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Monday, January 14, 2013

An Excursion Into The World Of Jewish Tailoring In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York

It was a cold and dark morning a week before Christmas in New York City when Rose Callahan and I got to have a talk at my room at the Waldorf. I could have stayed all day talking to Rose but I had to cut the meeting short to hail a cab and set out for my next journey.  I was en route for Crown Heights, which had been described to me as a Hasidic Jewish neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York that I must visit if I wanted to see Jewish tailoring in New York. 
It was my first time back in New York since 2001 so I was quite lost as my Nigerian cab driver took me across what I now believe to be the Brooklyn Bridge. We passed the new Barclays Nets Centre which was pretty damn special and I struck up a conversation with my driver about the cost of living in New York. He was adamant that if you knew all the angles, you could live New York on the cheap.
‘You can get a 3 dolla lunch in Chinatown, nobody gonna tell you that, but you can. I eat there all the time’. Don’t ask me how I came up with that as a Nigerian African American accent but that’s what I had in my notes. I was busy trying to get one decent photograph of the journey but it was cold and I was losing my enthusiasm as we wore on and Crown Heights did not appear immediately as we crossed over into Brooklyn. I started to have that nervous trepidation that new tourists get ‘hey, is this guy taking the piss?’
Eventually we pulled up at 1561 Union Street in Crown Heights. I was about to say to the driver that I was concerned that it wasn’t the place but he pointed once to the building number, rather emphatically, and then he drove off. It certainly did not look like what I had anticipated. My contact for my excursion was Zalman, a young Jewish guy I had met in Sydney. I had tried to sell him a yarmulke made of my finest black Mogador silk for $100 and he laughed. Today I was on his turf ready to see something different.
When Zalman answered the door I was surprised by his outfit. Whilst looking very elegant in his navy notched lapel 2 button suit, with his navy grenadine tie with yellow polka dots; it was apparent from the outset that he was still unmistakably Jewish - his yarmulke, his tzizits and his beard gave that away. Whilst it is not for me to create stereotypes, it was of course the stereotype I was looking for when I journeyed out to Crown Heights. My contact in Sydney, a young rabbi, had shown me photos of Crown Heights and it was the bearded, frock coated, oversized fedora wearing Jewish gentlemen I was looking for. Zalman, on the other hand, was dressed in a refined contemporary manner.


Zalman answers the door in Union Street, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
Zalman's Tzizits

Zalman took me in to meet my first contact, Shloime Hect. Shloime is the owner of AM Bespoke, a contemporary tailoring business based on Union Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn but with a client base which mostly either works or resides in Manhattan. Shloime’s business is not specifically catered for the Jewish community, but being in Crown Heights and servicing New Yorkers has meant that Shloime has adapted his business to design and manufacture garments specifically relating to the Jewish community. Within his range he is able to make yarmulkes (skull caps), kapotes (long black coats) and to source fedoras. We will discuss this in detail further on.


Shloime and a recent kapote completed
I sat with Zalman and Shloime for about half an hour and asked as many questions I could about traditional Jewish tailoring but my questions could not all be answered. As Shloime explained, AM Bespoke offered contemporary menswear for the younger Jewish sect who were not limited to black and white. AM Bespoke was making elegant modern suiting using cloths like Prince of Wales checks, birdseyes, and super 120 twill wools in navy, grey and beige to name but a few. They were trying to move away from the traditional world of the stereotype which was in fact what I had come looking for. Still, Shloime and my contact Zalman were the best points to start. They knew why I had come and they explained to me a few major points about Jewish tailoring.
The stereotype I had held in my mind for an Orthodox Jewish man was that he wore a yarmulke, a big black felt hat, a long black coat, a white shirt,  little side strings that pop over the side of his shirt, black pants and black shoes. This is where I got my first clarification. The coat was called a ‘kapote’ and it derived from Eastern Europe, or Poland to be specific, but it was generally said to be called a ‘Prince Albert’ frock coat, named after Queen Victoria’s husband who made this ¾ coat famous. While Shloime had one to show me that was about to head back to Sydney, he explained that it was not their core business and they would take me around the corner to see a competitor's workroom. As for the hat, it was just a plain old fedora which had been modified to have a high crown and a wider brim. This caught me by surprise, I had thought it was something that would be made solely by Jews for use by other Jews. As for the side strings, they were called Tzizits and they were specifically entwined a number of times so that the multiple of this number equalled 613. The reason why they were entwined to this number, so I am told, was that there are 613 commandments dictated to the Jewish people through the Torah.  I already felt much more informed but I had a few more questions to ask.
‘So, tell me, I see a lot of young Jewish guys wearing all this stuff back from the shul around Bondi Beach on any given Saturday, even in the middle of summer, do you guys sweat or are you using something different that I don’t know about in your wool?’
‘No, we sweat like anyone else would’
‘And what about the wool? Do you use anything specific for the kapote?’
‘With the wool there is only one thing against tradition, and that is to mix wool and linen but this is not something that is specifically relating to Jewish tradition and you will most likely see this phenomenon with many cloth producing companies regardless. You will find that the most common mixes for a kapote are super 120’s merino wool, merino wool and cashmere, merino wool and silk. Mostly blends of wool and some other fibre, but not linen.’
Before I left AM Bespoke I looked over their product. It was made on the mainland of China and sent to New York within 14 working days. The suits were very well made, similar in construction to the suits of Hugo Boss, Ted Baker and so on. The fabrics books ranged from generic wools right through to the Loro Piana and Holland & Sherry books you would expect to find in most tailoring houses. If I had had more time, and given the prices, I would have considered purchasing one. Suits started from $850.00 and went to $2500.00USD. Kapotes, should you need one, started from $450.00 and a fedora started


