The shmatte trade

Andrew Gross’s latest novel stars the rough-and-tumble Jewish gangsters of 1930s New York City.

THE 1930S in Manhattan were rife with corruption and mob influence. (photo credit: FAIRCHILD AERIAL SURVEYS INC.)
THE 1930S in Manhattan were rife with corruption and mob influence.
Morris Rabishevsky, the protagonist of Button Man, Andrew Gross’s new novel, is a fighter who came up the hard way.
Early in the 20th century, after his father died, Morris dropped out of school and apprenticed himself at age 12 to a garment manufacturer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He mastered every aspect of the factory’s operation. At 23, Morris opened a business with his brother Sol as his partner. On his first sales call, he threw fur coats over a partition to get the buyer’s attention. Morris chased after – and married – Ruthie, a beautiful, well-educated young woman from an affluent family. And in the 1930s, he refused to knuckle under to corrupt unions, gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, and Murder, Incorporated.
The author of a boatload of bestsellers, five of them written with James Patterson, Gross based Button Man on the rags-to-riches life of his grandfather Freddie Pomerantz. It is written as a sort of valentine to the single-minded, rough, go-for-broke first-generation American Jews who made their way out of New York’s “grim, over-crowded streets,” and in time dominated the shmatte, or clothing, business.
Button Man is an old-fashioned potboiler, as well as a family saga. Gross knows how to build suspense, include a few violent scenes, and wrap things up with a surprise ending. As befits his subject, Button Man trots out (and translates) many a Yiddish phrase and does not hesitate to lay on the schmaltz.
That said, the novel is filled with stock characters. Ruthie disappears from Button Man, for example, as soon as she agrees to marry Morris, only to surface again when she gives birth to two children, then warns her husband that he can’t keep fighting the mob by himself, and declares she loves him “more than anything.”
Gross’s plot turns strain credulity. His narrator and characters often repeat the obvious, use 21st-century phrases (“It is what it is”) or lay it on too thick.
“Some things are worth fighting for,” Morris repeats, “and not giving up on so easily.” Readers already know that Morris and Ruthie “were from completely different backgrounds,” but “instead of backing down, he just kept asking her out. He didn’t take no for an answer.” And that Harry Rabishevsky “knew he might not have been blessed with the sharpest mind in the world or the most ambition,” but desperately wanted to work side by side with Morris and Sol.
BUTTON MAN is most interesting when Morris is forced to confront the character traits he shares with Louis Lepke (who climbed out of poverty by becoming a gangster), and their impact on friends and family.
“You’re thinking about this tough guy image you feel you have to live up to,” Ruthie tells her husband. “You’re the same as your friend Buchalter.” Angry at Morris for dividing the family by insisting that Harry is “dead” to him, Bella Rabishevsky, who has already lost one child, complains, “It’s always your pride. You need to prove you’re the big man.”
Buchalter, it turns out, has much the same idea. “We go all the way back to when I ran card games on Delancey Street.” Louis tells the Italian mobster Albert Anastasia, “He’s kind of like me, in a way. He’s a tough sonovabitch, and he doesn’t back down from much. Not scared. He’d make a great one of us, except he’s not. He’s legit. You know, good.”
Staring back at Lepke, with “an incredulous smile,” Anastasia asks, “Someone good, you’re saying?” To which Louis replies, “Yeah, good. I know it sounds crazy. But, Albert, but yeah, the thought’s crossed my mind.’”
Although he admires Morris pretty much as he is, Gross wants his hero to be more forgiving, especially to those who are weak and needy. He also wants rough, tough, pull yourself up by your own bootstrappers to set aside their stubborn pride and cooperate with incorruptible law enforcement officials, like special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey who, in Button Man and in real life, busted up Murder Incorporated, and was eventually elected governor of New York State.
Most important, perhaps, Gross is taken with two foundational concepts of Judaism.
“The Mishnah states that the world will be sustained no matter what tragedy, no matter what evil is let loose in it,” a friend tells Morris, “as long as there are 36 tzaddikim [righteous people] left in the world.”
“That’s all the world needs,” Manny repeats, though he recognizes, of course, that it won’t hurt to have more than three dozen righteous people. In the buildings on college campuses that bear their family’s names, Gross tells us, Morris Raab (née Rabishevsky) and Freddie Pomerantz also embodied the Jewish obligation of tzedaka (charity).
These days it seems clear that a return to these deceptively simple concepts, by Jews and non-Jews alike, would be most welcome.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.