Author Tod Goldberg goes gangster

Tod Goldberg was excited to have his author photo taken for the jacket of his new crime novel, “Gangsterland” (Counterpoint Press).

“I’ve always wanted to be one of those dudes that dresses like their characters on their book jackets,” Goldberg said. “Any crime writer that’s wearing a trench coat and has a bulldog on a leash, I always think, ‘Yeah, you’re living it, dude.’ That’s my life. I want that.”

His actual author photo is far more conservative. Although Goldberg may be a nice Jewish boy who dreams of passing as a gangster, he’s far from the antihero protagonist of “Gangsterland,” a legitimate Chicago Mafia killer-for-hire who disguises himself as a rabbi in the Las Vegas suburbs. 

After killing three undercover FBI agents in a drug deal gone wrong, Sal Cupertino goes underground, where a plastic surgeon rewires his jaw to reconstruct his face. He spends weeks poring over the Talmud and midrash in order to convince synagogue members that he is Rabbi David Cohen. Sal takes a while to grow into his new identity: “David Cohen? That wasn’t a tough guy. That was a guy who fixed your glasses. That was your lawyer.”

It sounds far-fetched, but the transformation of Cupertino into Cohen is the true joy of “Gangsterland.” The hardened hit man, nicknamed “The Rain Man” for his impeccable memory and attention to detail, grapples with the biblical stories of the prophet Ezekiel (“a complete whack job of the first order”), the Jewish interpretation of life after death (“it involved Jews rolling from their graves all the way to Israel, which made no sense whatsoever”) and passing off Bruce Springsteen lyrics as talmudic proverbs.

Goldberg, director of the low-residency MFA creative-writing program at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Center, lived in Las Vegas from 1998 to 2000, the period “Gangsterland” takes place. He wrote a regular column for Las Vegas City Life and is currently a book critic for Las Vegas Weekly. This is Goldberg’s 10th work of fiction; he’s also written two nonfiction books about Las Vegas — a guide to food and drink, and a guide to Sin City’s seedy, after-hours nightclub scene, although his publisher folded just before the latter book’s release. “There’s copies of that book somewhere in existence, but I’ve never actually seen it,” Goldberg joked. “But I got to take strip club dances off my taxes that year.”

Much of the action in “Gangsterland” takes place in Summerlin, an affluent, master-planned community bought and developed by the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. It’s described as an opulent expanse of conspicuous consumption, filled with “precisely manicured lawns, pastel and cream homes, and gold Lexuses.” It’s that sense of newfound wealth that makes the desert landscape a fitting place in which to disappear — and to hatch illegal moneymaking schemes.

“Nothing actually takes place on the Strip in the novel, because I think the really weird, dark side of Las Vegas happens in the suburbs” —  where the gangsters actually go home at night — he said.  “I’m sort of fascinated by the minutiae of how evil people go about their daily lives.”

Rabbi Cohen is tasked with overseeing Temple Beth Israel and its cemetery, which the Mafia uses to bury its “war dead,” the victims of gang violence and retribution. He makes an additional income by harvesting the tissue and organs and selling them to hospitals. It’s not your typical gangster lifestyle, but it’s part of a larger story — the changes in organized crime since “The Godfatherand other Mafia novels were published in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Now that online gambling is legal, casinos are multinational corporations, and marijuana and other drugs are easy to find, Goldberg said, you don’t need to go to someone who might break your kneecaps. “The Mafioso that we grew up with as kids — this big dude eating pasta who’s a Corleone in our movie memories — is now some 25-year-old dude in a shiny shirt who’s hacking into your bank account.”

While Rabbi Cohen eases into his new life, ousted and disgraced FBI agent Jeff Hopper is calling up old sources to track Sal Cupertino down and take revenge for the murder of his team of agents. It becomes a breathtaking cat-and-mouse game that forces readers to wonder which side they’re on.

