Jews, like most immigrant groups, had it tough when they first came to America. Like the Irish, the Greeks and the Italians, a lot of them went into organized crime. You had your thugs like Monk Eastman (maybe), your masterminds like Arnold Rothstein, your slick kingpins like Meyer Lanksy, your lunatics like Bugsy Siegel and the countless Members of the Tribe who were members of Murder Inc. Throw in the infamous Detroit Purple Gang, bulldog-owning Los Angeles gang boss Mickey Cohen and you could probably create an entire Godfather cast out of the Chosen People.
But in entertainment, at least until recently, Jewish gangsters haven’t been too prevalent. In the early black-and-white crime pictures, when Jews appeared, they were humorous, sleazy lawyers will silly accents. Later, a few Jews popped up in crime pictures, like the Bugsy Siegel/Meyer Lanksy-based Moe Green/Hyman Roth in the Godfather films and Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye — but they were the exceptions that proved the role. I’m not sure why Jewish gangsters were rare when Irish and Italian hoods popped up all over the place. Maybe the Jews who owned positions of power in Golden Age Hollywood were concerned about shaming themselves before the goyim. Maybe later writers believed that Jews were too wimpy to be gangsters, what with Woody Allen and everything.
However, lately, the ban seems to have lifted. Now everywhere you look, there’s a Hebrew outlaw breaking in some popular drama. Please, join with me as we examine some of the recent gangster Jews and see how I (who have only the dubious credentials of being a Jew myself) think they pulled it off. I’m sure I’m leaving people out so feel free to point out your favorite matzoh ball-munching mobster in the comments section.
Hesh Rabkin (played by Jerry Adler) in The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Hesh is a rare modern Jew involved in organized crime on television (and not just a lawyer like the sleazy Jew in The Wire). He’s a jovial fellow who was also involved in the music business and is frequently seen as a voice of sage advice by Tony and his Mafia friends. The Sopranos frequently addresses Jewish identity, like the early episode with the Chasidic Jews hiring Tony (against Hesh’s wishes) and Dr. Melfi’s psychiatrist explaining that his relatives were involved in organized crime (to dubious looks from everyone around him). Hesh also provides an interesting way to examine the interaction between Jews and African American, with Hesh having both ripped off Black blues and soul musicians and also staying in relationships with Black women. He’s one of the best characters in an extremely influential show and maybe he broke the barrier and finally allowed Jews to be depicted as ruthless criminals.
Bernie Bernbaum (played by John Tuturro) in Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Miller’s Crossing is my all time favorite movie. I don’t have time to talk about why here, but a large part is because of the performances. Tuturro in particular invests Gay con artist/gambler/back-stabber Bernie with a sort of slippery charm that quickly falls away to reveal his insecure, worthless spirit. He’ll betray anyone for a chance of money, kill for his own survival and has no redeeming values. Is he an anti-Semitic caricature? Maybe in lesser hands, but in the world created by the Cohen Brothers in Miller’s Crossing — a world of all-consuming corruption — he fits in just fine. The sort of strain Tuturro puts into his voice, this kind of almost childish lisp, offers a hint of innocence and vulnerability. But everything else about Bernie Bernbaum drowns that out. When he gets his comeuppance, you’ll be sure that he deserved it.
Almost the Entire Cast in Magic City (2012 to Present)
Oh, Magic City. I wanted to like you. I truly did. The setting of late Fifties Miami? The confluence of Kennedys, the Mob, the Cuban Revolution, the CIA, the Deep South Civil Rights struggle? The excellent sets? Jewish gangsters? I love all that stuff. But Magic City’s lackluster writing and simplistic plots made me consider it Baby’s First Crime Drama and put off returning for Season Two (maybe it will improve, though. I have hope!). However, it does feature a great many Jewish gangsters. The hotel manager Ike Evans (who changed his name and is played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the ruthless mobster Ben ‘The Butcher’ Diamond (played as a total psychopath by Danny Houston) and most of the other characters are Jewish. But does the show do a good job of portraying what it is to be Jewish? Well, as with everything else, the answer is a resounded ‘sort of?’ It shows Ike getting some anti-Semitism from corrupt goyish politicians while a widow brings him rugelach, but that feels a little like window-dressing. Make it anti-Italian remarks and ziti or anti-Irish remarks and soda bread and it would be the same basic show. It feels shallow, without talking about the forces that made these people turn to lives of crime, giving them interesting relationships regarding their faiths and having them shy away from (or revel) in specifically Jewish stereotypes. Maybe the second season improved it, though — but I think I’ll wait and see.
A Good Deal of the Cast in Boardwalk Empire (2010 to Present)
This 1920s set series features quite a few historical and fictional Jewish gangsters. Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lanksy and a delightfully insane Bugsy Seigel all make appearance, along with fictional Jews like William Forsythe’s Manny Horvitz. Here, I think that they are shown the proper depth they deserve. Traditional Italians dislike the Jews, calling them Christ Killers, and Lucky Luciano is marked for sticking with his friend Meyer Lanksy. Manny Horvitz also deserves mention. With his heavy Yiddish accent (rendered very menacing) and butcher knife, he’s a dangerous force to be reckoned with. Forsythe gives Manny some real emotion, whether it’s his soliloquy about his past in crime-filled Odessa or his loving relationship with his wife, he’s a complex character instead of being a pure monster or walking stereotype. He meets his fate eventually, but I think he remains as one of the show’s best characters.
Mickey Cohen (played by Sean Penn) in Gangster Squad (2013)
Mickey Cohen was a real criminal — a fascinating and complex individual with a pet bulldog named Mickey Jr. who ran vice in Los Angeles, was covered in the tabloids, owned an ice cream parlor and a haberdashery, and was converted to Christianity by Billy Graham. In Gangster Squad, he’s a one-note mob boss with an oversized nose who talks mostly in yelling and says things like “you know the drill” and then his goons kill somebody with a drill. Gangster Squad is a seriously silly movie. It is painfully dumb (especially regarding race in 50s Era Los Angeles) and its portrayal of Mickey Cohen is no different. Penn does a good job with what he’s given, but Mickey Cohen never comes off as anything more than a cartoon bad guy, sometimes leaning just a little too close to stereotype for comfort. It’s still a sort of fun time at the movies, but when you read James Ellroy’s excellent and hilarious rendition of Cohen in his LA Quartet, you shake your head and sigh at what might have been. However, they did include Mickey Jr. I’m very thankful for that.
Bernie Rose and Nino (played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman) in Drive (2011)
I seriously enjoyed Drive, though I can see while other people didn’t. Personally, I could watch the long pauses, neon cityscapes and blisteringly intense violence all day. It features two Jewish gangsters. Bernie Rose is a producer with a sideline into sin and Nino is a half-Jewish, half-Italian mobster. Drive is particularly good with giving these villains depth. They never stop being monsters but when you understand Nino’s shame at his Jewish heritage holding him back in the Mob and see the almost tender way that Bernie takes a life, you know that these guys are more than just silly cartoons. The action is top notch, with Perlman giving some of his Sons of Anarchy menacing swagger and Brooks making Bernie a seemingly jovial businessman who keeps a collection of knives and doesn’t mind using them at a moment’s notice. If Jewish characters are gonna be criminals, these two set the gold standard.