Jewish-American organized crime
emerged within the American Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been referred to variously in media and popular culture as the Jewish
Mob, Jewish Mafia, Kosher Mafia, Kosher Nostra, or Undzer Shtik (Yiddish: אונדזער שטיק).[a] The last two of these terms are direct references to the Italian Cosa Nostra; the former is a play on the word kosher, referring to Jewish dietary laws; while the latter is a direct translation of the Italian phrase Cosa Nostra (Italian for "our thing") into Yiddish, which was at the time the predominant language of the Jewish diaspora in the United States.
In the late 19th century in New York City, Monk Eastman operated a powerful Jewish gang that competed with Italian and Irish gangs, notably Paul Kelly's Five Points Gang, for control of New York City's underworld. Another notorious gang, known as the Lenox Avenue Gang, led by Harry "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz, consisted of mostly Jewish members and some Italian members (such as Francesco Cirofisi). It was one of the most violent gangs of the early 20th century and became famous for the murder of gambler and gangster
In the early 1920s, stimulated by the economic opportunities of the roaring twenties, and later prohibition, Jewish organized crime figures such as Arnold Rothstein were controlling a wide range of criminal enterprises, including bootlegging, loansharking, gambling, and bookmaking. According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation,
with himself at the top." Rothstein was allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. At the same time, the Jewish bootlegging mob known as The Purple Gang dominated the Detroit underworld during prohibition, while the Jewish Bugs and Meyer Mob operated in the Lower East Side of New York City before being absorbed into Murder, Inc. and becoming affiliates of the Italian-American Mafia.
The largely Jewish-American and Italian-American gang known as Murder, Inc. and Jewish mobsters such as Meyer Lansky, Mickey Cohen, Harold "Hooky" Rothman, Dutch Schultz, and Bugsy Siegel developed close ties with and gained significant influence within the Italian-American Mafia, eventually forming a loosely organized, mostly Jewish and Italian criminal syndicate known in the press as the "National Crime Syndicate." Jewish and Italian crime groups became increasingly interconnected in the 1920s and 1930s, as they often occupied
the same neighborhoods and social statuses of the time. The two ethnic crime groups became especially close in New York
City following the establishment of the close relationship between partners Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and their subsequent elimination of many of the so-called "Mustache Pete", or the Sicilian-born gangsters that often refused to work with non-Italians and even non-Sicilians. The Cohen crime family of Los Angeles and Las Vegas was notably part of both the Jewish Mafia and Italian-American Mafia, and lines between the two ethnic criminal organizations
often blurred throughout the 20th century. For decades after, Jewish-American mobsters would continue to work closely and
at times compete with Italian-American organized crime.
Origins and characteristics
Siegel family's memorial plaque in the Bialystoker Synagogue.
gangsters were involved in many different criminal activities, including murder, racketeering, bootlegging, prostitution and narcotics. Their role was also significant in New York's burgeoning labor movement, especially the garment and trucking unions, as well as the poultry industry. Jewish organized crime fueled antisemitism and deeply concerned the Jewish community. Jewish organized crime was used by antisemites and anti-immigration supporters as arguments to bolster their agenda.
Jewish gangs controlled portions of the Lower East Side and Brownsville in New York City, and were also present in other major American cities. American Jewish mafia boss Kid Cann held sway over Minneapolis for over four decades and remains the most notorious mobster in the history of Minnesota.
Jewish-American organized crime was a reflection of the ethnic succession among gangsters, which has tended to follow
the immigrant waves in the United States: English, German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Asian and Latino. Ethnic involvement
in organized crime gave rise to alien conspiracy theories in the US law enforcement community, in which the conception of
organized crime as an alien and united entity was vital. The involvement of a small percentage of recent immigrants in organized
crime created a lasting stereotype of devious immigrants corrupting the morality of native-born Americans. Organized crime
was a complex set of relations between the recently arrived Jewish and Italian criminals and groups like the Irish-American organized crime networks, which had been established before the 1920s and which the newer groups were sometimes subordinate to.
Although never receiving close to the level of cultural attention of the Italian-American Mafia, from the late 1960s, Jewish-American gangsters would figure as characters in Jewish American literature. For some writers, Jewish gangsters and boxers in the post-World War II era were seen as tougher, more aggressive literary
role models, freeing the community from the stigma of defenselessness and powerlessness, compared with the physical aggressiveness and lawlessness more associated with the
Irish and Italian immigrants. According to Rich Cohen, author of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams: "If Jewish gangsters still thrived today, if they
hadn't gone legit, if Jews of my generation didn't regard them as figments, creatures to be classed with Big Foot and the
Loch Ness monster, I think the Jewish community would be better off". However, Cohen's description of Jewish gangsters ignores their criminality and immorality. These tough characters
were still gangsters who extorted, exploited and murdered other members of the Jewish-American community for profit. They
forced Jewish women into prostitution, and were generally considered a scourge within their own community. The Yiddish press and literature of the 1920s and 1930s was resolute in its condemnation of Jewish mobsters.
