(photo credit: HBO)
A little Yiddish goes a long way as the evocative title of a documentary premiering tonight on HBO.
Like the first word of its name, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags combines equal parts affection, nostalgia and social commentary as it traces the history of New York City's Garment District, where tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants took their first jobs as American citizens.
Laboring alongside other newcomers, largely of Italian descent, the Jewish workers of the Garment District played a key role in making New York a center of the clothing industry - not as designers or merchants, but as tailors, seamstresses and machine operators. Struggling in the sweatshops of turn-of-the-century New York, they also stood at the vanguard of the movement for humane working conditions, leading the fight to unionize and paving the way, the film argues, for many of the innovations that would become a part of the New Deal.
Much of the movement's success came in the aftermath of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 - in which more than 140 female garment workers, trapped on the upper stories of their building, burned to death or died leaping from the factory's windows. "Most of them could barely speak English," The New York Times reported. "Many of them came from Brooklyn."
Never glamorous, working in the Garment District would become a reliable and honorable way of supporting a family, at least during the district's golden age in the 1940s and 1950s. A gateway into America's expanding middle class, the area also became a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany - including Julius Stern, a 50-year veteran of the Garment District who would rise to the presidency of Donna Karan, Inc.
But even as many of America's manufacturers continued to enjoy the country's remarkable post-war expansion, the Garment District began to suffer the effects of a new economic blight - a phenomenon now known as outsourcing, which has reduced the proportion of Americans' clothes made in the US from 95 percent in 1965 to just 5% today. An old TV commercial excerpted in Schmatta implores consumers to buy US-made clothing out of patriotism - a plea that seems both poignant and quaint in the current climate.
Jewish Americans' move away from the garment district and up the socioeconomic ladder has become readily apparent, says Marc Levin, the film's director. Jokingly saying you're in the "schmatta business" - the word means "rag" in Yiddish - no longer means much today. "We were surprised by how many people didn't know what it meant at the [Fashion Institute of Technology] graduation," Levin says.
Nevertheless, he continues, the word "grabbed people's attention, even if they didn't know the language. For those who did, it brought a smile to their face - there are so many people all over America who can trace their family narratives to the Garment District."