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Last matzo factory to close in a tonier Lower East Side

Email|Print| Text size + By Verena Dobnik
Associated Press / December 29, 2007

NEW YORK - Long after most of its customers left the neighborhood to pursue the American Dream, the last matzo factory on the Lower East Side is moving out, saying goodbye to a part of town that was once home to hundreds of thousands of immigrant Jews.

Streit's, a family-owned matzo-making giant that churns out 16,000 pounds of unleavened bread a day and has been in the neighborhood for nearly three-quarters of a century, is putting the property up for sale.

It hopes to get $25 million for the antiquated six-story building in a part of New York where tenements and sweatshops have given way to fine hotels and condos, expensive restaurants, and trendy nightclubs.

"We're doing this with a heavy heart," said Aaron Gross, the great-great-grandson of founder Aron Streit, an Austrian immigrant. "We're America's last family-owned matzo factory."

The red-brick factory will keep producing matzo until the family builds a new one in about a year, probably in New Jersey.

The 32-year-old matzo heir said it is just too difficult to keep manufacturing in the city. The streets are too congested for the company's tractor-trailers, and he gets regular complaints about the loud machines that mix, roll, and cut the dough before it is baked in two 72-foot-long steel ovens.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was the very capital of immigrant Jewish life in America, a vibrant neighborhood teeming with Yiddish-speaking shopkeepers, factory workers, and pushcart peddlers.

Half a million Jews, many of them fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, were crammed like herring into the lower Manhattan neighborhood. Among those who once called it home were actors George Burns and Walter Matthau; gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel; and musicians Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin.

The Jewish population dwindled after World War II as the immigrants' children and grandchildren moved up and out to better neighborhoods, replaced by Chinese and Hispanic immigrants whose influence is evident in the bodegas and noodle shops that dot the neighborhood.

Today, there are around 30,000 Jews living in the area and only scattered reminders of a bygone era, including Katz's Delicatessen, the oldest deli in New York, and the Yonah Schimmel bakery, whose slogan is: "It takes a downtown knish to satisfy an uptown craving."

While many blocks of the Lower East Side are seedy, gentrification has swept the neighborhood since the 1980s. The elegant Beaux Arts structure built in 1912 for the Yiddish-language newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward has been converted into million-dollar condos. (The Forward says circulation for its Yiddish edition, now a weekly, is down to just 5,000, the English-language edition to 35,000.)

Earlier this month, the 120-year-old Moorish-style Eldridge Street Synagogue was rededicated after a 20-year restoration. But in a sign of the times, the building will serve a dual purpose as an American Jewish history museum and a functioning synagogue.

"After the 1980s, you got this continual increase of property values and rents and it just never stopped or went down again," said Clayton Patterson, a local preservationist. "I think it's tragic. What we're getting now is kind of boring and mundane."

Alan Dell, co-owner of Katz's, said he has no plans to unload the nearly 120-year-old deli, which was famously featured in the fake orgasm scene in the movie "When Harry Met Sally." But he acknowledged that an outrageous offer - "stupid money" - could change his mind. "As my father said, 'Money can make a blind man see.' "

As for Streit's, "we haven't found a place yet, but we want to stay close to our base in New York City," said Gross, adding that Streit's already has warehouses in New Jersey from which the matzo is shipped.

The factory doesn't appear to have changed all that much since a photograph from a half-century ago that shows a group of rabbis in white coats supervising production to make sure it's kosher. Many of the 60 employees have been working there for decades.

Streit's has tens of millions of dollars in annual sales and about 40 percent of the US matzo market. Its chief competitor is Manischewitz.

Customers can still walk up and buy matzo from the Streit's factory, but the retail business has slowed since the 1960s.

"With the rejuvenation of the neighborhood, a different type of person is living there. It's not an ethnic Jewish neighborhood anymore," Gross said, "and the need to be here isn't what it was."

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