19th century to early 20th century
A large wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late-19th and early 20th centuries produced Jewish
mobsters such as Max "Kid Twist" Zwerbach, "Big" Jack Zelig, and Vach "Cyclone Louie" Lewis who competed with and were acknowledged by Italian and Irish gangs.
Just as their
Italian counterparts, gangs specializing in extortion began operating in the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York's Lower East Side most prominently the so-called Yiddish Black Hand headed by Jacob Levinsky, Charles "Charlie the Cripple" Litoffsky and Joseph Toplinsky during the early 20th century. A significant Jewish underworld already existed in New York at the start of the 20th century,
with Jewish mobsters conversing in a jargon with Yiddish origins. A pimp was known as a "simcha," a detective as a "shamus" and a loafer as a "trombenik." Jewish-American organized crime arose among slum kids who in pre-puberty stole from pushcarts, who as adolescents
extorted money from store owners, who as young adults practiced schlamming (wielding an iron pipe wrapped in newspaper
against striking workers or against scabs) – until as adults they joined well-organized gangs involved in a wide variety
of criminal enterprises boosted by prohibition.
The lure of quick money, power and the romance of the criminal lifestyle
was attractive to both second-generation Jewish and Italian immigrants. There was a supposed Jewish "crime wave"
in early-20th-century New York. In disturbing numbers young Jews had joined crime "rackets," it was said, along with children of Irish, Italian and other immigrants. However, the supposed Jewish-immigrant crime may have been exaggerated by the press and law enforcement. Crime and population figures show that Jews in New York committed crimes at a rate far below the average for
the wider society. As described by sociologist Stephen Steinberg, less than a sixth of the city's felony arrests were Jews
during the 1920s, when Jews constituted nearly a third of the city's population.
As the 20th century progressed, Jewish-American mobsters such as "Dopey"
Benny Fein and Joe "The Greaser" Rosenzweig entered labor racketeering, hiring out to both businesses and labor unions as strong arm men. Labor racketeering or "labor
slugging" as it was known, would become a source of conflict as it came under the domination of several racketeers
including former Five Points Gang members Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan and Johnny Spanish during the Labor slugger wars until its eventual takeover by Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro in 1927. Other Jewish organized crime figures involved in controlling labor unions include Moses Annenberg and Arnold Rothstein, the latter reportedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series.
According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by
hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top." According to Rich Cohen, Rothstein was the person to see during prohibition (1920–1933) if one had an idea
for a tremendous business opportunity, legal or not. Rothstein "understood the truths of early 20th century capitalism
(hypocrisy, exclusion, greed) and came to dominate them". According to Cohen, Rothstein was the 'Moses of Jewish gangsters',
a rich man's son, who showed the young and uneducated hoodlums of the Bowery how to have style. Lucky Luciano, who would become a prominent boss within the Italian-American Mafia and organize New York's Five Families, once claimed that Arnold Rothstein "taught me how to dress". The stereotypical attire of the American mobster
portrayed in movies can partially trace its roots directly to Rothstein.
During prohibition, Jewish gangsters became major operatives in the American
underworld and played prominent roles in the distribution of illegal alcohol and the spread of organized crime throughout
the United States. At the time, Jewish gangs operated primarily in America's largest cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Newark, New York City, and Philadelphia. Numerous bootlegging gangs such as the Bug and Meyer Mob headed by Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel and Abe Bernstein's Purple Gang would see the rise of Jewish-American organized crime to its height. Other Jewish mobsters, including Dutch Schultz of New York, Moe Dalitz of Michigan, Kid Cann of Minneapolis, Charles "King" Solomon of Boston and Abner "Longy" Zwillman (the "Al Capone of New Jersey") became wealthy during prohibition.
this time, Luciano successfully eliminated the Old World Sicilian Mafia bosses like Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano in the 1931 Castellammarese War and took control of the New York Italian Mafia. Luciano did not discriminate against Jews and valued longtime associates
such as Meyer Lansky and Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel. Several Jewish gangsters such as Red Levine and Bo Weinberg were used in the war as unsuspected non-Italian hitmen. After Masseria and Maranzano were murdered, a conference was held at New York's Franconia Hotel on November 11, 1931
which included Jewish mobsters such as Jacob Shapiro, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Joseph "Doc" Stacher, Hyman "Curly" Holtz, Louis "Shadows" Kravitz, Harry Tietlebaum, Philip "Little Farvel" Kovolick and Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg. During this meeting, Luciano and Lansky convinced the Jewish-American mobsters of the benefits of cooperating with the
Italian-American Mafia in a newly created consortium called the National Crime Syndicate by the press. At the meeting's conclusion, "Bugsy" Siegel supposedly declared "The yids and the dagos will
no longer fight each other."
