Jews in jail: the Jewish mafia

ORIGINS

In the late 19th to early 20th centuries, a wave of  brutal pogroms (antisemitic massacres) swept the Russian Empire, prompting a mass immigration of Jews to the United States. Between 1880 to 1924, when restrictive immigration quotas were passed, some 2 million Jews arrived to American shores from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania. Most settled in poor areas of New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Chicago, oftentimes living in cramped and squalid conditions. Most found jobs in factories, generally in the garment industry.

In light of these conditions, a small minority of Jews turned to organized crime, not unlike members of other ethnic groups, such as Poles, Italians, the Irish, and more. Organized crime was particularly appealing to slum kids, who usually began by stealing and later ascended the ranks of gangs as they grew older.

In its earliest days, Jewish organized crime was spearheaded by the “Yiddish Black Hand,” a criminal organization and extortion ring led by Jacob Levinsky. They began by operating out of a hangout at a Suffolk Street saloon in the Lower East Side of New York, where they delivered anonymous letters threatening to poison or steal the horses of (primarily) Jewish businessmen. By 1913, the Yiddish Black Hand took a divided approach: Levinsky would extort people in the ice cream trade, Charles Vitoffskt extorted the seltzer and soda market, and Joseph Toblinsky targeted the produce, truck, and livery stables industries.

The Yiddish Black Hand also worked as hitmen for hire, working for the following rates:

Fatal shooting: $500

Non-fatal shooting: $100

Poisoning a team: $50

Poisoning a horse: $35

Stealing a horse and a rig: $25

By the early 20th century, Jewish mobsters in New York had already developed a jargon of their own. A pimp was a “simcha,” a detective a “shamus,” and a loafer a “trombenik.”

 

RACKETEERING

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Jewish Americans such as Benny Fein and Joe Rosenzweig became involved in labor racketeering (in other words: they infiltrated and/or controlled labor unions for their own benefit through illegal means).

This would become a point of contention with other ethnic gangs, resulting in what is known as the “labor slugger wars,” a 15-year period (1911-1927) during which various gangs fought for control of labor racketeering in New York City. The “war” began in 1911 between Fein and Rosenzweig against a coalition of smaller gangs and culminated with the murder of Jacob Orgen at the hands of Louis Buchalter and Gurrah Shapiro in 1927.

Another Jewish labor “slugger,” Arnold Rothstein, known as the “Moses of Jewish gangsters,” allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series. Rothstein’s agents reportedly paid off members of the Chicago White Sox to “throw” the game and intentionally lose to the Cincinnati Reds. Rothstein then bet against the White Sox, making a significant amount of money.

Though Rothstein was called to testify before a grand jury, he swore that he was innocent, and the prosecutors could never find enough evidence to indict him.

Rothstein testified: The whole thing started when Abe [Attell] and some other cheap gamblers decided to frame the Series and make a killing. The world knows I was asked in on the deal and my friends know how I turned it down flat. I don't doubt that Attell used my name to put it over. That's been done by smarter men than Abe. But I was not in on it, would not have gone into it under any circumstances and did not bet a cent on the Series after I found out what was under way.”

During the investigation, “all the records and minutes of the Grand Jury disappeared. So, too, did the signed confessions of Cicotte, Williams and Jackson…The state, virtually all of its evidence gone, sought to get the players to repeat their confession on the stand. This they refused to do, citing the Fifth Amendment.” Because of this, the judge ultimately had to dismiss the case.

Rothstein is considered responsible for turning organized Jewish crime from small-time “hoodlum activity” to big business.

 

PROHIBITION

Jews played prominent roles in the distribution of alcohol and organized crime during prohibition. Jewish gangs were primarily concentrated in large cities, such as Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. Some Jewish gangs involved in bootlegging included the Bug and Meyer Mob and the Purple Gang. Jewish mobsters such as Dutch Schultz, Moe Dalitz, Kid Cann, Charles Solomon, and Abner Zwillman (known as “the Al Capone of New Jersey”) made a fortune during prohibition.

After Lucky Luciano eliminated the Old World Sicilian Mafia, Jewish mobsters began to work with Luciano, who unlike other Italian mobsters, held no antisemitic prejudice against the Jewish mafia. As such, a number of Jewish mobsters began cooperating with the Italian Mafia.

Though some Jews were hostile to the idea of cooperating with the Italians, they quickly receded from the scene. Some were arrested; working with the Italians granted Jews extra protections, so those Jews who refused to cooperate were more likely to be caught. The Jewish and Italian mafias joined together to found “Murder, Inc.,” which acted as an enforcement arm for Jewish and Italian gangsters from 1929 to 1941.

