TOUGH JEWS by Rich Cohen


Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams in Jewish America
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Yes, Deborah, there once were Jewish murderers who were part of organized crime in America. The story of their time, and especially of the syndicate known as Murder, Inc., based largely in Brownsville, Brooklyn, is told in this breezily anecdotal work. Cohen, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, focuses almost exclusively on New York from 1918 to 1945. He deftly portrays the personalities and the bloody deeds of such figures as Arnold Rothstein (who, contrary to myth and his fictional representation in The Great Gatsby, did not “fix” the 1919 World Series) and the killers Abe (“Kid Twist”) Reles and Louis Lepke. Drawing on interviews, archival research, and secondary sources, Cohen has done his homework, although he makes no reference to Jenna Weissman Joselit’s equally interesting if more scholarly Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900—1940. His book is filled with engrossing, vivid, violent anecdotes, and he is a fine teller of dark tales. Unfortunately, Cohen’s style sometimes yields flippant, hyperbolic claims, as in “The boys [of Murder, Inc.] had developed a system of killing as groundbreaking, as effective, as influential, as Henry Ford’s assembly line.” However, he does succeed admirably in explaining why even law-abiding Jewish men, including the author’s father and his friends, were fascinated by Jewish criminals, who defied the often tedious 9-to-5 work world and provided a countermyth to the Jew as victim. He also provides a satisfactory explanation as to why, for Jewish-Americans, violent crime was largely a one-generation phenomenon: By the postwar period, Jews had achieved enough upward mobility so that even criminal fathers encouraged their sons to “make it” in the professions and through legitimate businesses. For those who want to know about the dark underside of American Jewish life two and three generations ago, Cohen’s book, is a good place to begin. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) (First serial to Rolling Stone; author tour)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-83115-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1998


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