The novel came out of a short story, “Mitzvah,” published in his 2009 book, “Other Resort Cities.” To flesh out the character of Rabbi David Cohen, Goldberg dived into the sacred texts to understand what kinds of things a rabbi might say, and regularly logged on to to chat with a Chabad employee in real time for an authentic rabbinic perspective. And, sometimes, he’d go to Sherman’s Deli in Palm Springs, near his home in La Quinta, and eavesdrop on conversations.

Sal Cupertino’s transformation into a rabbi doesn’t keep him from continuing to kill people in order to cover up his trail. But despite his new life, he daydreams about reuniting with his wife, Jennifer, and their infant son, William, and making a clean break.

“I wanted to write something about the Mafia, about religion and about family that looked at all three of them in a different light,” Goldberg said. “That what we think we have loyalty to is not what we actually have loyalty to.”

Goldberg was going through a lot of personal issues as he wrote “Gangsterland.” His parents had both died; he’d just turned 40, and his “midlife crisis,” as he put it, coincided with his research into Judaism. He said that that period of grappling with metaphysical issues helped him deal with those very real struggles. “I’m not an observant Jew by any stretch of the imagination, but my cultural and spiritual awareness and enlightenment is so much more now,” he said.

Although there are Jewish themes that run throughout the book, it’s not just for Jewish readers — at its heart, it’s a deeply funny crime novel about the competing desires for justice and survival — and the battle between doing what’s right and doing what’s necessary.

Meyer Lansky, hero and villain, back from the dead and live on stage

When he died peacefully as a retired businessman in Miami on Jan. 15, 1983, the New York Times headlined the sizeable obituary, “Meyer Lansky dead at 81; Financial Wizard of Organized Crime.”

A few paragraphs down, an FBI agent, who had dogged Lansky for decades, expressed his admiration for the acumen of the deceased, saying, “He would have been the chairman of the board at General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business.”

The story of how young immigrant Meier Suchowljansky became “the financial genius of the underworld” is told in Mike Burstyn’s gripping one-man show, now at the Odyssey Theatre.

The uninterrupted play focuses on one particular episode in Lansky’s later life: his desperate attempt in 1970 to get away from the Feds by moving to Israel and, like any other Jew, claim citizenship under the Law of Return.

For once, Lansky’s ruthless shrewdness, combined with generous donations to the right people, didn’t work. Prime Minister Golda Meir bridled at the thought of the “mafia” infiltrating Israel, and President Nixon let it be known that Uncle Sam would be mightily displeased if Lansky slipped through his fingers.

But in making his case to the Israel Supreme Court (and the audience) as to why he was entitled to stay in the Jewish state, Lansky reviews much of his life.
Sure, he illegally slaked the thirst of the American masses during Prohibition, but so had the respectable Bronfmans and Kennedys, right?

Of course, he had worked hand-in-glove with his boyhood pals, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, in running gambling empires in Miami, Cuba and Las Vegas, and sometimes a few folks had to be roughed up, but he personally had never killed a man, not one.

And throughout, he had been a good Jew and patriot. In the 1930s, when the German-American Bund had rallied at Madison Square Garden, he and some of his muscle boys had attended and “persuaded” the Nazis to take to their heels.

After Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. Navy couldn’t figure out how to identify potential saboteurs among longshoremen at New York harbor, Lansky visited his pal Luciano, who ran the docks from his jail cell, and the problem was solved instantly.

How about in 1948, when American munition makers shipped their wares to Arab states while the U.S. government slapped an embargo on supplies to the nascent Jewish state? Who was it that arranged to “divert” some of the ships to Israel, while arms bound for Egypt were mysteriously dumped at sea?

It’s fortunate that Burstyn is not only a compelling actor but has a fabulous memory, because for 90 continuous minutes he is never off the stage, and never stops talking.

“Lansky” is playing at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles through Aug. 19, with evening performances Wednesday through Saturday and weekend matinees.

Spectator – ‘Soprano’ Sings on Jewish Couch

A month into the new and perhaps final season of “The Sopranos,” it’s high time to consider our favorite TV mobster’s predilection for Jews.