The Cleveland Syndicate, formed by Jewish gangsters, was responsible for various major bootlegging operations, particularly in Lake Erie, where they developed what was known as the “Little Jewish Navy.” They also ran a number of casinos. After the Cleveland Syndicate unsuccessfully tried to discredit sheriff candidate and professional football player George Ratterman, their reign came to an end.

During prohibition, many Jewish gangsters became deeply involved in syndicate gambling operations in Miami, Cuba, and Las Vegas.

 

LAS VEGAS

Infamous Jewish mobsters were responsible for turning Las Vegas from a sleepy desert town into the gambling capital of the world.

In 1931, gambling was legalized in Nevada. This new development quickly attracted Jewish gangsters to Las Vegas, and beginning in 1946, notorious Jewish mobsters Meyer Lansky, Benjamin Siegel, Moe Dalitz, Gus Greenbaum, Dave Berman, Morris Lansburgh, Morris Rosen, and Sam Cohen made their way toward Sin City.

Most of all, it was Siegel, known as “Bugsy,” that paved the way for a Jewish Las Vegas. After scouring the country for a place to establish a legal casino, he made his way to Vegas in 1941. However, the owners of the first casino in the city refused to sell their shares to a Jewish gangster. Nevertheless, eventually he found the right sellers, and he transformed the dull casinos into opulent gambling spots. In 1947, following years of mobster violence, Siegel was shot to death while on vacation in Las Vegas.

Soon, Las Vegas was known as a “Jewish mob town,” much to the protest of the rest of the Jewish community in Las Vegas, who complained that the Vegas Jewish racketeers merely acted as front men for the Italian mafia.

Because casinos were mostly unregulated at the time, Jewish mobsters had found an almost inexhaustible source of income, which they often invested back into the Jewish community. In many ways, for Jewish gangsters, this was a way to transcend their previous reputations. They founded synagogues, Jewish day schools, and more. Lansky even utilized casino profits to help the Jewish militias purchase arms in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. In 1970, to escape federal prosecution, Lansky tried to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, where he even offered to turn Eilat into another Las Vegas, but Israel rejected his request out of fear of angering the American government.

Up until the 1970s, when the casinos were taken over by large corporations, the Jewish community in Las Vegas was fully dependent on casino income.

 

THAT ONE TIME...

Though the Jewish community wasn’t exactly thrilled about the mafia’s antics — in fact, they resented them for stoking antisemitic fires — there was one time when they couldn’t have been prouder.

In 1938, Jewish New York judge Nathan Perlman called mobster Meyer Lansky in for a secret meeting. He asked Lansky if he and his gang would be willing to help break up German American Bund (essentially the American Nazi party) rallies. Lansky was thrilled at the proposition.

The judge warned Lansky: “I want you to do anything but kill them. I’m sorry, but we cannot condone killing.”

Lansky accepted all of Perlman’s terms save for one: he would not take a single cent. He’d beat up Nazis for the mere pleasure of beating up Nazis.

Lansky later recalled breaking up one of those rallies: “The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only 15 of us, but we went into action. We…threw some of them out the windows…Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up…We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”

Similarly, at a Nazi rally in Minneapolis, Jewish gangster David Berman took a similar approach. Berman and his associates burst into the room and started swinging, emptying the hall after just 10 minutes. Berman took the microphone and stated: “This is a warning. Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse.”

In Chicago, a white passing* Jewish man named Herb Brin joined the Nazi Party as an undercover agent for the Anti-Defamation League. What the ADL did not know was that, whenever there was to be a rally, Brin would call the gangsters to beat the Nazis up. Brin later said: “I marched with the Nazis, but I came back later with Jewish gangs and we beat them up good.”

In New Jersey, Abner Zwillman formed an ant-Nazi group known as “the Minutemen.” Whenever the Bund met, Zwillman and his associates would show up and break their up their meetings.

While in public Jewish community leaders felt the need to condemn the violence, in private, at least for a brief moment in time, the Jewish gangsters were looked at as heroes. As Larry King once stated, “Jewish gangsters were our heroes. Even the bad ones were heroes to us.”

*back then, nobody considered Jews white.

 

POST WWII

Jewish organized crime — like virtually all organized crime — was generally born out of conditions of poverty. As such, when the living conditions of Jews improved post-World War II, the Jewish mafia almost faded into complete obscurity. Even so, Jewish organized crime was still relatively significant into the 1960s, with most of the gangsters being second-generation Jewish Americans. Additionally, Jewish gangsters still had a significant presence in Italian mafia rings.

