Gangster Generation: Crime, Jews and the Problem of Assimilation

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"Gangster Generation: Crime, Jews, and the Problem of Assimilation" examines cultural representations of Jewish criminals over the course of the twentieth century. The essay seeks to demonstrate that for several successive generations following the mass immigration of Jews to the United States, these figures have been invoked and described as a kind of index to the possibility -- and desirability -- of Jewish assimilation into the American mainstream. Taking into its purview accounts of Jewish mobsters ranging from newspaper stories and nonfiction writing to memoir, movies, and a popular TV series, the essay shows that the Jewish gangster has proved to be a figure flexible enough to accommodate and reflect changes in the social position and the cultural needs of Jews in America.

According to legend, Meyer Lansky, one of the longest-lived and most powerful Jewish gangsters in U.S. history, once described his success in the following terms: "We're bigger than U.S. Steel." Whether Lansky ever actually said this -- and whether it was literally true -- is beside the point: Lansky's boast manages to convey not only the prominence of men such as Lansky, Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Siegel, Gyp the Blood, and scores of others, but also offers a way of evaluating these men's success that is pointedly American and deliberately conventional.

At very least, Lansky was right in principle. From its origin in the 1880s, to a peak of accomplishment during Prohibition, the Jewish underworld flourished in ghettos such as New York's Lower East Side, Chicago's West Side, or those in Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, and other places. During this time Jews contributed some of the United States' foremost bootleggers, racketeers, panderers, and professional killers, culminating most famously in the Jewish-Italian criminal syndicate dubbed "Murder, Inc." by contemporary journalists.

After a few lucrative and bloody decades, though, the heyday of the Jewish gangster was over. The end of Prohibition necessitated a restructuring of organized crime's business plan to emphasize other sources of income, gambling in particular. Furthermore, following World War I, Jews in huge numbers were leaving the old urban neighborhoods that had given birth to the gangsters; a result of these two factors was that Jewish gangsters became much less visible or even went "legit." By the 1950s, Jewish gangsters had disappeared from the newspaper headlines and political discussions so thoroughly that nearly every historical work I have read on Jewish gangsters written after 1960 opens with some kind of expectation that readers will find it hard to believe that there ever was such a thing as a powerful Jewish mob in the first place.

But the imagined ethnic mobster has never ceased to fascinate mass American audiences, whose appetites for fictional gangsters may have waxed and waned but never fully abated. A glance at academic, journalistic, and popular treatments of Jewish gangsters spanning the twentieth century reveals, however, that the attitude of the Jewish community toward its criminals has evolved considerably. Jewish crime -- fictive or real -- emerges as a durable index by which Jews (and non-Jews as well) take stock of Jewish social positioning in the often inflammatory and constantly shifting arena of multi-ethnic America. This essay considers the ways in which the Jewish community has used discussions about Jewish gangsters as a meditation upon Jews and difference throughout the twentieth century (and into the twenty-first), finding in the gangster a figure flexible enough to accommodate changes in the political, economic, and ideological positioning of Jews in the United States.

"There should be no Jewish criminals"

The first written reactions in the Jewish American press to the activities of Jewish criminals show pained bewilderment: how could such a thing be reconciled with a moral code that supposedly made violent crime impossible? Jews had acquired a reputation for being peaceful and law-abiding since they first began to arrive in North America in the mid-seventeenth century, and popular commentators, such as Century magazine, tended to single them out for praise: "Proof of the high moral standing of Hebrews is that only two murderers have sprung from their ranks in two hundred and fifty years. …