Las Vegas is hot in July — really, really hot. That didn’t stop the pioneers, though, or the gold miners, or the railroad investors. And it certainly didn’t stop legendary Jewish mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. They weren’t the types to stop and shvitz when there was good money to be laundered.
No, they saw Las Vegas as a land of opportunity. And, since then, so have many, many others — from the high rollers in Lansky and Siegel’s casinos to the Jewish families who resettled here, along with legions of other northerners, during the real estate boom.
For those who can take the heat (literally or at the blackjack table), summer is arguably the perfect time to experience Vegas. Crowds are thinner, room rates are slashed, and long desert evenings are made for lounging by the pool.
And if it’s too hot outside, take refuge in the city’s crop of new, air-conditioned cultural institutions. A hundred and one years after the city was incorporated, Las Vegas finally has its own performing arts hub on par with other urban centers, as well as pair of new museums that look nostalgically at the Golden Age of Jewish mobsters.
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened in March after a decade in which project officials toured the world, from Carnegie Hall to La Scala, seeking inspiration.
The result feels like much that is iconic in Las Vegas — European in style, with Italian marble and chandeliers, but sweepingly American in feel. The season includes resident companies Nevada Ballet Theatre and The Las Vegas Philharmonic alongside “Wicked,” Barbara Cook and Diana Krall.
If you loved the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies, you may love the city’s new Mob Museum — officially known as the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. Near the Smith Center in the heart of downtown, the Mob Museum occupies the former Federal Building where hearings on organized crime were held in the 1950s.
Lansky, Siegel, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and their Italian-American counterparts (Gotti, Gambino, Capone) are all here, along with the law-enforcement figures like J. Edgar Hoover who went after them. Visitors can explore both sides of the cat-and-mouse game through film, multimedia and interactive exhibitions. Wiretaps and kidnappings are fun, but the museum has a more thoughtful mission as well, to probe the mobsters’ societal legacy and explode some of the more sensational myths.
If you can’t get enough of Jewish mobsters, head over to the notorious Strip. At the newly reopened Tropicana hotel and casino is the also newly reopened Las Vegas Mob Attraction, an immersive hybrid of museum and show (called the Mob Experience when it first opened last year, before closing for technical upgrades). Live actors and holograms compete with vintage memorabilia of Lansky and Siegel for attention; at $28 per ticket, audience members ought to be rapt.
All of this novelty is just the latest attempt at keeping Vegas fresh, something it has been remarkably able to do over the decades. In recent years the city has gone from Sin City to family-friendly and back again; along the way it sprouted celebrity-chef restaurants and high-end shopping.
But times are still tough in the city jokingly referred to as Lost Wages, and which is still reeling from the aftermath of a frenzied housing bubble. Many of those who poured into the city and its suburbs are Jews: from about 55,000 in the late 1990s, the Jewish population has soared to an estimated 75,000 and growing. It includes the current and former mayors, Carolyn Goodman and her husband Oscar.
Today’s Vegas Jews are more likely to be civic boosters — sticking with the city even as it copes with crisis — than agents of vice like Lansky. But that may be all they have in common. Especially by Western standards, Vegas Jews are a diverse lot: nearly 20 congregations represent leanings from Sephardic to Reconstructionist, with a growing Orthodox community.
The history of Nevada’s Jews, from gold rush pioneers to suburban entrepreneurs, was a highlight of this year’s longest-running Vegas cinema event — the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, now in its 11th year.
Many of the films were screened in the southeastern suburb of Henderson, itself Nevada’s second-largest city. Henderson and Summerlin — a planned community partly within Las Vegas city limits — have established themselves as hubs of Jewish life in large part because they are compact and walkable, giving Jews easy access to schools, shuls and kosher pizza.
Kosher pizza probably wasn’t around in Lansky’s day. But in a way, the new Jews of Las Vegas are just the latest in a storied history of Western pioneers.