Was There Anything Redeemable About Jewish Gangsters?

There was a time in America when Jewish gangsters ruled the roost, even if their practice of Judaism was more folk than frum.
June 30, 2022

Samuel Levine always wore a kippah beneath his fedora. Born in Ohio in 1903, his bright red hair earned him the nickname “Red.” Levine was an Orthodox Jew. He ate only kosher food. And he also happened to be the preferred hitman of Lucky Luciano, the Italian-born gangster and architect of what became the American mafia in the first half of the twentieth century. 

“Red” adamantly refused to carry out hits on Shabbat. But if he was forced to “clip” someone during the period between Friday to Saturday night, he would don tallit and begin davening (praying). After he finished, he would kill his target. 

Yes, your reaction is normal, and it’s the same as mine: How can anyone call himself an observant Jew and be the mob’s number one hitman?

You’d be surprised how many Jewish mobsters attended Shabbat or Yom Kippur services, or hosted Passover seders, according to Dr. Robert Rockaway, one of the preeminent historians of Jewish gangsters and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. 

There was a time in America when Jewish gangsters ruled the roost, even if their practice of Judaism was more folk than frum. Mickey Cohen and Meyer Lansky were raised in Orthodox homes. Arnold Rothstein — who famously fixed the results of the 1919 World Series — turned organized crime from a bunch of uncontrollable thugs into an actual business, however illegal. Minnesota’s most notorious mobster was a Jew named Kid Cann; Louis Lepke was the head of the feared hit squad, Murder Inc. 

Their names could have constituted the world’s most entertaining minyan: Allie “Tick Tock” Tannenbaum; “Dopey” Benny Fein; Joe “The Greaser” Rosenzweig; Vach “Cyclone Louie” Lewis; Abraham “Pretty” Levine; Harold “Hooky” Rothman; Max “Kid Twist” Zwerbach; “Big” Jack Zelig and Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss. There was also Abner “Longy” Zwillman, otherwise known as the Al Capone of New Jersey.

But perhaps the most famous Jewish American gangster in history was Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. He earned that nickname (which he loathed), when his childhood friend, Meyer Lansky, watched him beat up rivals in street fights in such a savage, almost maniacal way that left no doubt as to whether Ben was slightly “bugs.” To put it more eloquently, the nickname insinuated that Siegel was off his rocker. In 1921, he and Lansky formed the Bugs and Meyer Mob. Its primary function was bootlegging and protecting bootleggers.

If you’re wondering why I’ve dedicated the precious space in my weekly column to Jewish gangsters, I have a shameful confession: I have a strange fascination with Siegel, and last week marked the 75th anniversary of his assassination in a home on Linden Drive in Beverly Hills. His murder remains one of the Beverly Hills Police Department’s longest unsolved cases, and researchers can’t even investigate the file because it’s still an open case. 

Here’s why I feel ashamed of my fascination: Not only was Siegel a murderer, but he also was accused of rape (the woman later withdrew her accusation, though it’s no stretch to imagine she feared for her life). I’ve been learning about Siegel’s life for years, and I’ve had to be very careful not to glamorize him — with his handsome face, baby blue eyes, and movie-star aura — in my own mind. I’ve also had to stop myself from romanticizing the home where he was killed on June 20, 1947, each time I drive by the mansion. “It’s just a space where a murderer died by the way he lived,” I’ve been forced to tell myself, but I’ve never stopped thinking about the many photos I’ve viewed online that were taken at the grisly scene.

“When it came to action there was no one better.”

There are many theories as to why the public is still so fascinated by Siegel and other Jewish gangsters. “Siegel’s death continues to fascinate for several reasons,” Dr. Larry Gragg, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, told me. Gragg is also the author of “Benjamin Bugsy Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo, and the Making of Modern Las Vegas” (Praeger, 2015). “His murder has never been solved … Also, the murder took place in a beautiful mansion and Siegel was a handsome man who loved being with Hollywood celebrities. He had affairs with a number of them, including actress Wendy Barrie, and often was the subject in gossip columns. Finally, he was the man most associate with the opening of the Flamingo Hotel, the first luxury resort hotel in Las Vegas.”

