Jews in the Garment Center
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Jews in the Garment Center

Local documentary maker looks at Jewish garmentos, anarchists, musicians, and other unusual Americans

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Andrew Kozinn, the owner of St. Laurie Merchant Tailors, and his son, Jacob, are interviewed in “Dressing America.” Katsumi Funahashi, 2010

What exactly is a garmento?

Is it a cringe-making label or a badge of honor?

Does the stereotypical garmento embody traditional Jewish values? Or does he (or far less often she) defy or deny them?

Why did so many Jews go into the rag trade anyway?

And Sam, really, why did you make the pants so long?

Steven Fischler of Teaneck and his business partner, Joel Sucher of Hartsdale, N.Y., examine these questions – well, at least some of them – and similar ones in a documentary, “Dressing America: Tales From the Garment Center.” Created in 2009, it will be broadcast a number of times on Channel 13 and on WLIW, beginning on September 2, to mark Fashion Week in New York City.

“The film looks at two things,” Mr. Fischler said. “It talks about the Jewish immigrant roots of today’s garment industry. Some of the Jewish immigrants who came over didn’t have a lot of money, but they had the skills – certainly sewing and clothes-making was something that Jews did in Europe. They brought their skills to this country, and they helped create the billion-dollar fashion industry that we have today.”

Much of that history is shown through old photographs and film snippets, and excerpts from both English- and Yiddish-language movies.

“The other aspect is a little bit of a slice of life,” he said. “There are some recurrent characters, who have been in the industry for a long time, and reflect the golden age of the garment industry, before everything got outsourced – when people didn’t have 90-page contracts but cut deals on a handshake.

“Of course,” he added, “the garment center was much smaller then; much more of a small town than it is today.”

The garment center wasn’t all Jewish, he added; like many of the New York City neighborhoods where its workers lived, it also was Italian. “But it had a very large and strong Jewish aspect,” and much of the documentary focuses on it.

Not only did some Jews come to New York with sewing skills – as they came to Paterson – they also brought an entrepreneurial orientation and a quick-witted willingness to take chances.

“The garment center in New York City really is women’s wear,” Mr. Fischler said. “Men’s wear is mainly in the Midwest, particularly in Chicago, with big companies like Hart Schaffner and Marx.” That’s because men’s styles change slowly – the lapel might wax and wane – so it is far easier and safer to produce large numbers of basic items, and to charge more for them. “But women’s fashion changes every year, and it affects the nature of the business. Women’s fashion companies were much smaller and more highly specialized, and it was a more difficult business.

“If you picked the right dress, you made a lot of money. If you picked the wrong one – if, say, you went for a long skirt in a year when the style was short – you were going to go bankrupt.” Bankruptcy is never pleasant, but it looms less for someone who already has left home, crossed a continent using his wits and then steamed across an ocean in stomach-turning steerage, started a new life from scratch, and learned that it is almost always possible to start all over yet again.

There is always a great deal of creativity in the fashion business, and it is not all confined to the designers (who, by the way, were not known by name in the ready-to-wear trade until Anne Klein came along). “In the film, you’ll see an interview with John Pomerantz, the son of Fred Pomerantz, who founded Leslie Fay,” a large, well-known women’s wear manufacturer. “He tells the story of how, during the war” – World War II – “he was asked to make uniforms for the WACs” – the Women’s Army Corps. The Army had given Mr. Pomerantz the sizes they wanted, and told him that they wanted “real clothes for real people.”

After the war, in a test, Mr. Pomerantz made two batches of clothing, “one with the sizes the WACs gave him, and the other in the traditional sizing the industry had been using. He sent both to Filene’s Basement in Boston, and the ones with the smaller sizes” – the more realistic, WAC-driven sizes – “sold out like crazy.”

Mr. Pomerantz had created petite sizes.

“He ended up running an extremely profitable business,” Mr. Fishler said.

(There is some irony in this. Women’s wear since has gone in the other direction, with so-called vanity sizing acknowledging the truth that in the last few decades, most Americans, men and women both, have grown larger. The smallest petite sizes Mr. Pomerantz made mostly likely look Lilliputian now.)

Anne Klein, he added, made that name for herself by creating the idea of sportswear, selling women separates, pieces that they could match as they chose, and wear from year to year, perhaps with changing accessories.

Mr. Fischler, who has lived in Teaneck since 1990, in many ways is a throwback to the town as it used to be, when its Jewishness was expressed more through progressive political action than religion.

He comes by his activism naturally. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a mother from a family of union organizers and a father who descended from entrepreneurs. “Both sides of the picket line,” he joked; those two groups also provided many of the Garment Center stars.

