Sunday, April 17, 2016

History, tradition and kindness spring from Michael Levine's long-gestating documentary, STREIT'S: MATZO AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

What a windfall of archival info and photos, Jewish tradition, and that most humble of foods -- the dry, unleavened matzo bread -- is this new documentary about the first family of Matzo and its century-old business. All of the above would be enough to make any current doc perfectly acceptable fodder for today's moviegoer, but this one -- from filmmaker Michael Levine (shown below) -- turns out to have even more reason to exist. It documents, and rather well, too, a family business that seems to TrustMovies to be a model of how Capitalism can work when, as it should be, it is overseen by a Socialist hand. Or at least by overseers who actually care about their employees.

STREIT'S: MATZO AND THE AMERICAN DREAM should have plenty of appeal -- and not just for Jews but for any of us who've been invited by friends or relatives to a Passover Seder, where matzo, of course, is a "must." Turns out there's a good reason for the kind of weird and very old-fashioned look of the Streit's matzo package (shown at bottom) and for the never-changing appearance and taste of the enormous-but-go-ahead-and-break-off-a-piece slab of dried bread itself. It's all about tradition that works. (And you don't mess with a Rabbi-approved recipe made almost entirely of water and flour.)

Mr. Levine lets us meet that family via several generations, some of which are captured in those archival photos and film, and at least two of which we see via present-day representatives. We learn how they think and act, especially towards their employees, most of whom are long-time workers who care about their company and its famous product.

These include a fellow who was a professional boxer for the Soviets back in the 1960s, a former lawyer from Honduras and Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan who used to make matzo secretly in their former home but who now have the freedom to do it with pride (and get paid for it, too).

Most important (because we see and hear from him more than from any other employee) is the fellow the company hired right off the streets of Manhattan's lower east side some thirty years ago. He's been with Streit's ever since, and he seems to worry almost constantly about where the company is headed and why.

With good reason, it turns out. What happens to the firm over the course of the several years that Levine spent filming is sad and somewhat predictable but it also underscores the reliability of change (not to mention gentrification) -- even to an industry that's seen as little change as has this one. Yes, the mighty matzo is not immune to cheap, foreign rip-offs.

Still, hope remains, and Streit's seems determined to make the most of it. The documentary reminded me of one of last year's best -- Akiva Kempner's Rosenwald -- that showed us what philanthropy and big business were like, back in the day. This one does something similar, on a smaller scale, regarding tradition and a family business.

Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream, from Menemsha Films and running just 80 minutes, gets its world theatrical premiere this Wednesday, April 20, at Film Forum in New York and in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 and Town Center 5. Elsewhere? I certainly hope so. Particularly down here in South Florida, where a movie like this will be a shoo-in. But will we get it in time for this year's Passover?

The photo of Michael Levine, second from top, 
is by Andrew Kelly and comes courtesy 

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