Guns and Gefilte Fish?

Rich Cohen
Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams in Jewish America
Simon & Schuster

Contrary to the received wisdom of Hollywood and popular fiction, hoods with names that ended in vowels didn't begin to dominate the newspapers until the late 1920s. Before then, from about World War I until near the end of prohibition, perhaps a majority of the most capable and creative gangsters in America--Monk Eastman, Arnold Rothstein, Moe Dalitz, Waxey Gordon, King Solomon, Meyer Lansky, Doc Stacher, Lepke Buchhalter, Jacob Shapiro, Bo Weinberg, Arthur Fleggenheimer (a.k.a. Dutch Schultz), Ben "Bugsy" Siegel, Mickey Cohen--were Jewish. Rich Cohen's Tough Jews is about the suppressed if not entirely forgotten lore of the Jewish gangster in America, "less a straight history," writes Cohen, "than the story of a Brooklyn gang as seen through the eyes of my father and his friends... ." The book's subtitle is Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams in Jewish America; it might also have been called A Secret History of the Jewish Gangster.

Jews of Cohen's father's generation have a favorite gangster the way Catholics "have a patron saint," Cohen starts. And the author is quite good at evoking the vanished world of the all-Jewish neighborhoods that spawned Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Dutch Schultz, the delis and barbershops where the facts metamorphosed into legend. He's also good at pinning down the nature of the Jewish-Italian alliance that grew into what would be popularly known as the syndicate. "It was a marriage of convenience," one underworld observer tells Cohen. "It was a marriage of the three M's: moxie, muscle, money. The Jews put up the moxie, the Italians supplied the muscle, and together they split the money." Cohen can't help but share his father's sneaking admiration for these thugs: "Here were men who had no idea Jews are supposed to be weak, so they weren't."

The problem with Tough Jews is that Cohen is lost when he wanders from these old neighborhoods into the historical world of organized crime. Despite Cohen's fascination with the now-vanished Jewish underworld, he really hasn't done much research on it. Cohen's major texts seem to be Albert Fried's admirable The Rise and Fall of The Jewish Gangster in America and Burton Turkus and Sid Feder's Murder, Inc: The Story of The Syndicate. After these titles, though, the author relies much too heavily on third-hand sources such as The Mafia Encyclopedia and The World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime, and, worse, Walter Winchell's autobiography, Things That Happened to Me--And Me to Them--books which have been recycling nonsense about the Mafia and organized crime for decades.

For instance, the old Mafia Dons, the so-called "Mustache Petes," did not trace their roots back to the "Black Hand of Sicily," as Cohen claims, nor is any real crime scholar today convinced there ever was such an organization. The idea that a coalition of young Italian and Jewish hands staged an uprising in 1930 that wiped out the old Sicilian hierarchy, the so-called "Night of The Vespers," has as much historical validity as a re-run of The Untouchables.

And the historical fiction doesn't stop there. Short on facts, Cohen revives a bad narrative idea that should have died with the pulp nonfiction of the '40s and '50s, namely inventing dialogue. (Every time Cohen quotes Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, or Bugsy Siegel without citing his sources, the reader, like the character in the old vaudeville routine, may want to ask Cohen, "Vas you dere, Charlie?") What Cohen doesn't invent he often guesses at: "As Lepke listened to the killers, he probably asked questions. Maybe he asked them to repeat things...Maybe he spoke softly...Probably he took his time...Hearing him talk on such occasions was probably like hearing someone read a key to a crossword puzzle out loud." Cohen probably should have written a novel.

Tough Jews is not as shoddy as this might sound, but it often seems as though Cohen hasn't thought through his fascinating subject, and it's disappointingly immature in its near approval of the criminal element. If the most notorious Jewish gangsters were merely "playing what was dealt...trying to survive on the streets," what were the millions of respectable Jews doing who didn't commit murder or extort money? Such insufficiencies in Tough Jews are best pointed out by a passage from a 1990 book by Paul Breines (which Cohen seems unaware of): "A critique of tough Jews begin and end with a summons gently to abolish the conditions that generate toughness itself."

The title? Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewery.

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