Of course, “The Sopranos” features its share of corrupt Jews as well as several marginally anti-Semitic wiseguys. Yet Tony Soprano has evinced a decidedly philosemitic streak.

The tradition — in life and in fiction — of Jewish ties to the Mafia is a rich, albeit rocky, one. Tony’s cinematic predecessor, the original Godfather, Vito Corleone, famously respected and did business with Hyman Roth, but never trusted him. Tony, on the other hand, not only trusts but loves Herman “Hesh” Rabkin, a mob-connected retired record producer who was close to Tony’s late father. Judging from his unwillingness to take Hesh’s money, Tony has more respect for his father’s old friend than he does for the Italian-blooded members of the family.

And the feeling extends beyond Hesh to other characters and situations. But the most important Jewish element on the show is not a character but a process: psychoanalysis.

As Tony’s megalomaniacal mother put it: “Everybody knows that it’s a racket for the Jews.”

The twist is that while Tony decides to engage in a quintessentially Jewish form of soul-searching, he settles on an Italian woman, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a paisan as Tony says, to be his guide.

But, in the end, this Italian woman blocks his Jewish road to redemption. She means well, and makes some morally courageous stands, but Melfi’s judgment is ultimately clouded by the exhilaration of treating a charismatic Mafioso, hampering her ability to help trigger a meaningful transformation in Tony.

This dynamic contrasts sharply with the one between Tony’s wife, Carmela, and a psychiatrist recommended by Melfi, a stern white-bearded fellow named Krakower (first name: Sigmund).

“You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him,” Krakower tells Carmela during their first and last visit. “You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about, so long as you’re his accomplice…. Take the children — what’s left of them — and go.”

Carmela resists the advice.

“You’re not listening,” Krakower says sternly. “I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money. You can’t either. One thing you can never say: You haven’t been told.”

Krakower’s harsh advice underscores Dr. Melfi’s failures. The best she can do is help Tony become a more effective mob boss, not a better human being.

“The Sopranos” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Ami Eden is executive editor of The Forward. For a longer Soprano riff, visit

The Hit Man Who Came to Dinner

“Blood Relation” by Eric Konigsberg (HarperCollins, $25.95).

Harold “Kayo” Konigsberg has been behind bars since 1963. He has served time in more than 15 prisons and is next up for parole in 2006, when he’ll be 78. No one expects this Jewish hit man from New Jersey, who freelanced for various Mafia families and is responsible for more than 20 murders, to be a free man again.

Growing up in Nebraska, Eric Konigsberg never heard about his famous great-uncle. His parents never told him about the convict in the family, nor was Harold mentioned during visits to Eric’s grandparents in Bayonne, N.J. Eric first heard Harold’s name in 1985, while attending an Eastern boarding school. A groundskeeper at the school, a former New York City cop who had been on the mob beat, asked whether the name Kayo Konigsberg meant anything to him and explained who he was. The young Konigsberg tried bragging to his schoolmates but it didn’t get him very far, so he soon forgot his relation. Ten years later, while Eric was working on a magazine story, a former detective asked if he was related to “the famous Konigsberg.”

It was then that he got his father to admit, “That’s my Uncle Heshy.”

In 1997, Eric Konigsberg found a message on his voicemail from an unnamed person who promised a “very interesting conversation” when he called back. Harold, calling from the Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, had seen his great-nephew’s name in a magazine and realized there was a journalist in the family. When the two spoke a few nights later, the uncle invited the nephew to visit.

“Blood Relation” is Eric Konigsberg’s account of his uncle’s life, gleaned from 10 visits to the Auburn facility over three years, interviews with family members as well as the families of Harold’s victims. It also includes the author’s examination of extensive court testimony and FBI records. More than a biography in crime, this powerful book is a nuanced view of Harold in the context of his family, and the author’s own reflections on coming to know and attempting to understand his uncle.

