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Jewish Gangsters: Giving a New Meaning to Passover

NYC History NYC Story Tour Story


Look at that shady lookin’ Gangster over there on the right!

The story of Passover tells us that Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and into the land of milk and honey. Only after forty years in the desert that is. And then the time in Israel was rather short-lived, considering the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 AD and then AGAIN by the Romans in 70 AD.

See, Jews were never really into the whole “happily ever after” thing. Probably because we’ve never seen it in our long, tortured history of slavery, exile, persecution, poverty and kvetching. (5000 years is a lot of kvetching!) So when the 1881 assassination of  Czar Alexander II of Russia set off a long, horrible series of pogroms (Government sanctioned riots) the Jews did what they had done since 3000 BC Egypt, which is pack up and run to a place they hoped would be a little bit better. (This time, without the matzoh!)

And life in America was just that: a little bit better. 12 hour factory days, and cramped, airless tenement nights. A country that didn’t really want them, didn’t understand them, and would only rarely and begrudgingly let them rise up in society. To the Jews, this was nothing new. The smart ones knew not to get their hopes up, since they knew that it was the lot of “God’s chosen people” to suffer.

I guess it’s a good thing that there were some Jews born or raised in this land of opportunity, who chose not to internalize that part of their people’s history. One constant in American history is that we are at best friendly, and at worst intolerant to each generation of incoming immigrants. Immigrants provide a fresh and willing work force, adults and children who learn English, earn degrees and aim to live the American Dream. Young Jewish children who grew up in proximity to Irish, German, Italian, Scandinavian, etc communities, saw kids who were taught to stand up for themselves and fight back if they got messed with. For Jews from the old country, fighting back could mean soldiers on horseback coming down from the hills to set fire to your village. But here in America, those who fought back were heroes.

Growing up in Lower Manhattan was a constant fight for survival and upward mobility. Some Jews were able to move up within the frameworks of society. The best examples were those who succeeded in the garment and entertainment industries, and those who worked in finance. But some Jews found a way to excel on the shadier sides of the street, whether it was in gambling, loan sharking, or bootlegging liquor. That’s right folks, some of the greatest Jewish success stories in American history were the ones that parents didn’t want their shine yingeleh learning about: The Jewish Gangsters. Or as I like to call them: The ones who put the word organized into organized crime.

Arnold Rothstein. Good lookin’ killer.

It’s important to note that although many of these gangsters were enormously successful at their rackets, racking up millions of dollars, wearing the finest suits and spending nights out at clubs with beautiful showgirls, many of them met Gangsters’ ends. Notorious gambler and bootlegging pioneer Arnold Rothstein was shot and killed over a poker debt. Strongman Jack Zelig was shot behind the ear in a trolley car for ratting out the corrupt Police Lieutenant Charles Becker. Murder Inc. mastermind Louis “Lepke” Buchalter spent two years in hiding before got the chair in 1944. Ladies man and Las Vegas pioneer Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was gunned down by unknown assailants while reading the LA Times. The only silver lining in this rogues gallery was Mob Mastermind Meyer Lansky who retired and lived a long, healthy life in Miami Beach until the age of 81. The only tragic part of his story was that (not unlike Moses) he was denied the right of return to the ancestral home of Israel.

These were the American Jews who rejected the hypothesis that Jews were supposed to be weak, timid and poor. And though they taught that sense of pride and bravery to their children, there’s a reason that a powerful Jewish Mob doesn’t exist in America today: They  told their kids to stay in school, get good jobs and not to turn out like their Pops.

By Gideon Levy.

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