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June 06, 1986 - Image 38

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-06-06

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

38: Friday, June 6, 1986

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

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LOOKING BACK

For several years former De-
troiter Robert Rockaway of Is-
rael's Tel Aviv University has
been seen in the company of
hit-men, thieves, gamblers and
prostitutes. Jewish hit-men,
thieves, gamblers and prosti-
tutes. Rockaway has been re-
searching the Jewish gangsters
of yesteryear, some of whom
were once the leaders of or-
ganized crime in America.
"Crime was exciting and pro-
vided a challenge for men of
ability, agressiveness and dar-
ing," explains Prof. Rockaway,
teacher of American Jewish his-
tory at Tel Aviv. The Jewish
gangster, he says, "chose crime
because it was the quickest way
to achieve material success,
power, recognition and status
... to move up and out of the
ghetto."
Rockaway has been interview-
ing aging Jewish gangsters for
over a decade, concentrating on
those who were active in the
period between the two World
Wars. He is most intrigued by
their relationships to Jewish
identity and causes, to their
families and to the surrounding
community.
- Rockaway has come to the
conclusion that "these people
were like most American Jews."
They never denied their
Jewishness and while not Or-
thodox, most attended
synagogue on at least some of
the Jewish holidays. "They were
a part of their generation."
They also contributed to
Jewish charities and to Israel —
especially after they'd accumu-
lated some wealth through their
criminal efforts. "Bugsy" Siegel
was a handsome, maverick New
York mobster who in the 1930s
helped Lucky Luciano found
America's organized crime syn-
dicate. In 1947 he contributed
several thousand dollars to the
groups fighting to establish a
Jewish State — several days be-
fore he was shot to death.
Siegel's supposed associate,
Meyer Lansky, "remained a
strong supporter of Israel and of
Jewish philanthropies" accord-
ing to Rockaway, who was
granted several interviews with
Lansky before the latter's death.
Rockaway emphasizes that
Jewish gangsters tried to keep
business and family life sepa-
rate. "They saw what they were
doing as business. They thought:
we never hurt anyone except
those who were in the business."
Today the former lawbreakers
are typical Jewish grandparents
belonging to synagogues, sup-
porting Israel and complaining
about the lack of morality
among the youth they see.
On the whole, they wanted
better or more respectable lives
for their children and in some
cases they achieved just that —
Moe Annenberg ran a tele-
graphic news service for bookies
in the 1930s, earning up to $6
million a year during the De-
pression; in 1939 he was sent to
prison for income tax evasion.

Moe's son is Walter, publisher,
editor and former U.S. Ambas-
sador to Great Britain.
Rockaway has also examined
the Jewish community's attitude
towards these wayward sons,
and freely admits that this is a
topic about which it is easier to
lecture in Israel. In America,
local Jewish leaders would often
ask Rockaway not to speak on
the subject, for fear of supplying
fodder to anti-Semites. Espe-
cially in the past, he says, Jews
wanted "that there should be
only good Jews."
The current generation is
more relaxed and not overly
worried about the hit-men of a
previous generation. Rockaway
occasionally receives letters
from students whose
grandparents were involved in
the events of 50 years ago.
At Tel Aviv University, Rock-
away teaches both regular uni-
versity courses and in the spe-
cial "one-year program" de-
signed for foreign students
studying in Israel - often Ameri-
can college students who have
travelled the 6,000' miles to Is-
rael to learn about, among other
things, the history of Jews in
America. Rockaway moved to
Israel 15 years ago from Detroit
and is working on a history of
Jewish Detroit.
He returns to the U.S. a
couple of times a year and on
his journeys frequently arranges
interviews with surviving gun-
men, crime syndicate leaders
and petty criminals. Rockaway
likes to spice up his lectures
with anecdotes:
"There was one Orthodox guy,
a killer, who would not accept a
contract . on Friday night after
sundown ... there were Jewish
criminals who took it upon
themselves to give trouble —
violent trouble — to the Nazi
Bund in New York in the
1930s ... there was Arnold 'The
Brain' Rothstein, most famous
for alledgedly fixing the 1919
Baseball World Series, who as
he lay dying in a pool of blood
refused to break the criminal
code of ethics by informing on
his executioner.
"Instead he told the policeman
who asked who'd shot him that
`your mother' (`mudder' was
Rothstein's term) had done it.
Then he died."
Rockaway theorizes that
many Jews secretly admire the
Jewish gangster because he suc-
cessfully competed with non-
Jews and proved himself able.
In the 1930s, before the re-
creation of the Jewish State,
Jews around the world were
often as not dependant on the
goodwill of their non-Jewish
neighbors. Jewish gangsters, in
contrast, played the "non-
Jewish" game of violence and
crime and made it to the top,
gaining authority and inspiring
fear within their own world. In
pre-Emancipation Europe, says
Rockaway, "tens of Jews were
often killed because of one bad
Jew."

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