I have my own reasons for my dark fascination with Siegel, and they won’t win me any friends because I’ll be accused of glamorizing a murderer.

I have my own reasons for my dark fascination with Siegel, and they won’t win me any friends because I’ll be accused of glamorizing a murderer. Here’s the crux of why I’m so drawn to Siegel: Over the past few years, I’ve become weary and depressed over news of Jews being beaten up in America, from New York to California, and it’s easier to tell myself that there once were American Jews — feared gangsters — with whom no one would have messed. And those who did, like one of the rivals of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, might have found themselves buried alive. 

“When it came to action there was no one better,” former mobster Joseph “Doc” Stacher once said of Siegel. “I’ve seen him charge 10 men single–handed and they would all turn and run. I never knew a man who had more guts.” Incidentally, it was Stacher who enabled the shidduch (“match”) between the Italian and Jewish mafias, resulting in a national organized crime syndicate. Mazal tov, indeed. 

On one level, Stacher was wrong about Siegel; it took zero guts to never earn an honest day’s living, or to prostitute women, or to shoot a guy because he was cheating in a poker game (Siegel put the man’s slumped body back upright, then shot him once more for not betting again). On the other hand, Stacher may have been right: Siegel was almost pathologically fearless. Once, when he was recovering from an attempt on his life, he left the hospital to kill his would-be assassin, then returned to his hospital room. I’ll admit, there’s a part of me that would have liked to have unleashed Siegel on antisemites who’ve attacked Jews in the streets of Crown Heights lately.

Did these gangsters’ tough images help American Jews? “Some Jewish gangsters (not all), despite their criminal activities, did contribute to combating the usual stereotype of the weak, fearful, and defenseless Jew,” Rockaway told me. “Ben Siegel in New York and later in LA, Abner ‘Longy’ Zwillman in New Jersey, Davey Berman in Minneapolis, Mickey Cohen in LA, and the all-Jewish Detroit Purple Gang, beat the stuffing out of Nazi Bundists in the late 1930s.”

If you ask me, Rockaway chose the best name anyone can imagine for his book: “But He Was Good To His Mother: The Lives of Jewish Gangsters” (Gefen Publishing House, 2000). It was Rockaway who even managed to get the infamous Lansky to speak with him on record before Lansky’s death. 

Rockaway undoubtedly makes an important argument: Many Jewish gangsters went after Nazis in America; they were apt to enter Nazi rallies in auditoriums, including in Southern California, lock the doors, and get to work. “Remember,” said Rockaway, “the 1930s saw the rise of Hitler in Germany, which made American Jews fearful of what could happen in the USA, especially with Henry Ford’s series on the ‘International Jew’ in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. Many German Americans were proud of Hitler and many Italian Americans were proud of Mussolini. This caused consternation and worry among American Jewish leaders.”

While most American Jewish leaders hated Jewish gangsters for spreading even more antisemitism, one of the few exceptions were young American Jews. “The Nazi bashing by American Jewish mobsters created pride among many American Jews, especially among the young,” said Rockaway. “It showed that Jews were unafraid to stand tall and give as good as they got.” 

I asked Rockaway, whom, after my interview questions, had effectively morphed into my therapist, if I was wrong to take delight in stories of Jewish mobsters beating up Nazis. “You have a right to admire the good deeds of American Jewish gangsters and their efforts to protect Jews,” he responded. “Especially contrasted with what was going on in Germany, Poland, and Hungary in Europe at that time.”

I also asked Rockaway if it’s possible to separate the murderer-gangster from the Jewish-defender-gangster: “Yes,” he said, “you can separate the nefarious acts by these men with their defense of Jews. Things are never all black or all white.”

Still, I’m not sure. I’d hate to ever see Samuel “Red” Levine’s tallit. In fact, I hope someone burned them. 

“No. Not me, pal.”

In his vibrant book, “Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams” (Vintage, 1999), Rich Cohen famously wrote, “If Jewish gangsters still thrived today, if they hadn’t gone legit, if Jews of my generation didn’t regard them as figments, creatures to be classed with Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster, I think the Jewish community might be better off. After all, everyone needs someone who gives them the illusion of strength.” 