Super 120 merino wool and cashmere; often used in the making of a kapote


 from $150.00. More importantly, AM Bespoke was able to make translate designs very well. Every document was in illustration form on the iPad that the team from AM Bespoke used. The type of felt on your coat, the collar, the lapel, the colour stitching of your button holes; every aspect of your new suit  or coat was decided on by the use of the iPad which translated the design back to the sales rep which then sent the order back to the head office. What is more, they come to you.
Zalman and Shloime inspect a recently finished suit from Am Bespoke
The next stop was to meet a kapote maker who had more experience in kapotes than AM Bespoke. I was on the hunt for a person who could pin-point exactly when and where Jewish people started wearing the ensemble previously described. But before we could go there, I was told I had to try Herring with Jalapenos from Benz’s deli. But, before I could try the Herring, I had to see the range of cufflinks and accessories of AM Bespoke at the back of local Laundromat. I bought two of my most cherished cufflinks sets, champagne flutes and 50’ microphones, before we set off to meet old Mr Benz in the back of Benz’s deli (located at 334 Albany Avenue, Brooklyn).
Benz's - most famous for herring with jalapenos
‘I am told you have the world’s best herring with jalapenos’ I said.
It was like saying ‘open sesame’. Shortly thereafter I was admitted into the back office part of the shop and there I met old Mr. Benz and he gave me some crackers to have with my herring and jalapenos. I would venture to say that although I had passed on the herring plate at Shabbos, I was now a convert. Perhaps it was New York, maybe it was the quality of the herring, could be the jalapenos, but whatever it was, it was certainly not what I had imagined herring would taste like. I fell in love almost instantly and now, as I was told by my friend Benz, I can get it from his son’s store down on Bondi Beach. It was actually quite amusing at how many of these Crown Heights fellows had family or friends back in Australia.


On the shelf at Benz's deli, Crown Heights, New York

The next stop we had was to meet Mendy Sacho. Mendy was a competitor of AM Bespoke but at the same time there was generally a good feeling amongst competitors that it was still one community. Mendy specialised more in kapotes than AM Bespoke and sold a huge number of fedoras through Primo Hatters. I met Mendy inside the store Primo Hatters. 


Mendy Sacho at Primo Hatters
Outside of Primo Hatters  (366 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn) were six or seven columns of Borsalino fedoras stacked up that had just been delivered and were ready to be stocked on the shelf for the festive season rush. It was here that I got a run down on Jewish hats.  I had believed that the hat was specifically made by Jewish artisans. I was wrong. The very fact that the hats were made by Borsalino threw me. I then enquired as to what the big difference was between a Jewish hat and that of a standard fedora.
‘There is no big difference; you just have a higher crown and a wider brim’. It was said with the kind of laconic rationalism you expect of a wise old Jewish guy. By this stage I was having the time of my life. I was trying on kapotes, picking up fedoras and checking myself out in the mirror whilst organising camera shots. In a strange way I felt home – though I was quite sure I was the only chap on the block without the snip.
After my flirtation with another life I might have lead as a Chabad Jew (by the way, Chabad means ‘Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge’ – isn’t that beautiful!) , Mendy suggested I walk up to see the workroom above Primo Hatters. Upstairs he showed me some of the subtle intricacies to a kapote which often go unnoticed. For one, the kapote’s single vent usually has one side curved and the other side straight as a mark of Jewish tradition. It is also possible to choose a different material for the collar, with some men choosing felt or fur. In other variations, and sometimes denoting seniority, it is possible for the lapel to be made of silk and the buttons on the double breasted coat change from four to six to eight. Again, whilst some of this will denote seniority and some of it may point to sects of Chasidism Judaism, none of these points hold true in all situations. Although there are different sects of chasidim  eg: Chabad, Gur, Satmar, all which derive from the towns from where they originated from, there is no over-riding difference between sects in terms of their dress. 
 


By the end of the my excursion I had purchased my own Hebrew Hammer fedora and I was talking to Mendy Sacho about sending me a kapote but the time slipped away and I had to get back to my hotel. Coming back to it now I realised I ought to have headed out there again after I returned to New York but it is a fast city and the nature of a working holiday is that you usually have commitments on every day. 





A few weeks later I was back in Sydney and I gave my rabbi friend a lift home. He asked me about my time in Crown Heights and then, after I told him that I would find it rather difficult to be a full time man of faith, I asked him a spiritual question relating to marriage. I told him that I was worried that at times I was driven by my animal which could be more powerful than intellect in my opinion. He then asked me what I would do if I could use my intellect to harness the power of my animal and to use it for good. It was a small moment when I felt like I had truly connected with someone. He got out of my car and said ‘one day, you might be buried with the righteous gentiles’. He shut the door and I drove off. And, so ended my excursion into the world of Jewish tailoring of Crown Heights.

A Bespoke Tuxedo By Am Bespoke
Art on the wall at Primo Hatters
Mendy shows me the finer points behind a kapote
The sidewalks of Crown Heights

An AM Bespoke Kapote
God is in the detail.... Your initials hand sewn into the your belt loops
Borsalino had a great day....

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