The Matzo Show on Rivington Street

THE NEW YORK TIMES — January 6, 2008

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Through the window of Streit’s matzo factory, some watch and others ask for free samples.

ALL day long, people ask Leonides Negron if he is Jewish.

Mr. Negron, a 46-year-old Puerto Rican, works at the venerable Streit’s matzo factory on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, handling the stacks of steaming flat breads as they emerge from the 900-degree, 72-foot-long oven. While bearded rabbis upstairs bless the dough, Mr. Negron stands near the first-floor window, listening to merengue on the radio and moving matzo from a conveyor belt onto wire cooling racks.

The bakery has operated in the same four red brick tenements since 1925, and because its oven is on the first floor, passers-by often gaze through the barred windows to watch the action inside. Some ask what is being made; others request a taste. A man who strolls by every morning asks for a piece of matzo for his dog.

Mr. Negron is happy to chat.

“I tell them it’s Jewish bread,” he said of the matzo in the familiar red and blue box. “But to Spanish people, we just tell them it’s crackers.”

Soon, however, the questions will come to an end. A month ago, the company’s owners put the building on the market for $25 million. They plan to move the business from Manhattan, probably to New Jersey.

Mr. Negron, who lives in Ridgewood, Queens, is nervous, about facing a longer commute and about losing his window. For two decades, he has stood in the flour-dusted factory watching the neighborhood turn from Latino to white. He has seen the closing of the bodega across the street, and the opening of Bondi Road, a sleek Australian surfer-themed restaurant, on the same site.

“All day long we stare out the window,” Mr. Negron said as he stacked matzo with two other workers, his back just inches from the window. “It feels like you’re working in the street.”

Some passers-by have long memories, among them a man named Aaron Schechter, who was outside the bakery the other day with his wife and grandson. Mr. Schechter, who is 81 and lives on the Upper East Side, proudly remembers having his bar mitzvah suit made by a tailor around the corner.

“They’re not Jewish,” Mr. Schechter’s wife said as a worker passed them a piece of hot matzo through the security bars. “Is that legal?”

It is. According to biblical law, only Sabbath-

observing Jews can touch the dough before it is cooked; a team of rabbis roaming the premises sees to that. Mr. Negron handles the matzo only after it is baked.

He also handles the inquiries from passers-by who want to know what kind of matzo he is baking that day: white, whole wheat and so on. In Mr. Negron’s expert opinion, “The egg-and-onion matzo tastes best.”

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