Those Jewish gangsters hostile to the idea of cooperation with non-Jewish
rivals gradually receded, most notably Philadelphia bootlegger Waxey Gordon, who was convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion. Following Gordon's imprisonment, his operations were assumed by Nig Rosen and Max "Boo Hoo" Hoff.
Under Lansky, Jewish mobsters became involved in syndicate gambling interests in Cuba, Miami, and Las Vegas. Buchalter would also lead the predominantly Jewish Murder, Inc. as the Luciano-Meyer syndicate's exclusive hitmen.
For several decades after World War II, the dominant figures in organized crime were second-generation Jews and Italians, often working in concert. As late as
the 1960s, Jewish presence in organized crime was still acknowledged as Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna explained to hitman and later government informant Jimmy Fratianno:
Meyer's got a Jewish family built along the
same lines as our thing. But his family's all over the country. He's got guys like Lou Rhody and Dalitz, Doc Stacher, Gus Greenbaum, sharp fucking guys, good businessmen, and they know better than try to fuck us.
Jewish mobsters, such as Meyer Lansky
and the Los Angeles-based Mickey Cohen, along with Harold "Hooky" Rothman, continued to hold significant power and control organized crime groups in
New York City, New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Las Vegas, while the Jewish-American presence remained strong
in Italian-American criminal rackets.
Jewish-American organized crime derived from
dislocation and poverty, where language and custom made the community vulnerable to undesirables, the sort of thing that
fosters criminality among any other ethnicity in a similar situation. As American Jews improved their conditions, the Jewish thug and racketeer either disappeared or merged into a more
assimilated American crime environment. American Jews quietly buried the public memory of the gangster past; unlike the
Mafia, famous Jewish American gangsters like Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Siegel founded no crime families.
Much like Irish-Americans and other ethnicities (with the exception of Italian-American
criminal organizations), Jewish-American presence in organized crime began to decline after World War II. Jewish-American
individuals remain closely associated with organized crime, especially Italian-American and Israeli organized crime, but the Jewish-American criminal organizations and gangs which once rivaled the Italian and Irish-American mobsters
during the first half of the 20th century have largely faded.
Late 20th century to present
In more recent years, Jewish-American organized crime has reappeared in the forms of both Israeli and Jewish-Russian mafia criminal groups, and Orthodox kidnapping gangs.
From the 1990s till their 2013 arrest by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a sting operation, an Orthodox ring led by Mendel "The Prodfather" Epstein imposed a reign of terror on Jewish men in troubled
marriages by kidnapping and torturing them into granting religious divorces to their wives, who paid Epstein up to $100,000 for his services. In 2016, another sting collared Shimen Liebowitz and Aharon Goldberg, two Satmar Hasidim who colluded with a third man to perform a contract killing on an estranged husband.
Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was sued by former Sands China CEO Steven Jacobs for wrongful termination. Jacobs, who was fired in 2010, alleged that instead of Adelson losing confidence
in his ability to run the Macau-based casinos, the true reason was his attempts to distance the company from ties to the Triads, the Chinese mafia, involving activities such as in-casino loan sharking, prostitution, drug dealing, using the Triads
to blackmail and/or bribe various corrupt Chinese lawmakers (in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) and utilizing accounts used by large-money gamblers (known as whales) transferring money from one casino to another as
money laundering transactions. The suit, which was filed in late 2010, was set to go to trial in September 2016, though nine months earlier, Adelson
purchased the Las Vegas Review Journal in a controversial and ill-fated attempt to turn public opinion against the presiding judge. On May 31, 2016, the two sides reached a confidential settlement.
organized crime and Israel
Several notable Jewish American mobsters provided
financial support for Israel through donations to Jewish organizations since the country's creation in 1948. Jewish-American gangsters used Israel's Law of Return to flee criminal charges or face deportation. Notables include Joseph "Doc" Stacher, who built up Las Vegas by pairing the Jewish and Italian Mafia into a national organized crime syndicate. Prime Minister
Golda Meir set out to reverse this trend in 1970 when she denied entrance to Meyer Lansky. He was the mob's accountant, thought to be among the most powerful people in the country, with a gambling empire
stretching throughout the United States.
