that resisted not just relocation, but modernization altogether. For one reason or another, these businesses survived the mid-1900’s exodus of Jewish customers and businesses from cramped buildings and dangerous streets to the promised land of the suburbs—followed by the more recent plagues of cool-seekers leaping about like so many locusts.

That Streit’s is still there, says Adler’s cousin Michelle Heilbrun, is a happy accident—maybe a mitzvah, even. It’s the family business of a very big family, she explains, so making a decision like moving to a modern, more efficient factory in New Jersey, say, is akin to parting the Red Sea. “It’s just one of those things,” she says, “in a gift of a way, we never left.”

So the factory is still squeezed into a six-floor tenement: a mishmash of matzo boxes in nooks and crannies, an oven as old as Moses, and cooling matzo flying by on rickety metal racks, zigging and zagging from one floor to the next on a ski-lift-like journey from oven to box. “I remember this system,” says Adler fondly, waving his hand at the matzo as it glides by on its state-fair-like ride, “from when I was kid.”

Despite a few of these Rube Goldbergian quirks, Adler is proud of his production model, even as he admits he’d like to build a new factory. “Maybe in 10 years,” he says, dispelling rumors of an imminent exile from the city’s current coolest hood. Plus, as Heilbrun notes, those sky-high south-of-Houston real estate prices currently mean bupkis.

Old-fashioned is entirely an appropriate approach for a matzo maker, however—it might even be among the 10 commandments for running a Jewish business. “That Streit’s is there is just terrific,” says Joel Kaplan, executive director of the city’s United Jewish Council, “the Jewish people are pretty big on tradition.”

Though matzo—or matzoh or matza or matsah—looks simple, it’s still a contender for one of the world’s most emotionally complex foods. Each bite recalls the 3,000-year-old story of unleavened Passover flatbread, basically a symbolically laden cracker. It’s the ultimate sign of salvation in a seder, the long, ceremonial meal Jews hold on the first night of Passover, but it’s also a reminder of poverty and struggle. Given their freedom by Pharoah Ramses II but forced out of Egypt, the ancient Jews had to pack fast, with no time to let the bread rise.

So modern Jews, it could be said, struggle too: Thou shalt eat matzo at least four times in a seder meal—five, if you count the matzo ball soup that traditionally kicks off the dinner. A reminder of those first hastily made sheets, modern matzo remains rough, coarse, usually sold as a flat, thin square made from just flour and water, perhaps a little egg—so bland you’d want a pillar of salt to season it.

And Streit’s, a name that means matzo to many Jews from Minnesota to Maryland, has been making it the same way for four generations (including two Arons). It stands on the shoulders of an even more old-fashioned method on nearby Pitt Street, says Adler, whose office features oil paintings of his matzo-making elders. There, the first Aron Streit ran one of several handmade, wood-fired matzo bakeries in the neighborhood—a trade he’d learned in Austria before immigrating to the States. The original incarnation begat its current commercial form after Aron returned from a stint baking in the Orthodox Jewish villages of the upstate Borscht Belt.

Now Streit’s is one of just a handful of matzo makers left in America—most, ironically, is now imported from Israel. (The Manischewitz Company, a conglomeration of kosher food producers that owns several brands of matzo, actually produces more, but at number two in the country, Streit’s is still 100 percent family-owned.)

“It’s not technically a landmark, [since it hasn’t been] certified by the city,” says Kaplan, “but it’s a landmark in the hearts and stomachs of many in the community.”

These days, the lines of neighborhood Jews that used to wrap around the block to buy matzo, matzo ball soup mix and other Streit’s standards are gone. “We do sell about three boxes a year from the store,” jokes Heilbrun, who wouldn’t mind seeing the retail space converted into a café, perhaps selling matzo sandwiches. “But nothing’s changed about the factory, really nothing.” A film casting agent, she’s made a documentary on the shop and the customers who revisit it like an annual pilgrimage. “Some people,” says Heilbrun, “have been coming back for 20 years.”

When they do, they see workers wearing paper painter’s caps and navy blue uniforms, all ever-so-lightly dusted with flour, which thanks to the tenement set-up must be delivered to the ground floor, pumped up to the top to be stored, then delivered to the two mixing rooms by a pneumatic system.

It’s a somewhat sleepy factory, even during the January-through-May Passover push, when 10 extra employees (including two rabbis) arrive to help supply spring seders: two bakers handmix dough under a carefully calibrated clock and rabbinical supervision. (To be kosher for Passover, matzo must be mixed and baked in under 14 minutes, before the bread can begin to ferment or leaven.) And yes, they make matzo every month, says Heilbrun: “I don’t know who is eating matzo year-round, but somebody is.”

The machinery includes a massive arm meant to recreate a pastry chef’s smearing and folding and ensure the finished product is light and crisp—snap a Streit’s in half and you can see it’s made of many fine layers. Rolled out wafer-thin, the dough is then pinpricked. “Without the holes it becomes like lavash,” says Adler: “Nice product, but it’s not matzo.”

A final roller scores each sheet into eight sections; upon emerging from the oven less than a minute later it can be easily popped into pieces, some of which are handed out like a little nosh to the occasional customer peeking in at the retail shop: It’s warm, extraflaky, almost buttery—the best you’ll ever eat, boasts Heilbrun.

“I grew up there,” she says, “and I still think it’s about the coolest place I know. It’s like a joint,” she says of the old-school bars and restaurants that earn the term. “You can’t create them, they just exist.”

And it might sound a little schmaltzy, but for all those tradition- bound Jews prepping their seder plates, Streit’s is less a joint than a mitzvah.

Photos courtesy of Aaron Streit, Inc.