Largely originating from the immigration from Eastern Europe during the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish-American organized crime
(sometimes referred to as the Kosher Nostra
— a pun on the Italian term Cosa Nostra
— Kosher Mafia
, the Jewish Mob
or the Jewish Mafia
) emerged during the later years of the "Gangs of New York" era as Jewish gangs under gang lord Monk Eastman
, whose ranks included Max "Kid Twist" Zwerbach
, "Big" Jack Zelig
, and Vach "Cyclone Louie" Lewis
, competed with Italian gang leader Paul Kelly
's Five Points Gang
for control of New York
's underworld as the domination of Irish street gangs began to decline.
Jewish-American organized crime was not exclusively a New York phenomenon, however, as seen during the early 20th century in other major cities with a considerable Jewish-American population as predominantly Jewish-American gangs operated as well, such as The Purple Gang in Detroit.
Jewish-American gangsters were involved in many areas of organized crime, including prostitution and narcotics. Their role was also significant in New York's burgeoning labor movement
, especially the garment and trucking unions, as well as poultry workers. Jewish-American organized crime was a matter of obvious concern to the community, both because Jewish gangster's principal victims were other Jews and because Jewish gangsterism provided fodder for antisemitic propaganda. It did not exemplify Jewish immigration and its offspring, nevertheless it was exploited by anti-semites
and anti-immigration forces as arguments to bolster their prejudices. However, it did exist in large enough reality to permeate the Lower East Side
areas in New York City
, and other major American cities.
Jewish American organized crime was a reflection of the ethnic succession among gangsters, which has tended to follow the immigrant waves in the United States: English, German, Irish, Jewish and then Italian. Ethnic involvement in organized crime gave rise to alien conspiracy theories in the US law enforcement community, in which the conception of organized crime as an alien and united entity was vital. It was presented as many-faced, calculating and relentlessly probing for weak spots in the armour of American morality. America had to be protected from this alien threat. The conspiracy theories conveniently ignored the fact that Jewish-American and Italian-American criminals generally co-existed with (even sometimes subordinate to) other criminals, such as Irish-American organized crime networks before the 1920s.
Jewish American organized crime is part of an entire literature, particularly in the United States, on "tough Jews," mainly gangsters and boxers among whom Jews played a prominent role, often to the delight - even pride - of other Jews, especially Jewish men, who considered them tougher, more aggressive role models to free them from the stigma of defenselessness and powerlessness and the dominant Jewish stereotype: intellectualism and professional legitimacy, not physical aggressiveness and lawlessness, which was more stereotypical of the Irish and Italian immigrants and their mobs. According to Rich Cohen, author of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams: "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 would be better off.
Following Cohen's line of reasoning, one could say that Jewish American organized crime played a role in the emancipation of the Jewish American community in American society. However, Cohen's description of Jewish gangsters ignores that they were criminals who made their money by extorting and exploiting other Jews, including trafficking in Jewish women, and were generally considered a scourge within the community. The Yiddish press and literature of the 1920s and 30s was resolute in its condemnation of Jewish mobsters.
As would their Italian counterparts
, gangs specializing in extortion began operating in the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York's Lower East Side
most prominently the so-called Yiddish Black Hand
headed by Jacob Levinsky
, Charles "Charlie the Cripple" Litoffsky
and Joseph Toplinsky
during the early 1900s. Early in the century a significant Jewish underworld already existed, giving birth to a litany of criminal slang with Yiddish
origins. A pimp was known as a "simcha
," a detective as a "shamus
" and a loafer as a "trombenik. Jewish-American organized crime arose among slum kids who in pre-puberty stole from pushcarts, who as adolescents extorted money from store owners, who as young adults practiced schlamming
(wielding an iron pipe wrapped in newspaper against striking workers or against scabs) – until they developed into well organized criminal gangs in a wide variety of criminal enterprises boosted by Prohibition
For both second-generation Jewish and Italian immigrants, the lure of crime often competed quite successfully with mainstream opportunities. There was a Jewish "crime wave" in early-20th-century New York. About a sixth of the city's felony arrests were Jews. Many young Jewish criminals gravitated toward the "rackets," where they met up with the children of Irish, Italian, and other immigrants.
