Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams
By Rich Cohen
Simon & Schuster; 288 pages; $25
The following are fields in which Jewish men are believed to excel: gastroenterology, the violin, political consulting, the domination of world financial markets, and particle physics. One field in which it is believed we do poorly, however, is beating people up. We are, the stereotype has it, lousy fighters, and this rankles. Some of us respond to this slander by embracing, in the words of the cultural critic Daniel Boyarin, our “sissy heritage” and taking up, among other things, the study of Yiddish (not for nothing is it known as “mama-loshen,” the mother tongue). Others move in the opposite direction and join the Israeli army, where Yiddish, the language of our sissy exile, is most definitely not spoken. Still others take up ice hockey.
And there are those who steel themselves with memories of our gangster past. Men with names such as Kid Twist and Gyp the Blood and Pittsburgh Phil once roamed the Jewish ghettos. These gangsters were as tough as the Irish and as powerful as the Italian mob, and when I discovered this fact at age 12 or so, it thrilled me. This reaction is easy to understand: I was, at the time, facing the oppression of anti-Semitic schoolyard thugs, and in my revenge-fantasies, Bugsy Siegel and Gurrah Shapiro were lining up on my side, blackjacks in hand.
Of course, all this was happening when I was 12. By the time I hit 16, my understanding of Jewish gangsters had become substantially more nuanced. Great nicknames and fists aside, I began to recognize these Jewish gangsters as fools and thugs who preyed on their own communities, robbed the Jewish poor, and murdered their own people.
Rich Cohen, author of a new book titled Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, doesn’t get this fact. For Cohen, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, the Jewish gangsters are the purest expression of the Jewish spirit and the means through which he defines his own Jewishness.
There are two books here. One is a very bad book of social history, defined by Cohen’s tendency to make up facts–“imagine” is his word–when he doesn’t know something: “I do not know what [Yasha Katzenberg] looked like,” he writes, “but I have tried to imagine him. I see his eyes as mirrors, reflecting not what he is looking at, but what he will see: mountains, rivers, wars. I imagine him tall and slender, wearing a hood, taking his time–something long prophesied, a nomad who has crossed wastes to get here.”
The second book is his attempt to portray himself as a spiritual heir to the Jewish gangsters. He does this by striking a tough guy pose throughout, a pose that fails to hide his sense of physical inadequacy, which he blames on his Jewishness:
When I was growing up, any mention of Jews as Jews would make me cringe. Other than my parents, I really knew of only one type of Jew: cerebral bourgeois kids-to-college suburbanites. Do Jews get drunk? Do Jews trash hotel rooms? Do Jews defend themselves? Questions I never thought to ask.
His father is different, he maintains, by dint of his Brooklyn roots. Cohen writes affectionately and ad nauseam about his father and his father’s aging, Brooklyn-born schemer-friends, who sit in delis blowing hard about the glories of tough Jews. One of his father’s best friends is Larry King, and these passages are charming only if you believe that being in a room with four people just like King would be charming.
Cohen believes his book is revolutionary, a violation of a taboo against speaking about Jewish gangsters. Jews, he writes, “have pushed aside the image of the gangster: Forget. Forget when you were bullies. When I tell old Jews about this book, … the blood drains from their faces.” Cohen is infuriated by this purported tendency to suppress the gangster past and is even more angered by attempts to make light of it. “I once heard a comedian refer jokingly to the Jewish Mafia,” he writes. “The mere mention of a Jewish gang broke up the audience. … Sometimes, when I see this comedian’s bit rerun on cable, I imagine Pep Strauss”–a hit man in the hit-man organization called Murder Inc.–“entering stage left and cutting him belly to chin.”
I will put aside Cohen’s bizarre dreams of violence for a moment to address the idea that the memory of Jewish gangsters has been suppressed, which, of course, is not the case. Just because Cohen didn’t know about Siegel and Dutch Schultz doesn’t mean everyone else didn’t. The subject of Jewish gangsterism has been well mined in recent years by both historians and Hollywood: Albert Fried’s The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America and Jenna Weissman Joselit’s Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community–1900-1940 are two recent additions to the nonfiction literature, and films such as Once Upon a Time in America and Bugsy feature Jewish criminality. When Cohen is not “imagining” history, he rewrites other people’s research, sometimes mangling quotes during his copying, as he did when he took a quote from a 1951 book, Murder, Inc.: The Story of “the Syndicate,” by, also about Jewish gangsters. Even the title of Cohen’s book and its cover art–a brass-knuckled fist–are lifted directly from a book published eight years ago, Paul Breines’Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry, which analyzes the psychological underpinnings of the cult of Jewish toughness born after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War.
Cohen hits bottom when he compares the gangster Louis Lepke’s flight from justice to the plight of Anne Frank, and when he compares his own grandfather to a drug dealer. “When I think of someone like Tolly Greenberg, I think of my grandpa Ben,” he writes. “The same restless energy drove both men toward invention. Ben worked in a diner and was tired of clunky sugar dispensers and so converted an existing piece of machinery, a tea bagger, creating the first sugar packet. Tolly worked in narcotics and knew there was a Southern market for drugs and so converted an existing piece of machinery, creating the first morphine pill. … I would like to say Tolly was working for evil, my grandfather for good, but I don’t know if it’s that simple.”
This is stuff that defies analysis. Cohen has written a book that he undoubtedly believes extols heroes and explains a suppressed bit of Jewish history, but what he has done is expose the architecture of his own pathology. He wants desperately to be a thug, because that is the only way he knows to be Jewish. Instead of writing this book–and book-writing is surely a job for sissies–he should have gone out and beat someone up or sold drugs. Then his pathetic self-loathing might have been exorcised.
I am not opposed to Jewish toughness. Breines, in the original ToughJews, argues that the Holocaust disfigured the Jewish soul, turning the victims of fascist persecution into the fascist persecutors of another people, the Palestinians. But Breines is avowedly anti-Israel, and he sees any expression of Jewish self-defense as a sign of nationalism gone awry. To my mind, though, Jewish toughness of the sort that was in evidence in Entebbe, Uganda, 22 years ago, when armed Jews flew thousands of miles to rescue Jewish innocents from death, was one of the great moments in post-Holocaust Jewish history–a statement to the world that Jews will no longer sit idly by and watch themselves being oppressed. Jewish toughness was seen in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis and in the sacrifices of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi in 1964. Also, Lou Reed is tough.
The presence of Bugsy Siegel and Kid Twist in our recent history does not mean we are a tough people. At most, it means we are simply a people like any other.
If you missed our link to a comparison of two versions of Jewish mob history–Cohen’s and Turkus and Feder’s–click.