What’s Your Gangster Story?

gangsters-heebNext Wednesday, the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery will be opening its new exhibit “Real Machers: Pat Hamou’s Portraits of American Jewish Gangsters, 1900-1945.” The opening, which is free and open to the public, is accompanied by a Nextbook reading (tickets required) by Ron Arons, author of The Jews of Sing Sing: Gotham, Gangsters and Gonuvim.

Aron’s motivation for writing his book was the experience of learning that his own great-grandfather, Isaac had been an inmate at Sing Sing– something he didn’t learn until after his own parents had died and he was investigating his family history. In talking about his research he has found many people willing, even proud to boast of their own family connection to the Jewish gangster past.

Which begs the question… got any gangsters in your family?

Just in case you’re a little shy, I’ll go first.

My father had an uncle — Uncle Sammy, who liked to, as Dad put it, “play the ponies.” Either he wasn’t very good at this activity, or his luck ran out because he fell deep in-debt. Not unusual in cases like this, the money was owed to an organized crime outfit. One night at a stoplight, either in Weehawken or Jersey City (my sources were uncertain which) Sammy was gunned down while driving either to or from the gas station he worked at. No one was ever arrested or charged with his murder.

I know it is callous, but the first time I heard this story I thought, “How cool is that!” Not that it was cool that this Uncle Sammy had been whacked, but that it made such a great story. I had been thinking about Sammy a lot as the preparations for this coming exhibition were under way. I wanted to know more of the story. But why? Is it because it connects me, even if only through a victim, to an oft-romanticized gangster past? Is it because that as a narrative, it runs counter to the commonly held belief that Jewish life in America is primarily a story of increasing legitimacy and success? The Sammys of American Jewish history are often lost to us, their travails hushed up.

When I pressed my father for more information in preparation for this post, he was less than enthusiastic. He was very young at the time and couldn’t remember very well what had happened. An aunt I spoke to felt much the same way. They both expressed the concern that I not offer too many specifics since Sammy still had living children. Then my father offered to get me in-touch with Sammy’s son — a person I didn’t even know existed and who my father had spoken to once in the last seven years. He gave me phone numbers. Home and work. As we ended our conversation, my dad challenged me. “Call him up. Introduce yourself. Then ask him about how his dad was killed.”

I haven’t made the call.

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8 Responses

  1. So the CPO is reluctant to call a stranger and remind him of his father’s brutal death that probably scared him for life and was a point of continuing anguish. Good decision CPO!

  2. My father was a dentist in Brownsville, Brooklyn for 50 years starting in the 1920’s. He did tell us stories about people from “Murder, Inc”, maybe even Meyer Lansky ,would occasionally run up to his waiting room when police were in hot pursuit. He claimed he would be questioned about what these guys were doing there and felt compelled to say they were waiting for appointments with him! I kind of wondered the plausibility of these stories until several years ago I met a fellow here in DC who told the story that it was well known Murder, Inc guys would take calls in a grocery store on Sackman Street in Brooklyn. I remembered that grocery was under my father’s office! So there!

    What a great story. It raises the excellent point that these gangsters existed not in a vacuum, but in communities that were more or less aware of their activities. People like your father had to make very practical decisions to protect themselves.

  3. Tammany Hall wasn’t exactly the same as the rackets or Murder, Inc., but still, when my father was growing up in Harlem, it was standard practice for the police to come around each year before election time to confirm the names of those registered at each address to vote. So here is a uniformed member of New York’s finest at the door of the Frankels on 112th St, a well-known family of quasi-hasidic Jews. As he starts to ask if the following persons live at this residence, and starts running off a list of Irish names, the clueless family member who first answered the door draws a blank and starts fumphering around. Happily, my prematurely sophisticated father happens by, hears what is going on, and swings into gear acknowledging one after another of those Irish names. The point is that Tammany had squads of activists who would travel around on election day to the numerous addresses at which they had been registered, and carry out that great American tradition: “Vote early and often.”
    [please don’t publish name either]

    I’m laughing to myself imagining a young semi-Hasidic boy who acknowledges that he lives with a long list of people “named” O’Brien, Shaughnessy and Connolly, etc.

  4. For years my father talked about his cousin Knadles, and how he “walked off death-row alive”. We were never sure how much of this was true. But now we do! These stories were always tied to the differences between the Brooklyn and Bronx Nitzbergs (Knadles being from the Bronx, my father from Brooklyn). My family and I find it quite fascinating that the only witness against Knadles happened to “fall out of a window” prior to testifying.

    Interesting — the gangster in the family as the sort of evil doppleganger. Was Knadles bad because he lived in the Bronx, or because he was bad, the Bronx was the only appropriate place he could live?

  5. Note to Ellen Nitzberg Cooper : Look up the word
    DEFENISTRATION . It came into being in about 1620 in Czechoslovakia because “falling” out of a window was such a common death for politicians/citizens !

  6. i went for a ride with a gangster around the city I live in. And I thought I was so cool. And than It effected one of my eyes in the strangest way. now i know what happened to left eye. Like I’m part of some video game or something.
    from Sandi

  7. I am brit and througpout the 80s and 90s i was involved with gangs. We started out has a group of friends causing havoc in the community we lived in.
    we were maybe 30 strong on a good day, but the real hard core members total was 15.
    we organised prostitution, drug running, car theft for profit, extortion, fraud, some protection, and our all time best pastime street fighting. Has we got older we got involved with fire arms, and contracts to commit serious injury,s. i myself was asked by a member of the Hells Angels to travell to New orleans to carry out a hit. I declined. At this time in my life i was 38, and well out of the Gangster life style, but because of my reputation as a member of the notorious 3 litre posse, i was still deemed as active, and had not been active for a number of years. my reputation proceeded me. After a number of years spent in prison, and my subsequent addiction to Crack, i finally turned my life around, and i am married and just about to set-up my own buissnes. My point is i changed my life around, gangbanging is not the way forward, many a people were affected by my gangster life style, however i have redeemed my self, can you.

  8. […] For those unfamiliar with the term let me stress that anti-heroes are not villains. There are no gangsters or bad guys on this list. Every one of them has made important contributions to the arts, culture, politics or […]

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