February 27, 2020

Tough Guys (Isaac Babel)

Reading “The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel” (W. Norton & Co., 2002) in paperback, edited by Babel’s daughter, Nathalie, got me thinking about Jewish gangsters and tough guys.

Babel was born in Odessa in 1894. He wrote of Odessa’s Jewish underworld and its gangsters in sparkling prose. Fifty years before Mario Puzo gave us “The Godfather,” Babel offered up Benya Krik. Benya, Babel tells us, had “gangster chic” — a century before Tupac took the stage. Babel’s Odessa was home to a universe of Jewish murderers, pimps and crooks. Before there was 50 Cent, Babel wrote of a millionaire named “Yid and a half.”

Although Babel displayed great affection for his characters, he did not seek to glorify their actions. The appeal of Babel’s stories is that he stands in the footsteps of the reader, an outsider who is alternately awed, impressed and horrified by these colorful characters and their world.

He accomplished a similar feat in his “Red Cavalry” stories. As a war correspondent for the Bolsheviks, Babel rode with the Cossacks and wrote journalistic dispatches from the battlefield that have a combination of immediacy and literary fluency that I can only compare to Stephen Crane — and I would say that, of the two, Babel is the greater stylist.

Babel’s ability to put himself in a situation alien to his intellectual temperament is what makes the stories hold up to this day (the excellent new translation by Peter Constantine helps, as well, giving the stories more immediacy than the prior versions). As a reader, Babel was known to enjoy reading Sholem Aleichem; as a writer he left the shtetl and the stereotypes behind.

The problem is that Babel launched a romanticization of the Jewish gangster, the “Tough Jew,” a love affair that afflicts Jewish self-image to this day.

Let’s face it: Jewish gangsters are not in short supply. Last year, Los Angeles witnessed the arrest of several Israelis who were running one of the country’s largest ecstasy drug rings. I myself spent a certain amount of time with a former Brighton Beach Russian mobster. He was Jewish, as were most of the gangsters of his wave of immigration. They were the beneficiaries of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and, since his career of intimidation, extortion, robbery and murder began in the USSR, I’m sure they weren’t too sad to see him leave. Here in the United States, he participated in jewelry robberies, scams, tax frauds, extortion and several murders. I had dinner at his home with his wife and child. Nice guy. Haimish. Unless you crossed him.

One of my favorite books about Jewish gangsters is Robert Rockaway’s “But He Was Good to His Mother” (Gefen, 2000), a book that tells the story of such murderers and criminals as Abner “Longy” Zwilman, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Rockaway makes clear that, in the end, crime did not pay.

One can argue that where Jews were denied equal access to financial success, they turned to crime. Certainly demographically, it is clear that the age of the American Jewish gangster is on the wane and that today the Russian mob is no longer dominated by Jews. As Jews have ascended to the ranks of professionals, American Jewish criminals have become increasingly white-collar.

Notwithstanding the reality of Jewish gangsters, past and present, there is a danger to glorifying or sentimentalizing their actions — of mythologizing the Jewish gangster into a cult of tough Jews. This notion reached its apex in a wrong-headed book called, not surprisingly, “Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams” by Rich Cohen (Vintage Books, 1999), otherwise an excellent journalist and writer. This may be going out on a limb, but I find it misguided to argue that when Jews are considered wimps or nerds, a vicious gangster is a positive role model.

Don’t get me wrong: There have always been tough Jews, going back to Samson, and including the famous Circus strongman Breitbart, boxers Max Baer and Bummy Davis and wrestler Goldstein. But, similarly, there have also always been less-than-tough Jews who bested their tougher opponents. Not to state the obvious but if David were a he-man, defeating Goliath would have been no big deal.

In this regard it is important to note the difference between gangsters, tough guys and heroes. The Maccabees, the Taliban of second century B.C.E. Jerusalem, were tough guys and may have been heroic in their last stand, but they were not always good guys. A sociopath like Bugsy Siegel, despite Warren Beatty’s gloss on him, was certainly a tough guy and a gangster, but he was no hero. By contrast, Moses would probably qualify as criminal — to the Egyptians — tough guy and hero.

Some of this is, of course, situational. A Jew who commits forgery, lies and steals during the Holocaust as a matter of survival may well be a hero. But after the war, if he does it again, he’s a criminal.

Idealizing tough guys can get us into all sorts of trouble. Israel’s early propaganda was all about creating the new Jew. The heroic Jew. Moshe Dayan with his eye patch was an iconic tough guy and the Six-Day War a heroic battle. But since then, one Lebanon and two intifadas have made a whole generation hostage to a tough situation, where living an ordinary life is heroic, and those military figures, who in other times might be heroes, are now politicians searching for an end to violence that has no heroic end in sight. At least for me, the romance is gone. In our heart of hearts, can we console ourselves by saying: “We’ll always have Entebbe”?

Which brings me back to Babel. His stories stand the test of time because they spoke a truth about human desires and behavior, and because he found a fresh way to write about people who had never before been the subject of literature. But once the Russian revolution soured and asked of Babel not truth but “socialist realism,” he found it increasingly difficult to write or publish. On May 15, 1939, he was arrested by the secret police. All his papers were confiscated. On Jan. 26, 1940, there was a 20-minute trial at which Babel was found to be a spy. He was executed that same year. The Soviet Union exonerated him in 1954, but his manuscripts were never recovered.

Isaac Babel was one tough Jew.