Men with names such as Kid Twist and Gyp the Blood and Pittsburgh Phil once roamed the Jewish ghettos. These gangsters were as tough as the Irish and as powerful as the Italian mob, and when I discovered this fact at age 12 or so, it thrilled me. This reaction is easy to understand: I was, at the time, facing the oppression of anti-Semitic schoolyard thugs, and in my revenge-fantasies, Bugsy Siegel and Gurrah Shapiro were lining up on my side, blackjacks in hand.
Of course, all this was happening when I was 12. By the time I hit 16, my understanding of Jewish gangsters had become substantially more nuanced. Great nicknames and fists aside, I began to recognize these Jewish gangsters as fools and thugs who preyed on their own communities, robbed the Jewish poor, and murdered their own people.
Rich Cohen, author of a new book titled Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, doesn’t get this fact. For Cohen, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, the Jewish gangsters are the purest expression of the Jewish spirit and the means through which he defines his own Jewishness.
There are two books here. One is a very bad book of social history, defined by Cohen’s tendency to make up facts—“imagine” is his word—when he doesn’t know something: “I do not know what [Yasha Katzenberg] looked like,” he writes, “but I have tried to imagine him. I see his eyes as mirrors, reflecting not what he is looking at, but what he will see: mountains, rivers, wars. I imagine him tall and slender, wearing a hood, taking his time—something long prophesied, a nomad who has crossed wastes to get here.”
The second book is his attempt to portray himself as a spiritual heir to the Jewish gangsters. He does this by striking a tough guy pose throughout, a pose that fails to hide his sense of physical inadequacy, which he blames on his Jewishness