In 2010, it was reported by Wikileaks that the United States Embassy in Israel, in a cable titled "Israel: The Promised Land of Organized Crime?",
had expressed grave concern about the activities of Israeli organized crime figures and was taking measures to prevent members
of crime families from being issued visas to the United States. American diplomats expressed concern that Inbal Gavrieli, the niece of one of Israel's most powerful mafia bosses, had been elected to the Knesset as a MK for Likud.
Israeli mafia in the United States
The Soviet and Russian émigré community in New York's Brighton Beach contains a large Jewish presence. Some of these newer American-based Jewish gangsters, such as Ludwig Fainberg (who has lived in Ukraine, Israel and the United States, but never in Russia), share more in common culturally with Russia
and the Soviet republics than their predecessors, such as Meyer Lansky.
Russian Jewish mafia figures, such as Semion Mogilevich, have attempted to penetrate the United States, including participating in a US$10 billion money laundering scheme through
the Bank of New York in 1998.
Israeli mobsters also have had a presence in the United
States. The Israeli mafia (such as the Abergil crime family) is heavily involved in ecstasy trafficking in America.
- The 1925 novel The Great Gatsby features a Jewish-American gangster and gambler named Meyer Wolfshiem. He is described as having fixed the World Series. Wolfshiem is an allusion to Arnold Rothstein, who was notoriously blamed for the Black Sox Scandal and fixing the 1919 World Series. Gambler Herman Rosenthal is also referenced in the novel. A Jewish mobster, Mr. Slagle, also calls Gatsby's house; this could be a reference to
- The 1935 movie Public Hero No. 1 deals with the hunting down and capture of the Purple Gang, although it's heavily fictionalized.
- A line in the Elvis Presley hit "Jailhouse Rock" is "The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang... "
- Jake Guzik is a major figure in the 1959 television show The Untouchables, where he is portrayed by Nehemiah Persoff. Guzik was introduced in the first episode as the brains behind the Chicago Outfit after Al Capone's conviction, and ultimately appeared in six episodes. Other Jewish mobsters from the prohibition era, such as Waxey Gordon, are featured in the series.
- Arnold Rothstein is portrayed by Robert Lowery in the 1960 The Rise and Fall of "Legs" Diamond and by David Janssen in the 1961 King of the Roaring 20's - The Story of Arnold Rothstein (aka The Big Bankroll)
- The 1960 film Murder, Inc. concerned the largely Jewish and Italian murder gang known as Murder, Inc. Written for the screen by Irve Tunick and
Mel Barr from the book by Burton Turkus and Sid Feder, Murder, Inc., the film starred Stuart Whitman, Henry Morgan and Peter Falk and was directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
- The Purple Gang are referenced four times in the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. They supply two goons to the Spangled Mob in Diamonds Are Forever; are one of the gangs employed by Auric Goldfinger in his raid on Fort Knox; in The Man with the Golden Gun, Francisco Scaramanga is said to have killed one of their hitmen; and in Thunderball, Blofeld tells of an operation where SPECTRE kidnapped a Purple Gang member's daughter.
- The 1969 novel
The Godfather and the 1972 film of the same name feature Jewish gangster Moe Greene. Though mostly based on Bugsy Siegel, Greene is also considered a composite of other Jewish Las Vegas mobsters such as Moe Dalitz, Moe Sedway, and Gus Greenbaum.
- The 1971 movie The French Connection includes a Jewish gangster, Joel Weinstock, a defense lawyer and heroin financier.
- In the 1973 film The Long Goodbye, Mark Rydell plays Jewish gangster and crime boss Marty Augustine.
1974 film The Godfather Part II features Jewish mobster Hyman Roth, a character heavily based on real-life mobster Meyer Lansky.
- The 1981 NBC mini series, The Gangster Chronicles,
the character of Michael Lasker, played by Brian Benben, was based on Lansky. Because Lansky was still living at the time, the producers derived the "Michael Lasker"
name for the character to avoid legal complications.
Nicholas Roeg's 1983 film Eureka, based on the story of Sir Harry Oakes, Joe Pesci plays Mayakofsky, a Jewish gangster looking to expand his gambling empire.