As the 20th century progressed, Jewish-American mobsters such as "Dopey" Benny Fein and Joe "The Greaser" Rosenzweig entered labour racketeering, hiring out to both businesses and labor unions as strong arm men. Labor racketeering or "labor slugging" as it was known, would become a source of conflict as it came under the domination of several racketeers including former Five Points Gang members Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan and Johnny Spanish during the Labor slugger wars until its eventual takeover by Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro in 1927. Other organized crime figures would include Moses Annenberg and Arnold Rothstein, the latter reportedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series.
According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Arnold Rothstein "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top. According to Rich Cohen, Rothstein was the person who first saw in Prohibition a business opportunity, a means to enormous wealth, who "understood the truths of early century capitalism (hypocrisy, exclusion, greed) and came to dominate them". Rothstein was the Moses of the Jewish gangsters, according to Cohen, the progenitor, a rich man's son who showed the young hoodlums of the Bowery how to have style; indeed, the man who, the Sicilian-American gangster Lucky Luciano would later say, "taught me how to dress".
From the Roaring 20's into the Great Depression
(1920-1933), Jewish gangsters became major operatives in the American underworld and played prominent roles in the creation and extension of organized crime in the United States. At the time, Jewish gangs dominated illicit activities in a number of America's largest cities, including Cleveland
, New York City
, and Philadelphia
. Numerous bootlegging gangs such as the Bug and Meyer Mob
headed by Meyer Lansky
and Bugsy Siegel
and Abe Bernstein
's Purple Gang
would see the rise of Jewish-American organized crime to its height. Other mobsters included Dutch Schultz
, Moe Dalitz
, Charles "King" Solomon
and Abner "Longy" Zwillman
During this time, Italian mobster Charlie Luciano began plotting against the Old World Sicilian mafiosi and, enlisting the help of longtime associates Meyer Lansky and Benjamin Siegel, a conference was held at New York's Franconia Hotel on November 11, 1931 which included mobsters such as Jacob Shapiro, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Joseph "Doc" Stacher, Hyman "Curly" Holtz, Louis "Shadows" Kravitz, Harry Tietlebaum, Philip "Little Farvel" Kovolick and Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg. During this meeting, Luciano and Lansky were able to convince the Jewish-American mobsters to agree to work with Italian mobsters in business following the end of the Castellammarese War – in a consortium known as the National Crime Syndicate. At the meeting's conclusion, "Bugsy" Siegel supposedly declared "The yids and the dagos will no longer fight each other."
Those Jewish gangsters hostile to the idea of cooperation with non-Jewish rivals gradually receded, most notably Philadelphia bootlegger Waxey Gordon, who was convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion. Following Gordon's imprisonment, his operations were assumed by Nig Rosen and Max "Boo Hoo" Hoff.
Under Lansky, Jewish mobsters became involved in syndicate gambling interests in Cuba and Las Vegas. Buchalter would also lead the predominantly Jewish Murder Incorporated as the Luciano-Meyer syndicate's exclusive hitmen.
Post-World War II years
For several decades after World War II
, the dominant figures in organized crime were second-generation Jews and Italians, often working in concert. As late as the 1960s, Jewish presence in organized crime was still acknowledged as Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna
explained to hitman and later government informant Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno
- "Meyer's got a Jewish family built along the same lines as our thing. But his family's all over the country. He's got guys like Lou Rhody and Dalitz, Doc Stacher, Gus Greenbaum, sharp fucking guys, good businessmen, and they know better than to try to fuck with us."
Jewish-American organized crime derived from dislocation and poverty, where language and custom made the community vulnerable to undesirables, the sort of thing that fosters criminality among any other ethnicity in a similar situation. As Jews improved their conditions, the Jewish thug and racketeer either disappeared or merged into a more assimilated American crime environment. American Jews quietly buried the public memory of the gangster past; unlike the Mafia, famous Jewish American gangsters like Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Siegel founded no crime families.
Much like Irish Americans and other ethnicities (with exception to Italian American criminal organizations), Jewish-American presence in organized crime gradually faded after World War II. Jewish-American individuals remained associated with organized crime figures, but the criminal organizations and gangs which once rivaled the Italian and Irish-American mobsters during the first half of the 20th century have long since disappeared.
Jewish-American organized crime and Israel
Several notable Jewish American mobsters provided financial support for Israel
through donations to Jewish organizations since the country's independence in 1948. As a result, Israel became an option for Jewish-American gangsters fleeing criminal charges or facing deportation from the United States such as Joseph "Doc" Stacher
and Meyer Lansky
, the latter being denied citizenship by then Prime Minister Golda Meir
who had been informed by the United States government of Lansky's long history in organized crime.
