Say this for the bad guys, they had the better names. Old New York had gangs like the Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, Daybreak Boys, Swamp Angels, Slaughter Housers, the Forty Thieves, and the Hudson Dusters. This is Jewish history, kid. We may be talking about your zeide; in 1921, in New York jails, 20 percent of all prisoners were Jewish. And that’s just who got caught.
But these were real Jews, not like Sandy Koufax who only sat down on Yom Kippur. Murder Incorporated’s Red Levine let it be known that he never killed on Saturdays because he didn’t work on Shabbat.
Abner (Longy) Zwillman, a New Jersey mob boss, went to gangland funerals but stayed outside the cemetery; he was a Kohen.
Albert (Tick-Tock) Tannenbaum was a nice Jewish kid whose family owned a Catskills hotel in Loch Sheldrake. There, Albert met a guest, Jacob (Gurrah) Shapiro, who introduced the kid to the Syndicate’s Louis Lepke, who also summered in Loch Sheldrake. The lake was beautiful for dumping bodies, not to mention the lime pit not far from the hotel’s tea room. Down the road, Abe (Kid Twist) Reles had a bungalow in White Lake.
A few weeks ago, in a Jewish deli, we met up with Rich Cohen, author of the new “Tough Jews: Fathers and Sons and Gangster Dreams” (Simon & Schuster). No, Cohen, who’s been writing for Rolling Stone, doesn’t have an odd nickname, but he comes from such a good-looking family that in Bensonhurst his father was called Herbie “Handsomo” Cohen, or “General Gorgeousimo Franco.”
“I’ll put it this way,” says Cohen, 29, “Today there are gangsters who are Jewish, but there aren’t Jewish gangsters. In those days you had a Jewish mob, coming from a Jewish slum, identified as Jewish, the way the Italian mob was identified as Italian. Meyer Lansky first met Arnold Rothstein at a bar mitzvah. Business would be transacted at a bris. Now you have a Russian Jewish mob, but they’re Russian more than Jewish. The old guys spoke Yiddish, hung out in the delis.
Cohen’s grandparents owned a Brooklyn diner where the regulars included Kid Twist Reles, who was always ugly but not always mean. “When my grandmother went into labor with my Uncle Marvin,” says Cohen, “she was alone at the diner, so Kid Twist drove her to the hospital.
Years later, says Cohen, Kid Twist, under pressure from his wife to quit the mob and spend more time with his family, decided to sing to the cops for immunity. The Kid was sequestered in Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel, under around-the-clock protection. One dawn, before he could spill the goods on Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel, Kid Twist — while guarded by 16 cops — ended up out the window, five floors down and 20 feet away, “as if shot from a cannon,” says Cohen.
The police somehow ruled Kid Twist was not murdered and did not commit suicide. It was an accident, don’t you know. Cohen says the mob joked about this canary who could sing but couldn’t fly.
Cohen says some Jewish gangsters named themselves after earlier mob idols. “Kid Twist was the name of a fearsome gangster from an earlier era. Same with Dutch Schultz. His real name was Arthur Flegenheimer, but he named himself after a German gangster from the Frog Hollow Gang, back when there were just gangs, not mob families.
Names such as “Bugsy,” explains Cohen, were given to guys who were crazy like a bug. “A Bugsy was a recurring type, ‘there’s another Bugsy, he’s a Bugsy.’ There was Bugsy Workman, Bugsy Goldstein, Bugs Moran, Bugsy Siegel. These were the crazy gangsters, hot heads, quick triggers, the takers of stupid risks.
But Arnold Rothstein, perhaps the greatest Jewish gangster of them all, was “the Brain.” Cohen writes that Rothstein “would find that perfect mix of grace and violence, bluff and bravado, sophistication and brutality, that would become the modern American gangster.” Born rich, on the Upper East Side, Rothstein showed the young hoods “how a gentleman carries himself. In the way that every great stylistic invention seems a convergence of high and low, a cultural cross-pollination, Rothstein was taking his uptown sophistication to [the Brooklyn and Lower East Side Jewish gangsters] downtown. He had more influence on the look of American criminals than Jackie O had on middle-class housewives. Jackie brought hats, gloves, big sunglasses. Arnold brought wing-tip shoes, silk suits, expensive hats.
And, no, Rothstein didn’t fix the 1919 World Series. “He was a businessman,” writes Cohen, “just like so many of those fathers who, returning each day from the city, disappear into neat suburban homes — whose wives, when all is said and done, have no idea what their husbands do. He had broken through the traditional confines of the underworld and came out in a place where the line between the criminal and the commendable is vague and unreal.
It was even Rothstein’s lawyer, says Cohen, who first popularized the trick of using the Fifth Amendment as a way not to testify. So, in a way, Cohen writes, Rothstein created even this, “taking the Fifth, a tactic that would come to define the American gangster.” Some of the all-star gangsters who first apprenticed with Rothstein during prohibition included: Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Legs Diamond, Waxey Gordon, Dutch Schultz, Louis Lepke and Gurrah Shapiro.
“Tough Jews” is a brilliant, fast read, with a warning to the morally and historically astute, insofar as the stories are filtered through Cohen’s father and his friends. This group, coming of age in Brooklyn during the Holocaust, admired the gangsters for “fighting back” at a time when they thought that no Jews did. And while Cohen’s book reflects this private, personal ignorance, it is no less ignorant for being personal. Narcissism is too often the alibi when it is actually the crime itself.Does it really need to be said that there were uprisings in ghettos and camps? Hannah Senesh, 23, a young woman who parachuted behind Nazi lines to organize resistance, was a tougher Jew than everyone in this book put together, even if Cohen’s father didn’t know it.
Cohen’s father instills in his son such a deviant toughness that the son asks dad, “If I can kick Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s ass, does that mean he is not the Messiah?”The father just smiles and says, “Interesting question.” Cohen writes, “For my father, every run-in with authority is a test, an indication of where he will stand against genuine evil.
So, even allowing that this is a joke, as Cohen tells me but the book doesn’t, is crudely joking about beating up the Lubavitcher rebbe “an indication of where he will stand against genuine evil?” Are there any passages in all of Jewish literature more perverse?
Meanwhile, these tough Cohens are quiet when the elder Cohen’s four closest friends in the book (including CNN’s Larry King) all change their names to appear less Jewish. There’s nothing less tough than that. I don’t want lectures from these guys about the rebbe or passive Holocaust Jews.
I’d rather go down with the gangsters. It was tough to remember the Sabbath, as did Red Levine. It was tough to be a Kohen, as was Longy Zwillman. It was tough for gangsters to keep their Jewish names: Shapiro, Lansky, Siegel, Abbadabba Berman, Lulu Rosenkrantz, Moey Dimples, Mendy Weiss, Little Farvel Cohen, Pretty Levine.Say this for the bad guys, they had the better names.