As a youngster in Paterson, Edith Sobel recalls how her ears would perk up whenever she overheard her parents talking about the Jewish gangsters who became leaders in America’s underworld. Names like Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Longy Zwillman were whispered in hushed tones around the dinner table. Sobol was intrigued by these tough characters who were members of her own people. They were brash, had chutzpah, and defied the stereotype of the weak “Shtetl Jew.”
While not excusing their criminal activities, Sobel calls them “a colorful, exciting part of our American heritage that makes for fascinating discussion.” Today, Sobel is a Fort Lee resident and senior citizen who remains captivated by Jewish mobsters and will deliver a talk about them at the JCC on the Palisades (JCCOTP) on three consecutive Thursdays from November 3-17 at 1:30 p.m. The program is titled: “Jewish Gangsters: But they were good to their Mothers.”
Sobel, a former editor of the Jewish Community News of Bergen and Passaic Counties, has parlayed her education and experience into a career on the lecture circuit delivering lectures critiquing literary, cinematic, cultural, and Jewish and Zionist subjects. In addition, she has facilitated an ongoing Autobiography Group for several years at the JCCOTP.
Like many poor immigrants who were new to the country and eager to climb up the ladder of American success, these Jews became involved in criminal careers. Their ventures, most of which sprang up from the Lower East Side of New York between World War I and World War II, ranged from bootlegging, to racketeering and white slavery to murder, said Sobol. Today’s Jews no longer “cook” the competition as the gangsters did. Now they simply “cook” the books, she said.
There were some little known characters, like “Monk Eastman,” who never used brass knuckles or a blackjack when he slugged a woman, said Sobol, or Samuel “Red” Levine, who was “strictly Orthodox.” He always wore a skullcap and used a special fleishik (meat) knife for the times he had to cut a throat, she said.
While many among the Jewish gangsters were known as brutes, others were renowned for their intellect. Among them was Arnold (“The Brain”) Rothstein. Writer Leo Katcher credited him with transforming organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run much like a corporation, with himself at the helm. He also accomplished a feat that has never been replicated: he fixed the 1919 World Series. It’s been popularly said that had he applied his intellectual prowess to talmudic studies, he would have been remembered as a dazzling sage, said Sobol.
Rothstein, according to popular legend, first met Meyer Lansky at a bar mitzvah celebration and helped get him into the bootlegging business. When Rothstein was shot in 1928 in New York City, his funeral was officiated by Rabbi Leo Jung, a renowned scholar and spiritual leader of an Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s upper west side. Rothstein’s father was a respected member of the synagogue,and a friend of Rabbi Jung.
Erica Brown, in her book “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond when Jews Do Bad Things,” said that Jung eulogized Rothstein as a great philanthropist to many charitable institutions while neglecting to bring up the less favorable parts of his life. The eulogy, not surprisingly, raised a lot of discussion among Jews who questioned whether such an evil person deserves a eulogy. According to Brown, however, Jung revealed that his act was a means of honoring the upstanding parents of this less than stellar character.
Lansky was said to be responsible for helping to build up Las Vegas by financing Siegel’s casino development. The two men were longtime friends, but despite the friendship, Lansky eventually had Siegel killed after he lost too much money on his hotel. In 1970, fearing indictment for income-tax evasion and a call to a grand jury, Lansky fled to Israel, where he claimed citizenship under the Law of Return. Israel, however, eventually sent him back to the United States, where he faced several indictments. In 1973, he was convicted of grand jury contempt, but acquitted of income-tax evasion. I
While their acts of crime should be reviled, their acts of good must be pointed out, said Sobol. They were passionate protectors of their families and of the Jewish people. Several of them raised money for Jewish causes, and provided aid and arms to the fledgling State of Israel. They protected the Jews in their neighborhoods from anti-Semitic attacks, and waged war against the Nazis who gathered in New York, Boston, and other communities in the 1930s and ’40s. There were recorded incidents in which the Jewish mob descended on Nazi rallies and beat them up.
“They certainly weren’t good people,” Sobel said, “but they were devoted to their families, the Jews in the neighborhood and to the State of Israel.”