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The Questions Get Some Answers on Jews and Organized Crime

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When I tell people I research the history of Jewish gangsters, I generally get a question in response.

Some are bewildered. “There were gangsters who were Jewish?”

Some are partially informed. “Do you mean like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel?”

And some rare few have a sense of the basic material. “Like those bookies and their bosses who always seemed to get shot and stuffed into car trunks?”

Even those who best understand the history, though, even other scholars, realize that we have largely forgotten most of the details of how twentieth-century American organized crime consolidated from a range of quasi-independent organizations into what we recognize as “the mafia,” La Cosa Nostra, the Commission or, in Chicago, the Outfit. And for all its Hollywood shoot-’em-up glamor, the history of organized crime is a slice of the larger American ethnic experience.

The particular question started for me soon after I graduated from college when my mother asked me to look into rumors she’d heard about her father. When I checked the Al Capone biographies and then followed up by digging into old newspapers, I learned that my grandfather had been part of Chicago’s Prohibition crime wars, but his own daughter knew almost nothing about it. Gangsters lie for a living, so it’s no surprise that we’ve lost much of what actually transpired, but it seemed extraordinary that, in less than a generation, my own family had lost the sense that there was even a larger story to tell.

Photo of Max Miller and his brothers Hirschie and Davey, three of Chicago's most notorious Prohibition-era Jewish gangsters
The author’s grandfather, Max Miller, stands between his brothers Hirschie and Davey, some of Chicago’s leading Prohibition-era Jewish gangsters.

There have been good historians who have explored Chicago’s gangster history, and there have been good ones who uncovered the history of Jewish gangsters in New York and other major US cities, but no one had ever looked at the intersection of those two stories, the place where my own family’s experience took place. I came to learn that the Jewish West Side, headed up eventually by Benny “Zukie the Bookie” Zuckerman—who’d pushed my grandfather and his brothers out of the business—had been one of the largest gambling concessions in the city and that it had remained autonomous longer than many of Chicago’s other plum rackets.

Then, in 1944, Zuckerman was murdered as he walked toward his own front door, and Syndicate “torpedo” Lenny Patrick emerged as the new neighborhood overseer. Patrick would remain the face of the “Jewish wing” of the Outfit for the next forty years before, in a series of high-profile trials, his testimony was central to bringing down the last of the post-World War II architects of Chicago’s consolidated organized crime.

That looked like a coherent, century-spanning story: my grandfather’s Prohibition generation gave way to the retrenchment of the Depression which led to the grim-faced, wide-tie rackets of the 1950s and 1960s, and then to the old men of the 1980s. As I set to tell it, though, I found that it wound and twisted. In drafts and failed attempts, it was hard to avoid one extreme or another: I could leave some elements vague or I could overwhelm with detail; I could focus too narrowly on the specific figures of my study, or I could lapse into generalities about the context of the organized crime they knew.

The result, after thirty years of collecting details from newspapers, archives, photo collections, and the occasional alte kocker willing to spill some old secrets, is The Kosher Capones. It’s a story about the Jewish gangsters of Chicago that not only addresses my own original curiosity—what kind of world did my grandfather live in—but that further sheds light on the way changing structures of crime and political corruption affected Jewish Chicago across the twentieth century.

So, yes, to answer the question, there were Jewish gangsters, and their stories help us see the broader history of organized crime in a new light and, also, remind us of an experience many have entirely forgotten.

Joe Kraus is Professor & Chair of the Department of English & Theatre at the University of Scranton, and author of The Kosher Capones, published by Northern Illinois University Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press.

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