organized crime emerged within the American Jewish community
during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been referred to variously
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
(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 Herman Rosenthal.
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.
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
The Siegel family's memorial plaque in the Bialystoker Synagogue.
Jewish-American gangsters were involved
in many different criminal activities,
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
boss Kid Cann held sway over Minneapolis for over four decades
and remains the most notorious mobster in the history of
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
ewish 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
condemnation of Jewish mobsters.
century to early 20th century
A large wave
of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late-19th and early
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
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
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
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.
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
(1920–1933) if one had an idea for a tremendous business opportunity,
or not. Rothstein "understood the truths of early 20th century capitalism
exclusion, greed) and came to dominate them". According to Cohen,
was the 'Moses of Jewish gangsters', a rich man's son, who showed the
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".
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.
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.
During 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
and valued longtime associates such as Meyer Lansky and Benjamin
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
benefits of cooperating with the Italian-American Mafia in a newly created
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
Cuba, Miami, and Las Vegas. Buchalter would also lead the
predominantly Jewish Murder, Inc. as the Luciano-Meyer syndicate's exclusive hitmen.
After World War II
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:
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.
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
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
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,
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,
dealing, using the Triads to blackmail and/or bribe various corrupt Chinese
(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.
Jewish-American 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
activities of Israeli organized crime figures and was taking measures to
members of crime families from being issued visas to the United States.
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.
Russian and 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.
Notable members and associates
In popular culture
- 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 Bugsy Siegel.
- The 1935 movie Public Hero No. 1 deals with the hunting down
- and capture of the Purple Gang, although it's heavily
- 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.
- The 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.
- In 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
- 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 Frank Rosenthal.
- 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
- 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"
- 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.