- The 1984 film Once Upon a Time in America focuses on the lives of a group of Jewish boys growing up in New York City and becoming involved in organized crime.
The group of boys initially start as a small-time Jewish street gang before rising up in the underworld and forming their
own Jewish mafia crew. The film is loosely based on the lives of Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.
- The 1984 film The Cotton Club features James Remar as antagonist and real-life Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz.
- Arnold Rothstein is portrayed by Michael Lerner in the 1988 film Eight Men Out, based on the Black Sox Scandal.
- Mark Rydell plays Meyer Lansky in the 1990 film Havana, starring Robert Redford.
- The 1990 film Goodfellas features Chuck Low as Jewish mob associate Morrie Kessler, a character based on real-life Lucchese family associate Martin Krugman.
- The 1990 film Miller's Crossing features John Turturro as a small-time Jewish gangster and bookie.
- Bugsy (1991) chronicles the life of Bugsy Siegel, featuring Warren Beatty as the mobster and Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lansky. Mickey Cohen is portrayed by actor Harvey Keitel.
- The 1991 film Mobsters, depicts the rise of The Commission and National Crime Syndicate and features Richard Grieco as Bugsy Siegel, Patrick Dempsey as Meyer Lansky, and F. Murray Abraham as Arnold Rothstein.
- The 1991 film Billy Bathgate features Dustin Hoffman as Dutch Schultz.
- The Marrying Man (1991) has Armand Assante playing the role of Bugsy.
- Tim Powers imagined Siegel as a modern-day Fisher King in his novel Last Call (1992).
- The 1993 film Carlito's Way features Sean Penn as Jewish lawyer-turned-gangster David Kleinfeld. This character is parodied in the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City with a similar character named Ken Rosenberg.
- 1995 film Little Odessa features the Jewish-Russian mafia, with Tim Roth as a Russian Jewish gangster in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
- 1995 film Casino features Robert De Niro as Jewish-American gambler and gangster Sam "Ace" Rothstein, a character based on the real life Jewish mob associate
- The 1997 film Hoodlum features various Jewish gangsters, both fictional and non-fictional. Tim Roth portrays Dutch Schultz.
- In the 1997 film L.A. Confidential, Mickey Cohen is portrayed by actor Paul Guilfoyle.
- A 1999 made-for-TV movie called Lansky was released starring Richard Dreyfuss as Lansky and Eric Roberts as Bugsy Siegel.
- The HBO series The Sopranos features an old-school Jewish-American gangster and advisor to the New Jersey Italian-American Mafia, Hesh Rabkin, played by Jerry Adler.
- In the NBC series The West Wing, the father of character Toby Ziegler was a member of Murder, Inc. and had served time in prison for it.
- In the 2001 film
Knockaround Guys, Vin Diesel plays a Jewish gangster and associate with the Italian-American Mafia.
- In the 2002 film Undisputed there is a Jewish character named Mendy Ripstein who reveals that he worked for Meyer Lansky.
- In the 2005 film The Lost City, a fictionalized account of Meyer Lansky's involvement in Cuba, Lansky is portrayed by Dustin Hoffman.
- In the 2006 film The Black Dahlia, Mickey Cohen is mentioned as being an illegal bookmaker taking bets on an underground boxing match.
- The 2008 video
game Grand Theft Auto IV, 2009 video game Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned, and the 2009 video game Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony feature a Jewish organized crime group led by Orthodox Jews and involved in blood diamond trafficking.
- The HBO series Boardwalk Empire features various Jewish-American organized crime figures, including Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel, Waxey Gordon, and Jake Guzik. Anatol Yusef portrays Meyer Lansky, Michael Stuhlbarg portrays Arnold Rothstein, Michael Zegen portrays Bugsy Siegel, and Joe Caniano portrays Jake Guzik. In addition, the series featured the fictional character of
Manny Horvitz, a Jewish gangster and kosher butcher in Philadelphia, portrayed by William Forsythe.
- The 2011 HBO series Luck features Dustin Hoffman as Jewish gangster and gambler Chester "Ace" Bernstein.
- The 2011 film Drive features Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as Jewish gangsters in Los Angeles.
- Patrick Fischler plays Mickey Cohen in the 2011 video game L.A. Noire.
- The Starz series Magic City focused on Jewish-American organized crime in 1950s Miami, with Danny Huston as Jewish crime boss Ben Diamond.
- The Showtime series Ray Donovan features Elliott Gould as Ezra Goldman, a corrupt Jewish-American lawyer with ties to organized crime.
- The 2013 film Gangster Squad features Mickey Cohen, portrayed by actor Sean Penn.