It may be said that there are two constants in Jewish life: death and laughter. Three actually: death, laughter and tsuris. Oh, and family.
Two new documentary films opening this month serve as vivid reminders of these truths and are potent proof that the elements are as inextricably intertwined as a Havdalah candle. Gayle Kirschenbaum’s “Look at Us Now, Mother!” and “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream,” directed by Michael Levine, are lyrical, often funny treatments of the mixed blessings of family and the evanescence of human institutions.
During the end credits of “Look at Us” (opens April 8 at Village East Cinemas), we see a brief clip of Kirschenbaum’s mother Mildred at her 90th birthday celebration. Mildred is, as one of her cousins says, a survivor. Her daughter calls her “controlling and emasculating.” One is tempted to use the line applied to several Hollywood moguls, she doesn’t have heart attacks, she gives them. She certainly put her daughter through a series of ringers, criticizing her hair (too frizzy), her nose (too big), her adolescent bust (too small) and her lack of a husband (oops, too late). And for most of the running time of the film, Mildred repeats many of these criticisms emphatically, to friends, neighbors, therapists and total strangers in colorful, scathing but very funny variations.
For the filmmaker, making the movie is an openly declared journey in search of redemption for herself, much of it invested in finding a way to forgive her mother for more than 50 years of such behavior. Armed with a formidable library of home movies, the reminiscences of her two brothers, and countless other relatives and friends, the filmmaker (a prolific television documentarian, photographer and artist) retraces her family’s painful history, slowly uncovering the roots of her own pain in that past.
What makes it bearable is, quite simply, that the Kirschenbaum women are both very, very funny. The provocations from mom, while considerable, don’t rise to the occasion of tragedy or outrage, but the wit makes you stay with the film, silently thinking, “Compared to my mishpocha, feh!”
The humor in “Streit’s” (opens April 20 at Film Forum) comes primarily from the business’ co-owner Alan Adler, a former trial lawyer who always dreamed of running the family’s Lower East Side matzah factory, and Anthony Zapata, an LES-raised kid who took a job with the company when he was 20 and stuck around for another 30 years. At the beginning of Levine’s film, Zapata extols the virtues of the company’s main product, proudly noting the superior quality of New York City water. “You want Jersey water? Fine. Go buy matzahs from Jersey.”
Adler, the great grandson of founder Aron Streit, appears as serious as his previous life as a criminal lawyer would require, but as the film unspools, you realize that his wit, which is formidable, is as dry as, well, matzah. Speaking of the neo-hipster invasion that has transformed the Lower East Side, driving out old Jewish institutions like Schapiro’s Wines and Ratner’s, he talks about the economic pressures and adds, “If I opened a vodka bar next door, I’d do very well.”
The heart of the film is the struggle of Adler and his cousins, fourth- and fifth-generation matzah mavens, to keep the firm on the Lower East Side, fighting the rising tide of gentrification and preserving the 60 local jobs their presence ensures. The plant, cobbled together from four tenement apartment buildings into an M.C. Escher maze of stairs, exhaust fans and makeshift ramps, is held together by the sheer will of its work force. Many of the machines are holdovers from before WWII, requiring hand-fabricated parts and tender care. Approximately 25 minutes into the film, we get a guided tour of the matzah-making process, and the history of both Streit’s and its three main competitors (Manischewitz, Horowitz Margareten, Goodman) and the ebbing Jewish presence in the neighborhood.
Despite some powerful insights from Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer and LES historian, “Streit’s” frequently feels like an industrial film sponsored by the eponymous matzah maker. The slow but inevitable decrescence that accompanies the company’s reluctant departure for Rockland County, where its new factory is scheduled to open next year, gives the story a not-entirely-happy ending, and adds a salt-tear edge to the slogan on their box, “the taste of a memory.”
George Robinson writes about film and music for the paper.