Not everyone agreed with Cohen: In his review of “Tough Jews” for The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier summed up his opinion on whether Jewish gangsters accomplished anything heroic: “They were simply “dumb f-cks,” wrote Wieseltier.

In an April 2007 Shofar essay, “Guardians, Millionaires, and Fearless Fighters: Transforming Jewish Gangsters into a Usable Past,” Wendy Bergoffen highlighted the tendency of some male writers to selectively rewrite Jewish gangsters as a means to redeem or refashion Jewish masculinity. I’m not a male writer, but maybe I’m guilty of the same. “In the past, respectable and assimilated members of the Jewish community did everything in their power to disavow kinship with criminals,” wrote Bergoffen. Now Hollywood makes multi-million-dollar films and TV series about them.

“If you are not free to take the low path, then your choice to take the upper has no meaning. The gangsters proved that the Jews of America had free will.“ – Rich Cohen

 I decided to ask the sinner himself. I wrote to Cohen and asked whether Jewish gangsters helped combat stereotypes of the helpless Jew, or made things worse, rendering Jews an even bigger perceived scourge than before in the eyes of antisemites. “I think they were part of the midcentury culture that made American Jews — the kids, especially —  free to make their own way, choose their own destiny and live outside the common roles and beyond the stereotypes,” Cohen told me. “If you are not free to take the low path, then your choice to take the upper has no meaning. The gangsters proved that the Jews of America had free will. Chaim Weizmann said something like, ‘When we have Jewish cops chasing Jewish criminals you will know the State of Israel is a success.’ By this definition, America, as it was in the time of Bugsy, was the true promised land.”

Like Professor Rockaway, Rich Cohen seemed like a man I could harangue into the role of therapist. I asked him, too, if it was normal for me to veer into near-admiration of Jewish gangsters’ toughness, while also being revolted by their mercilessness. “Yes,” Cohen affirmed. “Completely normal. At a time when Jews were seemingly defined by tragedy and passivity in the face of that tragedy, these guys stood up and said, ‘No. Not me, pal.’”

Not Exactly Robin Hood

Jewish gangsters were fiercely protective of their families; most of them didn’t want their children to even contemplate entering their line of “work.” They believed in giving tithes and tzedakah (charity); they donated thousands of dollars to Jewish causes. Siegel gave generously to the United Jewish Appeal and other charities. After World War II, some of them even helped in arms-smuggling efforts to bolster the burgeoning Jewish state. On many levels, these men wanted to earn legitimacy in the eyes of the greater Jewish community. It usually didn’t work, even in the Jewish state. In 1970, when Meyer Lansky tried to seek asylum in Israel, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir responded with a resolute, “No.”

Make no mistake: Jewish gangsters were quite adept at preying on, exhorting and, if needed, killing other Jews. There’s a reason why Dean Jennings’ 1992 biography of Siegel is titled “We Only Kill Each Other.” As Rockaway wrote in his book on Jewish gangsters, “These men were not latter-day Robin Hoods and should not be glorified as such.”

In his biography of Siegel, Gragg asks, “Should Jewish gangsters be dismissed as a one-generation anomaly in the chronicle of a historically peaceful people, or should they be included as one piece in the complex tapestry of the Jewish experience in the United States?”

Who Wants to See “The Wall”?

In 2012, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, also known as the Mob Museum, opened in Las Vegas. The space features many exhibits related to organized crime; there’s even an underground speakeasy and visitors can also learn about Prohibition history. There are many artifacts on display, including an original script of “The Godfather,” a century-old valise with hidden flasks, a ticket to the 1919 World Series, a gun belonging to undercover agent Mike Malone (who helped bring down Al Capone), and a pair of Bugsy Siegel’s sunglasses. 

But during a cursory internet tour, I almost fell out of my chair when I learned the museum has on display part of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre blood-stained wall. Yes, that wall, from the garage where, on February 14, 1929, seven gangsters were infamously shot and killed, execution-style. The museum’s website, especially its blog, is excellent and its YouTube channel is particularly interesting for those unable to attend its public programs. 

