Savannah Morning News
April 16, 2017
You can’t tell a book by the cover, right? Wrong.
The minute I saw Michele Streit Heilbrun’s book, “Matzo,” at E. Shaver Bookstore, I knew I had to have it or at least buy it to bring to my Passover Seder hosts. The name, the subject, the time of year. Iconic. And that was before I picked up the book – and felt it. Felt: not a word usually associated with a cover. Or a book. This is an exception. The front cover is textured, with all the little holes and everything (holes: imperative for the baking process). It’s a complete replica of a sheet of matzo. OK, so at 8-and-a-quarter inches the cover is a little larger than the real thing – or so I read. But who cares? It’s real enough. I could almost taste it, which is kind of weird since matzo is so, well, let’s face it, tasteless.
But really, a whole cookbook about matzo? C’mon, give me a break. Matzo, for the uninitiated, is what observant (and not so observant, such as myself) Jews eat during the eight-day celebration known as Passover – a holiday that is happening right now – when leavened bread products are verboten. Like all foods at the Passover Seder table it represents something else. Matzo is unleavened. It’s a mixture of flour and water that turns flat and hard when baked. It symbolizes the haste with which Moses and the enslaved Jews had to get the heck out of Egypt. With Pharaoh in fast pursuit, they couldn’t afford to wait for their bread to rise before they took off. They packed their bags, grabbed their unleavened bread and got out of Dodge. Since everything seemed to turn out OK – sort of – matzo has become a symbol and a food.
Matzo is not half as exciting as charoset. This is what you put on top of the matzo. It’s a yummy mixture of apples, fruit, nuts and wine. Charoset represents the sweetness of life. Not to be left out is the maror, a stinging combination of horseradish and beets, designed to bring tears to your eyes because what is life without a little suffering, eh?
Matzo is the vehicle for both foods.
People who have been to Seders – and I’ve probably been to at least 70 (just guessing here) – will recognize the box that holds the matzo. There are several companies that make matzo but to me the most familiar is Streit’s. The name, handwritten in white, floats in an oval of red. The Streit (rhyme with right) family has made matzo in New York City’s Lower East Side since 1915, when the area became home to millions of immigrants. When I was describing the book to someone from New York, she knew just the corner. “It’s that four-story red brick building on Rivington street, right?” Bingo.
Not anymore. Times change. Now it’s become expensive real estate and the clientele are younger people with money jingling in their pockets. After going back and forth for years the Streit family closed down the NYC operation two years ago and moved the business to New Jersey. The area had gentrified, they couldn’t find anyone to work on the aging (and original) machinery, there was no loading docks, no parking.
Somewhere around that time Michele Streit Heilbrun, whose great-grandfather started the business, hatched an idea about writing a book of matzo recipes, a book that would expand the life of the unleavened product to include apple crumb pie, matzo tiramisu, matzo tacos (with yesterday’s brisket), matzo nachos with pickled jalapenos and matzo spanakopita. When she found David Kirschner, a high-end chef, the plan became a reality. The book is a gem.
In the process, Michele – known as Mikey – started visiting friends who had moved to Savannah. At about the same time the matzo business moved to New Jersey Mikey, who worked as a casting director in Manhattan, moved to Savannah.
“I love it here,” she said a few weeks ago at the Jewish Educational Alliance, where the Savannah Jewish Film Festival folks were showing, “Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream.”
“You couldn’t get a toilet flushed for what I bought a house here,” she said later. “When the business closed in New York it was it was the last place I called home.”
Although she never worked at the factory, she did sell boxes during Passover.
“My girl cousins and I learned pretty early on it was a business for men,” she said very matter-of-factly. “Nothing was offered to us. Such a different generation. Even so I never wanted to work there.”
But she did want to write a book.
This Passover she traveled to Virginia to have Seder with a Streit cousin still in the business. She called him her “baby cousin.” He is 42, she is 49. But she took the train. She’s not so keen on driving, she said. In New York she didn’t get behind a wheel for 16 years.
“I feel so fortunate to be part of a family that represents a little piece of history, just a nugget but still,” she said. “We were on so many people’s tables for so many years. The book makes me very happy.”