Tough Jews by Rich Cohen
Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams
by Rich Cohen
Simon & Schuster. 288 pp. $25.00
When Hollywood movie-makers conjure up the gangster demimonde, they almost always reserve a bit part for a Jewish character—the mousy lawyer or accountant who nervously shuffles in to do the paperwork. Exceptions like Warren Beatty’s Bugsy notwithstanding, the Jew in gangster movies tends to get a ledger and a satchel; the Italian heavies get tommy guns and stilettos. Even in crime, it would seem, the Jewish contribution is brains.
In Tough Jews, Rich Cohen, a writer for Rolling Stone, sets out to explode this particular stereotype, rehearsing the deeds of the legendary brawlers and assassins of Jewish organized crime in America. More ambitiously, he attacks the purportedly commonplace idea that “Jews are supposed to be weak.” As he sees it, the Jewish thugs of yesteryear are more than mere curiosities, symbols of the less savory side of an immigrant success story. They are the success story—model Jews, every one of them.
Most of Tough Jews is devoted to describing the rise and fall of the particular gangster band that styled itself “Murder Inc.” Based in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, it included among its memorably-monikered members the likes of Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles, Harry “Pep” Strauss, “Dutch Schultz,” and “Tick-Tock” Tannenbaum.
The group started out as a strictly local affair, killing off rival Jewish gangs in order to establish its own dominance. Before long, however, its talents came to the attention of the wider, Italian-dominated underworld of the Mafia. Kept on retainer as hitmen for various mob families, the members of Murder Inc. soon established a niche for themselves, executing sentences against “cheats,” “rats,” and other unfortunates. Ruthless and efficient, they “did for organized crime,” observes Cohen in a characteristically grandiose phrase, “what Henry Ford did for the automobile.”
Unsurprisingly, these assassins also felt little compunction about betraying one another. Many eventually turned state’s evidence, testifying in court against their erstwhile associates. By the mid-1940’s, most of Murder Inc. was either behind bars for a long stay or en route to the electric chair. The age of American Jewish gangsterism had ended and with it, Cohen laments, the age of “tough Jews.” Thereafter, Murder Inc. and all it stood for would live on only as fantasy—or, for young Jews who followed the gang’s exploits in the 30’s and 40’s, as a kind of alternative career aspiration.
Among those young Jews were Cohen’s own father and his childhood chums from Brownsville, and Cohen’s lurid accounts of gangster mayhem in Tough Jews are framed by vignettes of this “gang,” members of a high-school club called the Warriors. Now rich and secure—their number includes the TV personality Larry King (né Zeiger)—they like to gather in a Los Angeles deli to reminisce, and above all to take delight in the thought that, growing up, they were just a step removed from their more sanguinary co-religionists.
And that brings us to a major theme of Cohen’s book. Thanks to the gangsters, Cohen maintains, young men like his father had at least a mental alternative to the cult of victimhood that, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, would develop among so many American Jews. Long before Israel’s military prowess met the same need, Murder Inc. epitomized Jewish manliness. In their “physical power,” Kid Twist, Dutch Schultz, and the others had something that successful Jews like his father and Larry King still “crave”—and that younger generations desperately need. Indeed, if Jewish gangsters were around today, Cohen argues, anti-Semites would have to think twice. Jewish children would not get beaten up in playground pogroms, and, in Israel, “there would be no Wailing Wall. It would be the Don’t-Fuck-with-Me Wall!”
What is there to say about this exercise in callowness? Is one obliged to take note of its author’s adolescent style (see above), his sophomoric stabs at cultural generalization? Is it really necessary to point out that the members of Murder Inc., far from constituting a bulwark against anti-Semitism, were equal-opportunity brutes, happily extorting, robbing, and murdering their fellow Jews? Or that they themselves fared far worse in the end than their brethren working at what Cohen calls “sucker jobs”?
What is certainly true is that many American Jews today, while enjoying unprecedented wealth and status, tend to make a virtue, or even a fetish, of their historic insecurity, to revel in the idea of Jewish victim-hood. But the mindless macho posturing of Rich Cohen is only the other and much more pathetic face of this same insecurity—mixed, in his case, with palpable self-loathing.
“When I was growing up,” Cohen writes, “any mention of Jews as Jews would make me cringe. . . . I really knew of only one type of Jew: cerebral bourgeois kids-to-college suburbanites.” Poor, pampered, parochial Rich Cohen, reduced to the gutter to find models of Jewish behavior that will not make him “cringe.” Although it is nice that he wants to honor his father, there is actually more to American Jewish experience than is dreamt of in the delicatessens of Los Angeles. One would just never know it from this pop-gun of a book.