The book is a much-expanded version of a 2001 article that Eric wrote for The New Yorker, with additional information about Harold’s many criminal exploits and the Konigsberg family history. Some have said that Eric’s experience is a writer’s dream: to discover that you have an uncle who’s a Mafia hit man, willing to talk.

In an interview at a café downtown near the Writers Room, where the 36-year-old journalist works, Konigsberg explains that when he first met his uncle, he called him Uncle Heshy, but that felt too affectionate and intimate. He then called him Uncle Harold but that also seemed too familial, so he switched to Harold, which is how he refers to him in the book.

The name Kayo came from a stint as a semipro boxer; it was derived from K.O., for knockout. Harold’s father, an Eastern European immigrant, found success in the construction business, selling a bit of bootleg slivovitz on the side. The author’s grandfather, Leo, who went on to run a large wholesale food business in Bayonne, was Harold’s older brother; Leo was known to be so scrupulous about his reputation that he wouldn’t accept a cup of coffee from any of his restaurant clients.

One of Harold’s sisters told the author that her brother was a gangster from the age of 5 on. He was “an illiterate amid a family of studious children, a malevolently wild creature in a house full of Sabbath keepers.”

When one sister won the valedictorian award at Bayonne High School, Harold stole her medal and hocked it at a pawnshop. By the time he was 23, Harold was arrested 20 times, mostly for robberies and assaults.

“He ascended the organized-crime ladder swiftly, and largely by dint of his violent reputation,” Eric writes.

Born a generation after Meyer Lansky, Kayo was active as a bookmaker, loan shark, thief and hired killer in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Overweight and bullish in strength, even in old age, he was never one of those finely tailored dons who cared about flashy clothing and well-made shoes. He has always been more interested in power than money. What he really enjoys is knowing that he put something over on people, especially those who have some authority.

In prison, he takes kosher food, although he has a great fondness for shrimp. He seems interested in family connections, always asking his nephew about relatives and keeping track of the generations. He’s devoted to his two daughters and said that when he gets out of prison, he wants to assure that his grandson has a bar mitzvah. When he was about to marry his late wife, an Italian woman, he sent an emissary to his brother Leo and his wife to see if they were comfortable with his marrying a Catholic. As Eric reports, they could only laugh.

“Every week, we’re reading about this arrest, that arrest, and we should have a problem him marrying outside of the faith,” the author’s grandmother said.

When the author began to ask family members about Harold, the majority tried to shush his inquiries. For years, most have distanced themselves from their relative. Some said they didn’t realize that he was in prison for murder, while others said they had forgotten about him. They had a sense of shame about their violent relative, and decidedly went on with their own lives, finding no place for Harold.

Ultimately, some cooperated with the author, but others were angry that he was again bringing negative attention to the family name. After Eric stayed in his grandmother’s Bayonne home for a few days, doing research and making phone calls about Harold, she asked him to check in to a hotel.

Eric’s reporting on his uncle’s crimes is a portrait of brutality. But as the journalist sees when they first meet, Harold also has a charming and seductive side. He taught himself to read as an adult and went on to learn the intricacies of the legal system, representing himself in court. Some journalists and others who knew him — Kayo inspired two fictional pieces, one by Sidney Zion and one by Peter Maas — described him with fascination and warmth, “as if he were some kind of pet monster,” Eric writes.

“I began the whole thing feeling curious about him,” Eric explains, “finding him quite intriguing, looking for opportunities to see him as a more sympathetic person. As I spent time around him, learning more about what he did, that changed. I felt no sympathy as time went on.” He adds, “It’s impossible now to feel sympathy.”

As he writes, “The funny thing about blood is, you can’t control how you feel about your relatives. Even after I had seen what Harold had done to others, I was unable to hate him quite as deeply as I wanted to, or even as much as I felt I should. And yet I was a lot less capable of wishing him any possibility of redemption than I’d have been if given the chance to forgive a stranger for the same sins. The thing about blood is that you can’t undo what fundamentally connects you to somebody else.”

The reader, too, wants to see an uplifting side of Harold, to see him as some sort of good bad guy. But this guy is truly bad.