Mr. Fischler and Mr. Sucher, who met when they both were 9, have been making documentaries since they were in college, working toward undergraduate degrees in film at NYU. Their first film together, “Red Squad,” “was a look at police and FBI intelligence gathering in New York during the anti-Vietnam War movement,” Mr. Fischler said. “When we started to make the film, they started to investigate us, so we filmed them investigating us.” It was inadvertently and blackly funny.

“We were harassed by the New York City police,” he continued. “They didn’t like us filming them. They tried to intimidate us – I was arrested but never charged. We wrote letters to all the newspapers, detailing the police harassment.

“This was in 1970. In 1971, Nat Hentoff” – a longtime investigative reporter at the then provocative and influential downtown weekly Village Voice (and also a jazz critic, among many other things) – “published the letter on the front page of the Village Voice. That started a series of articles that he wrote about us. Immediately after this coverage started, with the police getting such negative publicity in the press, they started to leave us alone.”

The two men were not willing to leave it alone, though. So “Joel Sucher and I became named plaintiffs in 1972, in Hanschu vs. Special Services Division. That lawsuit is probably one of the longest class-action lawsuits in New York State history.” After 14 years, the suit was settled – sort of. “There was a settlement with the city, which set guidelines; there was a window where everyone could get their records, and the judge set limits on how undercover agents could be used. It was considered a big victory for civil liberties. It also was complicated because both federal and state governments were involved.”

And it’s still not over, Mr. Fischler said.

“More recently, after 9/11, the police department went back to court, and said that the terrorists are such a threat that we have to throw out this ruling. The judge allowed it, but only under his supervision. The fact that the city had settled under federal law means that the federal court has oversight.”

Through their production company, Pacific Street Films, Mr. Fischler and Mr. Sucher have made about 100 films. Some are independent documentaries and some are commissioned; some are biographies of actors, including Nick Nolte, and others are more socially conscious and hard-hitting. As is true of artists in just about any medium unlucky enough to be born without trust funds or rich uncles in Australia, much of their work is fundraising, particularly for their dream projects.

They also did crew work for domestic and foreign broadcasters after they graduated from film school; among their credits is Saturday Night Live, where they worked, among other things, on John Belushi’s famous “Don’t Look Back in Anger” segment.

“Dressing America” is Mr. Fischler and Mr. Sucher’s third documentary to focus on Jews. The first, “Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists,” made in 1980, was followed by 1983’s “Anarchism in America.” “Free Voice of Labor” looked at the elderly anarchists as they finally folded their newspaper, the Fraye Arbeter Shtime.

“The Jewish anarchists were anti-religious, but they approached anarchy with the religious zeal that would not be unfamiliar to religious Jews,” Mr. Fischler said. “Their idea of religion was mutual aid.”

The second documentary on anarchism took the filmmakers on a trip across the United States. “We were exploring an idea that was being discussed at the time – are the ideas of anarchism in some way synonymous with what we think of as American ideas – self-reliance, distrust of government, decentralism, a do-it-yourself ethic,” Mr. Fischler said. It included interviews with some of the Jewish radicals featured in the first film as well. Perhaps ironically – and perhaps not – that film was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“From Swastika to Jim Crow,” aired on PBS in 2001, tells the story of the German Jewish academics who escaped the Holocaust only to find themselves virtually unemployable in their haven, the United States. Many of them were able to get jobs at historically black colleges in the South, where they developed close bonds with their students.

Mr. Fischler and Mr. Sucher now are working on a project they are calling “Music and the Mob,” which grew out of a 1983 documentary called “I Promise to Remember: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.” Frankie Lymon, one of the first black singers to cross racial barriers, was first the beneficiary and then the cast-aside victim of Morris Levy, “who was Jewish and the godfather of the music industry in the 1950s and ’60s,'” Mr. Fischler said.

Mr. Levy “died about 10 years ago, and people are still afraid to talk about him,” Mr. Fischler said. “He was a heavy hitter.” When he was pressed, Mr. Fischler defined “heavy hitter” not as someone powerful, but as “a tough guy.” A gangster.

“There were allegations of Morris’s relationships with the Gambino family,” one of the Mafia families that ruled this area, Mr. Fischler said. “What is interesting is with the rock and roll industry, black music crossed over to white audiences.

“Stories are legion about black artists who never got paid their royalties – that’s why Morris Levy is listed as the songwriter for ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?'” Young singers so desperately wanted their songs on the radio that they overlooked the importance of the copyright. “So in some ways gangsters were responsible for the integration of the music industry,” Mr. Fishler said. “It’s ironic, of course. They ripped off the artists, and exploited them, but they allowed the music industry to change.

“Before that, it pretty much had been black artists writing songs covered by white teenagers in V-neck sweaters.”

Next up? Probably a film about Jersey City, based on a well-reviewed memoir by Helene Stepinski called “Five Finger Discount.” No, she is not Jewish, but among the book’s supporters is perhaps Jersey City’s most powerful Jew, Mayor Steve Fulop.

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