Jewish Journal

Rediscovering gangster Jewish roots

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 25, 2008 | 8:35 pm

I always thought my gangster roots were on the Italian side of my family. My sister often joked that some distant relative of ours was mobbed up. They weren’t, but considering all the Italians and Jews in my family that came through New York, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone along the way was a nogoodnik. Or a not-so-nogoodnik. Generations removed from Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, the image of Jewish gangsters is more cool than criminal.

Moment magazine devoted this month’s cover story to this topic.

“There were Jews who said, ‘We’re oppressed and we need some tough Jews,’” Jonathan Sarna, the eminent American Jewish historian, told the magazine. “People admired them for being ‘alrightniks,’ for ‘making it’ in America.”

Moment plays this as a new trend, but it’s not. Jews have been writing about their gangster past for more than 30 years, “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America,” “But He Was Good to His Mother ...” and “Tough Jews” among them. The best book on this topic, for the way it blended social history with familial stains, was Eric Konigsberg’s “Blood Relation,” which I blogged about in November. The book, by recounting the thug life of Eric’s great-uncle Kayo Konigsberg, shows that Murder Inc. and gangster Jews were always revered by their own. Here’s what U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said about growing up with the Kongisbergs:

“We loved the fact that he was one of us. I mean, here’s a guy who had—you know, he wasn’t just an accountant like Meyer Lansky. I remember teasing one of your father’s cousins about him. She’d get upset, but most of the Jewish kids I knew were sort of worshipful of Kayo.”

The Kosher Nostra, of course, is not a thing of the past.

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