by Caitlin Shamberg
There are two television sets in the back office of the Aron Streit Matzo factory. One broadcasts horse races and the other is a closed circuit TV that provides rotating coverage of the four-story factory. The closed circuit television was installed so that rabbis based in New Jersey, can ensure that the factory’s products remain kosher. “We save money this way,” says Aron Gross, a fifth generation Streit who is in charge of sales. Aron has only been working at the company for four years, but aims to open a Matzo café, get the Streit products into the regular grocery aisles, (“the kosher section is dead”) and eventually become part owner of the family-run business.
At twenty-eight years old, Aron has more in common with the hipsters that roam today’s Lower East Side than the “little old ladies” who still come into Streit’s corner store to buy matzo products. He loves to travel, wears a Yankees cap and cites the untraditional “moon strip matzo,” which is flavored with salt, onion and poppy seed, as his favorite. He graduated from Georgetown with a degree in economics, and spent a year at a financial job before pursuing a career on the racetracks, where he worked as a groom. “I wanted him to be a racer,” Aron’s father, and Streit’s Vice President, Mel Gross says. “He would’ve been a great horse racer.” But the five day a week, 7-7 schedule was grueling and Aron left the tracks to move to New York. He moved to experience the City, but he needed a job.
Aron’s cousin, Aron Yagoda (“we’re all named Aron,” Yagoda says) is Mel’s co-vice President at Streit’s. He happily offered Aron, whom he calls his favorite relative, a chance at the factory. Yagoda stands by his belief that it’s important to have fun every day, and takes pride in the fact that there is low turnover amongst Streit’s staff of fifty, “we’re either paying them too much or things are good here.” He looks after all his workers as if they were family, “I’m not just responsible for the guy, I’m responsible for his wife and kids”. As for his cousin, “we’re grooming him to be head of sales. He grew up in Maryland, he has good values, he works hard, he’s young, all the girls like him. He’s like the best guy, he never says no.”
As kids, Aron Yagoda and Aron Gross weren’t particularly close. Aron Gross’ parents divorced when he was young and he grew up with his mother in the small town of Glenelg, Maryland, where he was one of four Jewish kids. “They were my friends because we all carpooled 45 minutes to Hebrew school in Colombia.” Aron is close with his mom, “I get everything from her, she raised me.”
Aron’s father wears jeans, loafers with out socks and a tucked in shirt. He sits comfortably behind a dark wooden desk. He has been married three times, once to a woman whom he last saw on Court TV. “She was running around with the Cherry hill rabbi,” Mel says, referring to Fred Neulander who is in jail because he had his wife killed in order to have an affair. “Aron won’t make the same mistakes I did,” Mel says. “He went to Georgetown, he played football for four years, he studied for half,” He jokes, and proudly adds, “he loves the business, he does a great job, everyone in the industry respects him. He’s everything I wanted to be.”
Mel shares an office with his cousin Aron Yagoda. Their desks are next to each other. Behind them is wall lined with portraits of the Streit family members. Aron Streit emigrated from Austria and founded his factory at 150 Rivington Street in 1925. He was married to Nettie, who “was the meanest,” says Aron Yagoda, reaching into his desk drawer. “Look what I found,” he opens a small wooden box, “grandpa’s teeth, ten bucks, and Nettie’s passport or visa or something.” The folded piece of paper is dated 1925, stapled to the page is a picture of Nettie and a description: “Mouth- proportionate, Chin-double, hair-black, complexion-dark, face-round.”
Nettie and Aron had two sons, Jack and Irving. Jack had three daughters, including Aron Yagoda’s mother. Irving also had daughters: Renee, Muriel, Mel’s mother. Aron Gross describes his great aunt and grandmother as “the Hilton girls of their time,” Mel calls them “sheltered and old fashioned.” Mel and Aron Yagoda joke about Jack Streit, whom they both refer to as “grandpa.” They recall his refusal to modernize, and his “rough, but good hearted” demeanor. “Life was fun with grandpa,” says Aron Yagoda, “It was different, there were mom and pop distributors. Now there are billion dollar corporations, he would have never been able to survive.” Jack died in 1998.
Mel and Aron Yagoda have been working at the factory for 23 years and easily exchange stories. “Like when there was a shootout upstairs,” Yagoda laughs, recalling the time he gave two ex-cons a chance to work at the factory. Mel remembers the time someone died (of natural causes) and “grandpa didn’t want to close the factory, ‘just push him to the side and keep baking.’” He imitates his grandfather’s gruff voice. Aron Yagoda giggles while he tells the story of the woman in the building across the street “who would shower every night at nine. All my guys would stop and go to the window to watch her get out of the shower and walk around naked. I was going to change break time to nine O’clock. So one day I waited for her to come out of her building, and I said, ‘look, I have the place across the street, I’m really sorry about this, but my guys watch you walk around your apartment.’ I offered to buy her blinds, whatever. She says ‘I don’t mind, I’m an exhibitionist.’ I said, “well you’re ruining my production.” Aron sighs and adds, “Thank god she moved.”
Workers meticulously clean the giant mixers between batches; square sheets of crispy matzo come out the end of the oven where workers snap them into individual crackers, 11 per box. Rabbinical law dictates that this process take under 18 minutes, otherwise the bread is considered leavened. The smell of sweet and sometimes burning dough wafts throughout the building and out onto the street. Next to the factory is the small corner store, empty except for the woman behind the counter (she’s been a Streit employee for 25 years). Its shelves are lined with the Streit products: farfel, macaroons, and soup mixes, all boasting the Streit motto, “the taste of a memory.” “We used to have lines around the block at Passover time, now we’re lucky if we get five customers,” says Aron Gross.
An old black and white photograph of Streit’s store depicts a crowd of men waiting at the counter; twine dangles down from rolls, which hang from the ceiling. “It was different then,” says Aron Gross, “you’d go to the 2nd Avenue Deli for chopped liver, and to Zabars for a shank bone.” The Lower East Side neighborhood has changed, but Streit’s hasn’t. “We are part of the neighborhood, but how we fit in is changing. To modernize, Aron wants to turn the corner store into a café and bar. Aron Yagoda notes this might not work out since the rabbi would never allow it to be open on the Sabbath, but Aron is not deterred. “We could serve matzo with drinks at night, we could serve matzo with spreads and coffee in the morning. If we could just turn the matzo into the bagel, we’d be set.”