What, It Ain't Chopped Liver? Never Fear! Max and Malcolm, the Kosher Kops, Are on the Case

updated 09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 01:00AM

It is 3 a.m., and while most of the city sleeps, something doesn't look kosher down at New York's 14th Street wholesale meat market. There is the usual frenzy of crude truckers bringing in fresh carcasses. There is the standard outpost of hookers in their leather jackets casually picking up strays. But who are these two tough little bozos in the funny outfits sneaking looks inside the delivery trucks? One guy has a phony mustache and is faking a limp. The other is wearing his wife's curly wig and a mangy coat. They look like a couple of wise-guy Danny DeVitos trying to cause every kind of trouble.

You could ask them what's going on, but Max Goldgrab, 66, and Malcolm Mintz, 57, won't give you the right time. That's because these former butchers only answer to a higher authority. They are undercover inspectors for the Kosher Law Enforcement division of the N.Y. State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Kosher kops.

Even in such outlandish outfits and during such unlikely midnight forays, the boys, as these over-age sleuths are called by their wives, are playing—you should pardon the expression—for very big stakes. Every single day more than a million pounds of kosher food is sold in New York State. Because the kosher ritual is so strict and arduous, kosher poultry and lamb and tongue can command double the price of nonkosher meat. And there are people who would not hesitate to cut a nonkosher corner for a fast profit.

"If you put a kosher mark on something, it's better than a contract with the Defense Department," says Rabbi Schulem Rubin, the tough-minded boss who took over the kosher law enforcement unit nine years ago. At the time, the unit was an inside joke—writing a pitifully small number of violations and assessing a piddling $6,500 annually in fines. It has since increased in size, and the number of violations has climbed to an annual average of 250, with 2,000 warnings. Penalties now average $100,000 a year. Gov. Mario Cuomo last year pledged his administration to "continue its leadership in monitoring the practice and purity of kosher foods."

All this is comforting and may even strike a little hot fear into the cold heart of a fraudulent wholesaler, but it won't necessarily make everything kosher. This is a tough, unending battle. And it is not very polite. "I have been called a Nazi to my face," says Rabbi Rubin. Knowing what goes on behind closed meat lockers, the rabbi has stopped eating meat. "I see how easy it is to manipulate the tags," he says.

When Rabbi Rubin assumed command of the kosher squad, he made a revolutionary change—although it was brilliantly simple. He brought in butchers as investigators. The tradition had been to use rabbis, who knew about religious law but didn't understand the subtleties of meat. A butcher, on the other hand, can look at a spread of chopped liver and tell by the color if it's kosher. Pale chicken livers that have not been broiled, and their blood not properly drained, are not kosher.

There are now 12 investigators (no women) in kosher law enforcement. The change that really bore fruit, so to speak, was when Rabbi Rubin put together this hot team, this Starsky and Hutch, this Pastrami Vice Squad—or, as they sign their reports, "Mister M and Mister G."

Max Goldgrab was 15 when his parents brought him to America from Poland in 1934. Religion and trade were a tangle of mutual beliefs, and Max—as did Malcolm—studied at a yeshiva (a Jewish theological school), then dropped out to work as a butcher.

The family lived in Brooklyn, and Max—a bodybuilder and boxer—competed in the Golden Gloves. "At two minutes, 58 seconds of the first round in the first fight, I knocked the guy out," he recalls. He had a few more fights, but his father saw his name in a newspaper and forced Max to quit boxing. He and a brother opened a butcher shop, which closed in 1978.

Malcolm, the son of a kosher butcher and rabbi, lives in Flatbush. He used to run into Max at the wholesaler's when they both owned butcher shops. They were, at best, casual friends. Malcolm sold his business in 1980, and a year later he and Max became a team with "Rubin's Raiders."

"We were a good team right away," says Max.

"I didn't need the money," says Malcolm, who earns $26,000 a year (Max gets $27,000). "I figured I could do some good for myself and my community."

The rabbi shipped them off to Buffalo. The intrepid investigators traveled up and down the state, from supermarkets to hotels, inspecting the goods. In a plastic cooler in the state car they carried a supply of home-cooked kosher foods.

They have learned little tricks of the trade as they have gone along. They stroll into a market in Albany, breaking up as they enter, making it hard for the staff to follow them both. One goes up one aisle, and the other plays decoy. No shopping cart, just a notepad. Everything is nice. Clean. They stop at the kosher deli counter. Malcolm spots it first. The chopped liver spread. Where's the manager?

"What's the problem?" he asks.

"The chopped liver spread—$2.29 a pound."

"A bargain," says the manager.

"Exactly," replies Malcolm. Too cheap. Too pale.

He tears off the label; no kosher marking is visible.

Chalk up another collar by the kosher kops.

"The price told us right away," says Malcolm afterward.

They travel randomly, stopping in the Catskills, stalking the kosher refrigerators, freezers and food warehouses, looking for signs, indications, something only a butcher would know. There is some concern at a hotel about a meringue mix and some popcorn, but nothing you can put your finger on.

Not like 1984, their biggest year, when they blew one of the biggest fraudulent poultry operators out of the kosher meat locker. It began with a tip that Nat Kagan Meat & Poultry, Inc., a major provider of produce to the Cats-kills, was shipping hamburger meat that wasn't kosher. The boys installed an operative with a radio transmitter inside the Woodridge, N.Y. plant. "We were sitting in the car all week long, but on Friday, about noon, we got a call that they're coming out with 22 ribs of nonkosher beef." Kagan was fined $25,000.

In December of the same year, the kops rolled up their biggest score. According to a tip, a Brooklyn wholesaler was sneaking nonkosher meat into his warehouse between 3 and 5 in the morning. It was an elaborate scam, with the drivers of unmarked trucks stopping to phone ahead to make sure nobody was watching. One night, after long and difficult surveillance, Goldgrab and Mintz witnessed such a delivery and pounced. They seized the evidence and brought it to their own freezer. Last April the wholesaler was fined $1,012,400—by far the largest penalty ever imposed for kosher fraud.

Max and Malcolm have seven children and 15 grandchildren between them. They and their wives vacation together. Sometimes, late at night, the men go out to what may seem like play. They slip into wigs and false mustaches and affect phony limps and hang around the 14th Street market because they hear, through that sensitive grapevine, that someone is switching kosher with nonkosher. It could be something. Or it could be just another bum steer.

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