Many Jewish gangsters donated large sums of money to the new, economically-fledgling State of Israel in 1948. Many also used the Law of Return to escape federal prosecution.

In the earliest days of Jewish American organized crime, Jews formed their own gangs because they lived segregated from the rest of the American community (due, of course, to antisemitism). As Jews assimilated more and more into American society, so did Jewish gangsters assimilate into more general, non-ethnic organized crime activity. The general Jewish community, which was never exactly proud of its Jewish mafia, quietly let this history fade into obscurity.

Even so, Jewish crime rings persist. Much of the gangster criminal activity in New York — particularly in Brighton Beach — comes from Soviet Jewish immigrants.

An Israeli organized crime ring which operates from Tel Aviv is also responsible for trafficking large amounts of ecstasy to the United States. In 2010, a Wikileaks document titled “Israel: The Promised Land of Organized Crime?" showed that the American embassy in Israel was concerned about potentially issuing visas to Israeli gangsters.

 

DIVORCE COERCION GANG

According to Halacha (Jewish law), to obtain a divorce, the husband must issue his wife a “get” (Jewish divorce document). This is observed particularly stringently among Haredi and Orthodox communities. Many husbands who do not wish to divorce or wish to control their wives will deny them the get. This is a form of manipulation and is widely considered among Jews to be a form of (absolutely unacceptable) emotional abuse. In cases such as these, rabbinic judges have the prerogative to institute communal shunning measures to coerce the husband to grant the wife the divorce document.

In the 1980s, rabbi Mendel Epstein, known as “the Prodfather,” began using cattle prods to coerce unwilling men to grant their wives a divorce. Over the years, a gang of Jewish men, inspired by Epstein’s methods, began violently assaulting unwilling husbands until they agreed to grant their wives a get.

As time wore on, the gang used increasingly violent methods, including: beatings, stun guns, kidnappings, and more. In October 2010, Yisrael Bryskman was kidnapped and imprisoned in a second-story bedroom for refusing to give his wife a get. He was punched in the face, resulting in a broken nose, forced to the ground, blindfolded, hand-tied, and ankle-tied. The attacker, David Wax, dressed in a cowboy costume. He presented Bryskman with a body bag “to get [Bryskman] used to the size.” Wax then proceeded to kick Bryskman and burnt him with acid. He threatened to urinate on him, feed him to rats, and bury him alive, until Bryskman finally agreed to grant the get. Wax had been paid $100,000 by the wife’s family to proceed with the attack; half of the money then went to Epstein, who had tried to extort the wife’s family for another $50,000. Other men who refused to provide their wives with a get were attacked and tortured in similar ways.

In 2013, the FBI got involved through an undercover sting operation. In 2015, Wax and others involved in similar activities were tried and sentenced to prison, the longest sentence being 10 years. 

 

CULTURAL IMPACT

Ultimately Jewish gangs never received the notoriety of other ethnic organized crime rings, such as the Italian and Irish mafias. Even so, they were notorious in their own right, earning nicknames such as the “Kosher Mafia” and “Kosher Nostra.”

Jews are allegedly responsible for the style of dress most often associated with the Italian mafia. Arnold Rothstein, who, despite being one of the most infamous Jewish gangsters was a “rich man’s son,” supposedly taught the hoodlums of Bowery “how to have style.” Lucky Luciano, who became a prominent Italian mafia boss and a member of the infamous Five Families, claimed that Rothstein “taught me how to dress.” The gangster attire portrayed in mafia movies can trace its roots to Rothstein.

In the 1960s, Jewish gangsters were popularly portrayed as characters in Jewish American literature. Jewish writers were drawn to gangsters, as well as other “tough” figures like Jewish boxers, because such a portrayal liberated Jews from the weak, helpless stereotype that had followed them for so long, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust. By contrast, Jewish American literature of the 1920s and 1930s, written primarily in Yiddish, universally condemned the Jewish mafia.

Unsurprisingly, Jewish organized criminal activity inflamed antisemitic and anti-immigrant sentiment among Americans. In the early 20th century, accounts of Jewish organized crime were inflated and exaggerated by both the press and law enforcement. In reality, Jews were statistically less likely to turn to crime than the general population. In the 1920s, Jews formed about a third of New York City’s population. Less than one sixth of the city’s felony arrests were Jews.

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