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Review: Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream

Michael Levine provides a history without a real sense of individuated struggle or even singular personage.

Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream
Photo: Menemsha Films

Part brand promotion, part neighborhood history, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream neatly encompasses its dual aims through a decidedly literal title, situating Streit’s, an immigrant-owned kosher food business based out of New York’s Lower East Side, as the epitome of a company realizing financial success through both a commitment to quality products and its continued loyalty to employees. In essence, Streit’s is the American dream and vice versa, a point director Michael Levine makes continually throughout the documentary’s brief running time, as owners and employees alike share why “retaining the values of the company” carries symbolic weight in the face of newer manufacturing technologies and globalized labor.

Executive vice president Aron Yagoda speaks of the company’s dedication to staying put as an act of reverence for his Austrian ancestors, who built Streit’s with the intent of creating an infrastructure for Jewish neighborhoods, which Yagoda sees as currently threatened by outside pressures to relocate the business into a more manageable and profitable location. Alan Adler, the factory’s owner, further links Streit’s significance to religious piety, explaining how “it’s a mitzvah to make matzo for Passover.” Levine weaves these statements together with the stock template of a profile doc, relying on talking heads and B-roll footage of the factory line to reflect the company’s identity.

A more intriguing thread develops with the introduction of Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer who explains the emergent Jewish neighborhoods of the 1910s as a conscious formation of ethnic solidarity, pointing to Streit’s as one of the ways “they all had to figure out how to be Jewish together.” Matzo and the American Dream pairs Sampson’s explanations with archival footage taken during the era, though Levine displays little interest in the specificity of this footage, allowing the deteriorated film stock to stand in for the time period itself. In other words, Levine provides a history without a real sense of individuated struggle or even singular personage; the Lower East Side, as an emblem of Jewish heritage, implicitly constitutes the film’s subject.

The film’s token blue-collar figure is Anthony Zapata, a Streit’s factory worker for over 30 years, who talks up his own helplessness in the face of workforce innovation. Levine condenses Zapata’s concerns through the man’s own specious rhetorical question: “How am I going to get a job through a computer?” As such, he assists the film’s subjects in mistaking technophobia for local allegiances. That misconception is only amplified by the explicitly nostalgic value bestowed upon the company’s production methods, with one of the bosses saying, “These old machines might not be as efficient, but they’re more reliable.” Bemoaning the ills of factory production reliant upon computer systems, the film’s subjects conspicuously valorize their choice for independence from dominant practice as a courageous, even heroic act.

Levine, too, grants an almost mythic significance to Streit’s struggle by including the film’s subjects offering variants of a “there’s more than just making a bigger profit” sentiment throughout. The owners also repeatedly emphasize the community’s resilience in the face of these perceived threats, but Levine produces little evidence or sights of said struggle, beyond the owners sitting in their offices and patting themselves on the back. Accordingly, the film stagnates its historical interests by lacking a more dynamic vision of what Sampson refers to as “this pastiche we call modernity in America.”

Director: Michael Levine Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2015 Buy: Video

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