HBO documentary; Mitch Albom to visit Shaare Emeth

Being able to use the word “schmatta” in print is enticing, but know it isn’t used gratuitously here. Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags is a new documentary about the history of the New York garment district that will debut from 8 to 9:30 p.m. on HBO Monday (Oct. 19 and several times thereafter). For anyone interested in American history and/or the fashion industry, this well-done doc makes for must-see TV.

Director Marc Levin does a stellar job bringing to life this once-vibrant heart and soul of midtown Manhattan, which is now in danger of extinction. For thousands of mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants in the early part of the 20th century (and later for their offspring), the garment industry was a path to the American Dream. “Millions of Americans became middle class and were able to educate their children who became doctors and lawyers,” as one interviewee points out. “The schmatta business did this.”


But with the increased globalization of clothing manufacturing, most of these jobs are now gone. To wit: in 1965, 95 percent of American clothing was made in this country; in 1985, the total was 70 percent. Today, only 5 percent of all clothing is made in the United States.

Levin tells the story of this vanishing industry through the voices of the people who worked there. Unfortunately, in the review copy provided, captions identifying interviewees were missing, so it was hard to know who everyone was. That said, some of the stories chronicled are those of Irving Ruosso, who became a self-made millionaire as the owner of sportswear company Russ Togs; Lisa Nussbaum, a surviving cousin of Sadie Nussbaum, one of the 146 mostly young women killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911; Julius Stern, who escaped Nazi Germany and became the first president of Donna Karan, Inc. and Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, who sent an open letter to Kathy Lee Gifford in 1996 that triggered a media circus.

The segment about that scandal is especially compelling as Levin includes archival footage of Wendy Diaz, who was employed at a Honduran sweatshop making Gifford’s clothes, testifying about the horrendous conditions in which she worked, earning 31 cents an hour.

The documentary isn’t without glitz or humor. Levin includes stories from fashion icons such as Calvin Klein, Isaac Mizrahi and Ralph Lauren to show how the marketing of fashion has become a powerful force in popular culture as well as a behind-the-scenes look at New York Fashion Week. I particularly enjoyed one designer’s explanation of what, exactly, goes into the making of a $750 pair of jeans (hint: hand-embroidered stitching done by women in India).

In the interest of full disclosure, my curiosity about Schmatta also had to do with the fact that my late father worked in New York’s garment center for nearly 40 years. Listening to others tell of its golden days and prosperity, then of losing their jobs to automation, deregulation, globalization and outsourcing, was my dad’s story too, though it wasn’t until my twenties that I began to realize how hard it had become for him to make a living.

What remains vivid, though, was the magic of the garment center growing up – trips on the Long Island railroad with my dad to shop at various dress houses where he sold his “goods,” playing hide-and-seek amid hundreds of bolts of fabric in his company’s warehouse and the Damon Runyan-like characters, my dad included, who kibbutzed over lunch at the Horn & Hardart automat, which was hands-down the coolest place to eat.

Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags is well worth the time investment and in some cases, a wonderful indulgence in nostalgia.

* Speaking of fashion, those interested in such should consider attending St. Louis Fall Fashion Week 2009. Designers taking part in the evening shows, which run from Wednesday, Oct. 14 to Saturday, Oct. 17 and are being held at downtown’s Lumiere Place Casino & Hotels, include Jillian Lewis from the second season of TV’s Project Runway. For tickets and more information, go to

* There have been a few schedule changes for the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 1-12 at the Jewish Community Center, Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. The Peter Yarrow program, originally scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9 has been rescheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18 at the JCC’s Staenberg Complex.

On Monday at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, Gustav Schonfeld will speak about his memoir, Absence of Closure. Schonfeld, who lives and works in St. Louis, tells a story that begins in Czechoslovakia, when he was a boy and the Nazis came to power. A survivor of the concentration camps, with half of his relatives dead, Schonfeld came to the United States and struggled to create a new life. Although he became a successful academic doctor, medical researcher and administrator, married and had children, he couldn’t forget the horrors of the past, which affect him to this day.

For tickets and more information about the Jewish Book Festival, call 314-442-3299 or go to

* In other book-related news, Mitch Albom of Tuesdays With Morrie fame will be in St. Louis to talk about his new book, Have a Little Faith, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Congregation Shaare Emeth, 11645 Ladue Road.

Albom’s book centers on two men he gets to know well. One is the elderly rabbi from Albom’s childhood hometown who asks the author to write his eulogy while the other is a young Detroit pastor and reformed drug dealer who preaches to the poor and homeless in a decaying church with a hole in its roof.

There is no cost to attend but donations will be accepted for the congregation’s scholarship fund. For more information, call 314-569-0010.