But He was Good to His Mother
The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters
By Robert A. Rockaway
Gefen Publishing House, 2000, 288 pages ISBN 978-965-229-249-0
Robert A. Rockaway, an historian and a member of the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, wrote this engaging, often funny history of several dozen Jewish American gangsters from the beginning of Jewish settlement in the US until the end of World War II when the number of Jewish criminals declined sharply.
Jews have been known to have made a significant positive contribution to American and world life, far larger than their representation in society, but being human, there were also Jews at the nether end of the social spectrum.
In 1928, Rabbi Mortimore J. Cohen bemoaned the shame "that has come to all Israel in the crimes of a lawless few. What disgrace is ours through these men, less than human, who have, without let or hindrance, dragged the Jewish name in the mud and filth of murder and corruption."
When Jews first came to the United States, they were praised for being among the country's most law-abiding and least violent citizens. This situation changed around 1880 when there was a large influx of Jews into the United States due to pogroms and other oppressions in Europe and Russia. These new arrivals were forced to live in slum-like conditions.
In 1886, a chief of detectives published a compendium of "America's leading professional criminals" most of whom lived in New York. Over four percent of the men on the list were Jewish, but this figure is low; Jews represented ten percent of the New York population.
Rockaway shows that virtually every one of these criminals was Jewish in heritage only. They knew nothing or close to nothing about Judaism and also lacked a secular education. Some could not even read.
Rockaway's stories are fascinating. For example, a leading rabbi of the Agudat Israel, an ultra Orthodox political party in Israel, convinced an American gangster to invest $100,000 to build homes for young, strictly Orthodox couples. Instead, the rabbi ripped off the gangster and used the money to build himself a hotel. The gangster sued the rabbi and won.
One gangster killed people, but when a friend of his died, he "religiously" stood outside of the funeral parlor because he was a kohen, a descendant of Aaron the first priest, who is not allowed under Jewish law to come near a dead body.
Another murderer, with a similar twisted concept of Judaism, tried not to kill anyone on the Sabbath. If he had no choice, he would put on a tallit, a prayer shawl, over his shoulders and pray before killing the person. Needless to say, the misguided criminal did not understand that the wearing of the tallit was designed to teach the Jew not to violate the law.
Unlike the Italian mafia, the Jewish gangsters had a semblance of conscience and generally did everything to assure that their family - siblings and children – would not become involved in crime. Thus Rockaway could relate that there was no instance where a Jewish criminal's child followed in his footsteps.
Rockaway tells rather remarkable tales of how the gangsters showed their love to their mothers and how they protected fellow Jews from anti-Semites. In fact some gangsters were involved in philanthropy and some made sure that the newly formed State of Israel received weapons in 1948 so that they could defend themselves against invading Arab forces.
In short, this is an unusual delightful story.