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Writing a “New Book” on Jewish Gangsters

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In the two months since my book, The Kosher Capones: A History of Chicago’s Jewish Gangsters, has been out, I have seen enough to sense a generation has passed.

I first published substantial work on the Jewish gangster in the early 1990s when I had an essay in The American Scholar and served as a high-profile source for a widely distributed local news story. I received a handful of notes from people, but one stood out: the grandson of an early Chicago politician—one whom I had identified as, in effect, one of Chicago’s first major independent Jewish gangsters—wrote me in a rage. He defended his grandfather, even though I was generally just quoting contemporary sources, and seemed to feel I had implied that he should bear guilt by association.

In a similar fashion, my uncle—who was not related to the gangsters I explored along other branches of my family—cautioned me to be careful. Gangsters, he explained, were a shandeh—Yiddish for something to be ashamed of—and I should be careful about publicizing my work. As if to give support for his claim, a major donor to Chicago Jewish causes withdrew a substantial pledge when the local Federation seemed to be promulgating the story.

In the wake of The Kosher Capones, though, I have received dozens of emails from readers, almost all of whom identify themselves as relatives of gangsters. To my surprise, all of them seem intrigued, if not quite proud, of the connection. A number have written to share their disappointment that I didn’t mention their relative. In one case, a woman wrote suggesting I include her grandfather in a sequel; amusingly, her sister wrote to say, “please don’t,” but even she seemed to enjoy the larger story and didn’t express discomfort about hearing more herself.

In the wake of The Kosher Capones, though, I have received dozens of emails from readers, almost all of whom identify themselves as relatives of gangsters.

Thirty to forty letters aren’t enough to declare a trend, but they suggest to me that the anxiety that defined one generation’s experience of the Jewish gangster has given way to a new kind of curiosity. When I began my research, I was struck by the degree to which the Jewish community had managed to forget the experience of Jews in the decades before, during, and after Prohibition. In my own case, my mother had no idea that her father had been a gangster of such a consequence that he and his brothers regularly figured on the front pages of Chicago newspapers.

In my own case, my mother had no idea that her father had been a gangster of such a consequence that he and his brothers regularly figured on the front pages of Chicago newspapers.

What I recovered furtively more than a quarter-century ago now seems a more open and appropriate search. Few of us who are the descendants of gangsters seem inclined to boast about it. I, for one, do feel a measure of shame that my grandfather’s family made money on gambling and bootlegging at the cost of substantial suffering for others.

We can still be curious and even full of wonder over the story without feeling boastful, though. Popular culture suggests that the organized crime of those eras was dominated by Italian-Americans, and that’s more or less true. The Jewish chapter in it was much larger than such collective memory generally acknowledges, however, and I find now a surprising amount of encouragement as I pursue it.

Finding that forgotten story isn’t the same as endorsing what our gangster relatives did. Instead, it’s filling in a missing piece of communal and sometimes family history.

Thirty years after I started the project, it seems we, as a collective Jewish community, have become more open to hearing truths that struck our parents and grandparents as uncomfortable.


Joe Kraus is Professor and Chair of the Department of English & Theatre at the University of Scranton and President of MELUS (the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature). He is the co-author of An Accidental Anarchist (Chicago Review Press, 2004), and his creative and scholarly work has appeared, among other places, in The American ScholarMELUSCalalloo, and Southern Humanities Review.


Upcoming author events:

Sunday, February 16 @6PM: Kosher Capones Author Discussion

Saturday, February 22 @7-9PM:  The Old Brick Theatre Author Event

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