In more recent years Jewish-American organized crime has reappeared in the forms of both Israeli and Russian mafia
criminal groups. The Soviet
émigré community in New York's Brighton Beach
contains a large Jewish presence, as does its criminal element. However it must be noted that many immigrants from the Soviet republics faked a Jewish identity to be allowed into the United States, and some of these newer Jewish gangsters such as Ludwig Fainberg
share more in common culturally with Russia and the Soviet republics than their predecessors such as Mayer Lansky.
Israeli mobsters also have a presence in the United States. Yehuda “Johnny” Attias arrived in New York in 1987 and immediately made himself known by slaying a local heroin kingpin, another Israeli named Moussan Alyian. He and his crew became heavily involved in drug trafficking, making millions through importing heroin from Amsterdam and Thailand as well as hashish from Turkey. They also pulled off the biggest gold heist in the history of Manhattan's jewelery district, getting away with over $4 million in gold jewelery. However Attias was ultimately murdered in January 1990, and New York's Israeli mafia fell apart soon after. Several members such as Ron Gonen had turned informant and the authorities arrested the rest of the gang in September of that year.
The Israeli mafia (such as the Abergil crime family) is heavily involved in ecstasy trafficking in America and were allegedly the suppliers to former Gambino crime family underboss Sammy Gravano in his Arizona drug ring. Gravano's main drug supplier was New York based Israeli mobster, Ilan Zarger.
In popular culture
- The Godfather II (1974) starring Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth (a character based heavily on Meyer Lansky).
- Once Upon a Time in America (1984) starring Robert De Niro, James Woods and William Forsythe.
- Billy Bathgate, a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning book and Pulitzer Prize nominee, later adapted into a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman.
- Mobsters (1991) starring Christian Slater, Costas Mandylor, Richard Grieco, and Patrick Dempsey.
- Bugsy (1991) starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, and Ben Kingsley.
- Casino (1995) starring Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods and Robert De Niro playing Jewish-American and mob-affiliated casino operator Sam 'Ace' Rothstein (a character based on Jewish-American expert sports handicapper Frank Rosenthal).
- Six Ways to Sunday (1997) starring Norman Reedus, Deborah Harry and Jerry Adler.
- Safe Men (1998) starring Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Michael Lerner, Paul Giamatti, Mark Ruffalo and Harvey Fierstein.
- Lansky (1999) starring Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Roberts and Anthony LaPaglia.
- Snatch (2000) starring Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Vinnie Jones, and Benicio del Toro.
- Lucky Number Slevin (2006) starring Josh Hartnett, Lucy Liu, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley.
In video games
- In Grand Theft Auto IV the Jewish Mafia is briefly involved in the storyline through diamond dealing.
- Block, Alan A. (1976). Lepke, Kid Twist, and the Combination: Organized Crime in New York City, 1930-1944.
- Cohen, Rich (1999). Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, London: Vintage ISBN 0-099-75791-5 (Review in The New York Times)
- Eisenberg, Dennis, Dan Uri & Eli Landau (1979). Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob, New York: Paddington Press.
- Fried, Albert (1980). The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston ISBN 0-231-09683-6
- Henderson Clarke, Donald (1929). In the Reign of Rothstein, New York: The Vanguard Press.
- Rockaway, Robert A. (1993). But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House.
- Ross, Ron (2003). Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter, New York: St. Martin's Press ISBN 0-312-30638-5 (Review in Forward)
- Rubin, Rachel (2000). Jewish Gangsters of Modern Literature, Chicago: University of Illinois Press
- Rubin, Rachel (2002). Gangster Generation: Crime, Jews and the Problem of Assimilation, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies - Volume 20, Number 4, Summer 2002, pp. 1-17
- Russo, Gus (2006). Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers, New York: Bloomsbury (Review in The New York Times; Review in Forward)
- Sadowsky, Sandy (1992). Wedded to Crime: My Life in the Jewish Mafia.
- Tosches, Nick (2005). King of the Jews. The Arnold Rothstein Story, London: Hamish Hamilton ISBN 0-241-14144-3
- Weissman Joseph, Jenna (1983). Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900-1940, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (Review in The New York Times)