Free-wheeling U.S. spirit stoked gangsters, prof says

The notorious Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, like the Michael Milkens and Ivan Boeskys of the 1980s, were just trying to make a buck, according to Murray Baumgarten, a professor of literature at U.C. Santa Cruz.

And Jews were no strangers to crime, organized and otherwise, he said at a recent Shabbat service at Temple Beth El Jewish Community Center in Aptos.

Speaking on "Jewish Gangsters and What They Tell Us About Our Values," Baumgarten described three generations of Jewish gangsters: the "immigrant independents"; the "organizers," whose heyday came after World War II; and the more recent "white-collar boys," Milken and Boesky.

Why did some Jews take the road to crime? Baumgarten, who is also the editor of the quarterly journal Judaism, cites the rough-and-tumble spirit of American immigrants. He recalled a scene in Philip Roth's "Goodbye, Columbus" in which the heroine's father tells her boyfriend, "In business you need a little gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?"

The answer is "thief."

The message given to new Americans was to seize opportunities, which some of them did illegally. They provided services for which people were willing to pay, such as gambling, prostitution and drugs. They took advantage of the opportunities of American capitalism — an economic system that he said has no built-in moral values or restraints.

That spirit of risk-taking and of bending the rules fueled the energy of the Eastern European Jews who immigrated from 1880 to 1924, he said. Many were brawlers and rebels, trying to make a living during a difficult time. They felt they had to assert power, violence and force to get what they wanted. These Jews were not passive. They actively shaped their destiny.

Baumgarten cited Jenna Weissman Joselit's "Our Gang, Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900-1940," which recounts the exploits of Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith. The two used disguises to find out why sacramental Jewish wine was in such demand in New York City during prohibition. They arrested almost 200 for bootlegging, many of them rabbis in need of money, who sold their wine permits to bootleggers.

A tiny congregation in Oakland was overwhelmed with members involved in similar activities, he said. Many of them thought of themselves not as criminals but as entrepreneurs filling a social need.

But earlier in this century, he pointed out, a significant Jewish underworld already existed, giving birth to a litany of criminal slang with Yiddish origins. A pimp was known as a "simcha," a detective as a "shamus" and a loafer as a "trombenik."

Raising the question about Jewish attitudes toward Jewish criminals, Baumgarten observed that almost no Jewish criminals appear in the serious writing of major American Jewish writers. Yet non-Jewish writers have not been so diffident. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," he said, Arnold Rothstein, fictionalized as Meyer Wolfsheim, fixes the 1919 World Series.

At the talk, Baumgarten invited the audience to read "Sheeny Mike," a Yiddish poem by Jacob Glatstein. The poem, which is featured in A Traveling Jewish Theatre's upcoming production of "Diamonds in the Dark: An Exploration of Yiddish Poetry," "reminds us that rough-and-tumble America, with its opportunities and constraints, its choices and difficulties, shaped our experience in crucial ways," he said. "To forget that experience, including the Jewish criminals and gangsters who had an important part in it, is to truncate what we pass on to the next generation. It doesn't prepare them for the rough-and-tumble postmodern world they will inherit."