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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