Eric defuses the notion of Jews taking pride in having a tough guy in the tribe. “I don’t think that Jews are timid or weak,” he said. “If one thinks that way, I don’t think that a violent and mendacious criminal, a psychopathic killer, is an antidote to that. He’s not someone to take pride in.”

The author said that his uncle sometimes expressed remorse, but then in the next sentence would blame his circumstances, saying that what he did was honorable.

“There were times when he cried, saying he took responsibility for what he did,” Eric Konigsberg said, and then asks, “Who’s to say if he did? There’s so much that’s contradictory.”

In researching, Eric tracked down as many of the families of Harold’s victims as he could, visiting them in their homes and corresponding with them. Through them, he saw the ripple effects of his uncle’s trail of murder. Sometimes he felt like a goodwill ambassador on behalf of his family, bearing witness to the lives other families lost.

On his last visit with his uncle in 2001 –before the article came out in The New Yorker — Harold threatened to kill him if he published a word about him. Konigsberg, who lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and young son, hasn’t heard from his uncle since then and has no interest in seeing him again. He now understands the defensive tack taken by his relatives.

“I felt so intimidated by him. I like that he knows I’m intent on exposing as much as I could about him.”

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.


The New Melones Murders

The New Melones Lake, a reservoir near the city of Modesto, is in a quiet, rural area in central California. The reservoir resembles a river more than a lake as it winds its way among the hills of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

The reservoir is a popular fishing area, but in the middle of March its catch of the day wasn’t fish: It was four decomposed bodies of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were kidnapped from the Los Angeles area.

The grim discovery sent waves of shock and disbelief through the Los Angeles Russian-speaking community. It was as if a violent script of a Hollywood movie was suddenly real. A kidnapping plot involving millions of dollars, exotic countries sheltering criminals and serving as transfer points for the ransoms, players within the movie industry, and, finally, four — maybe five — brutal murders that made no sense. As more information becomes available and wild rumors embellish what is known, the immigrants are concerned with yet another issue: labels.

"The media will start talking about the Russian Mafia again," said a prominent physician. "In Russia we were not Russians, we were Jews. Here, to the media, to the Americans, we are all the same, we are all ‘Russians.’ People don’t realize that so many of the Russian-speaking immigrants are not Jewish, that there are so many non-Jews — Christians, Muslims, whatever — who have come here. And now we will all be tarred with the same brush — we will all be Russian mafia."

Helen Levin, the director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center agreed. "Of the four victims that were found last week, two were Jewish, two were not. Of those arrested, just one appears to be Jewish — the others are Lithuanian, Ukrainian and non-Jewish Russian. But it doesn’t matter — they will say that it was the ‘Russians’ and we will all be suspect."

The story began over a year ago when two individuals came to Los Angeles from Moscow. They wanted to produce a motion picture about Murat, a legendary rebel who fought the Russians when the czar conquered the Caucasus Mountains region. The visitors claimed to have $50 million for the budget.

They met with several of the better-known Hollywood producers, directors and actors, but when it became obvious that the pair had a lot less than $50 million — just $15 million is the figure spoken of now — the project was abandoned. One of the Russians returned home, the other decided that he liked California and wanted to stay here. His name was Georgy Safiev.

One of the people Safiev approached for help was Rita Pekler, an accountant who helped Safiev get a permanent residence permit, establish a business and buy an expensive home in Beverly Hills.

Meanwhile, Safiev kept trying to penetrate the movie industry. He too was seen as a Russian by the Americans he met, but he was neither Russian nor Jewish. His background was Lesghin — one of the many ethnicities in the Caucasus Mountains — and he became friendly with another family whose roots were in the Caucasus — the famous Georgian movie star, the beautiful Rusiko Kiknadze (a relative of Georgia’s President Eduard Shevarnadze) and her 29-year-old son, Nick Kharabadze. Kiknadze’s husband, a specialist in motion picture technology both in Russia and in the United States, Matvey (Mat) Shatz was the only Jew in this group.