In 2019, 410,000 people visited the museum (an average of 1,123 per day). Since its opening, there have been 3.25 million visitors. I asked Geoff Schumacher, Vice President of Exhibits and Programs at the Mob Museum, why the space is so popular. “People are interested in all different aspects of history, yet in school our studies tend to follow a fairly narrow historical path that ignores topics such as organized crime and law enforcement,” he said. “I think the Mob Museum appeals to people who are interested in the narratives they are typically not exposed to in school. Our museum takes a serious-minded approach to telling these stories, sticking to the facts, busting the myths and refusing to glorify criminals. The Mob Museum earned national accreditation after only five years in existence, which is a rare feat.” 

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t pay to see any execution wall in history other than the one at the Mob Museum (and maybe not even that, since I’m weak-stomached). What is it about gangsters that still holds away over us? “The public is fascinated with gangsters because of their characters. Gangsters lead adventurous and dangerous lives, in a dark and elusive underworld with its own rules and codes of conduct operating in the shadows of civilized society,” Eytan Rockaway, son of Robert Rockaway and writer/director of the acclaimed 2021 biographic crime drama, “Lansky,” told me. “They reminded me of the characters in Greek and Norse mythology who had the capacity and the will to be forces of evil inflicting tremendous harm and chaos around them, while at the same time they could be forces of good, honor and judgment.”

There does seem to be something hideously mythical about gangsters, particularly Jewish ones.

 There does seem to be something hideously mythical about gangsters, particularly Jewish ones. Why do we continue to research, retell and yes, perhaps even romanticize the era of “Red” Levine, “Moe” Sedway and “Bugsy” Siegel? “Because it recollects a time when Jewish life seemed more exotic, various and strange,” said Cohen. “Because the gangster is the story of the American dream, and the portrait of the American titan, seen in negative.

For Robert Rockaway, there’s an “incongruous fascination” on the part of Americans for the gangster (think “The Sopranos,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Bugsy,” and other films and TV shows). “Why would non-Jewish Americans find these productions so interesting, especially since they defy the usual anti-Jewish stereotypes?” Rockaway asked me. “Maybe they enhance another image or aspect of the American Jew.”

Ultimately, Gragg doesn’t believe it’s possible to separate Siegel’s “good deeds” from his unforgivable ones. “He was part of a generation that chose not to follow the typical route to the American Dream that the overwhelming majority of Jewish immigrants followed,” said Gragg. “He did not have the patience for the sacrifice, hard work, or essential education that his contemporaries understood were the ways to a better life.”

The Circle Closes

There’s one city where Siegel will never be forgotten: Sin City. His was the vision of a glittering desert oasis with top-of-the-line casinos and resorts, as immortalized in his 1946 Flamingo Hotel & Casino (the last of its original structure was demolished in 1993). “Siegel remains a figure of great interest in the city of Las Vegas,” said Schumacher, mentioned above. “The city has come to terms with his generation of gangsters because they acknowledge that Jewish and, to a lesser extent, Italian gangsters were men who had experience in running illegal, but substantial gambling establishments elsewhere and their collective expertise was critical in developing the successful casinos of the 1940s and 1950s.”

It was Siegel’s family legacy that ultimately lived and died in Las Vegas.

It was Siegel’s family legacy that ultimately lived and died in Las Vegas. In 2017, Rabbi Mendy Harlig, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, visited a dying 86-year-old Jewish woman at the request of her family at Compassion Care Hospice. Her name was Millicent Rosen, and she was the eldest daughter of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

When the family informed Rabbi Harlig that they planned to have Rosen cremated due to economic restraints (she would have been interred at the family mausoleum in New York), the rabbi immediately offered to raise funds for a proper Jewish burial according to halakha. When Rosen’s daughter, Wendy, told the rabbi her family had some history in Las Vegas, he responded, “What history?” She proceeded to identify her infamous grandfather. 

As told to writer Dovid Margolin for Chabad.org, Rabbi Harlig said, “At that point, I suggested that we bury her here in Las Vegas … We have a historic Jewish cemetery here; it seemed like a way of completing the circle.” Harlig and wife, Chaya, direct Chabad of Green Valley in Henderson, NV, and on November 21, 2017, Millicent Rosen was buried in the city whose legendary leisure her own father could never have imagined.

Thanks to Rabbi Harlig, there was a minyan present at her burial.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker, and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael

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