Nick was a very talented, charismatic USC graduate and an aspiring movie producer. He apparently persuaded Safiev to bankroll a movie he wanted to produce. He shared the news with his good friend Alex Umansky, another young man with hopes of a career in the film industry, and the two of them told anyone who would listen about Nick’s windfall. The story of Safiev’s wealth — money he had brought with him from Russia — and Nick’s fortune, apparently excited the four men who are currently being charged in the New Melones murders. Ainar Altmanas (the only one with a Jewish surname), Jurijus Kadamovas (a Lithuanian), Petro Krylov (a Ukrainian) and Yuri Mikhel (unknown background) are charged with kidnapping Georgy Safiev on Jan. 20, Umansky on Dec. 13, and Pekler and Kharabadze in early December.

Pekler was still alive after Dec. 5 when she called Safiev and asked to see him right away — Safiev was about to get on a plane and couldn’t see her. Kharabadze also made a phone call after disappearing. He called his home to say that he was OK, in Las Vegas and not to worry. A little later he apparently withdrew a large sum of money from his bank account. A surveillance tape shows him being accompanied by a man who was watching him very closely.

The kidnappers allegedly demanded a $5 million ransom for Safiev and $250,000 for Umansky. At least $1 million of the ransom was allegedly transferred from Moscow to the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, the location of two other suspects, Andrei Augeev and Andrei Liapine, who were allegedly supposed to remit that money to the kidnappers.

One of the mysteries in the case is the death of a nonimmigrant, Meyer Muscatel of Sherman Oaks, a religious Jew, a real estate developer and a man who dreamed of setting up learning centers for disabled children. The fact that his body was found floating in New Melones Lake and that Pekler was the accountant for both Muscatel and Safiev are the only connections between his death on Oct. 13 and the disappearances of the four immigrants two to three months later.

The trial of the four kidnapping suspects and their alleged accomplices is sure to be a media circus. We can only hope that it will not serve to generate anti-immigrant feelings against the law-abiding Russian-speaking community.

Un ‘Common’ Characters

Two garbage bags full of dead birds separate four Brooklyn buddies from their dreams in actor-playwright Matthew Klein’s debut production, "The Common Man."

Japs Peretti (Klein), estranged son of a Mafia don, looks to rival mafioso Joey the Saint for the half-million dollars he needs to open a mob-themed restaurant and nightclub. Japs is a talker, given to self-deluding motivational speeches ("tomorrow is the beginning of the new forever."). With his pathological-liar brother Stanley (Kevin Brief), neurotic failed screenwriter Leonard Rosenblatter (Carl J. Johnson) and Sinatra-wannabe Peter (Greg Littman), Japs is sent to earn the money that will finally send each on the fast-track, by retrieving a safe-deposit key hidden in one of those dead birds.

The characters are bumbling failures. The Mob story, while entertaining on its own, really serves to set up the darkly seriocomic second act. With failure yet again knocking on their door, these "common" men must answer to the sympathetic hit man (a sly and understated Art LaFleur) sent to their living room. Very little of the great suspense in "The Common Man" comes from the plot. The many twists and turns in the play are the logical outcome of these four dreamers, forced at gunpoint to confront their failure and come up with a reason for living.

Klein, 30, a native of Flatbush, Brooklyn, graduated from Yeshiva University before turning to acting full time. After his early work at Manhattan’s Neighborhood Playhouse, Klein came out to California three years ago and has landed roles on stage and in television shows including "Chicago Hope." With an enthusiasm akin to Japs’, Klein makes light of the mafia angle and implied violence in his play. "I always start writing from pain — that’s where the comedy comes from," he says. "The violence in the play is really secondary to the characters." It’s those characters — sad, funny, and too recognizable for comfort — who will stay with the audience long after the "common" mafia story fades to black.

"The Common Man" at The MET Theater, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. $20. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Jan. 24-March 2. For reservations or more information, call (323) 957-1152.