I’ve long been fascinated by mobsters.
I’m intrigued by their codes of behavior, their hierarchies and the way they live, dress and take care of business. In reality, most are probably like Tony Soprano, who could clip an associate in the morning and be dressed down by his wife in the afternoon for missing a parent-teacher meeting the night before. Which makes these guys even more fascinating.
After school and on weekends, I’d watch films like Scarface (the original, with Paul Muni and George Raft), Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson) and The Public Enemy (James Cagney) on our black-and white Emerson console.
There was also The Untouchables, a series that pitted Eliot Ness (played by handsome, smooth-talking Robert Stack) against an assortment of Chicago wise guys, among them Al Capone (in the form of the gravel-voiced, coarse and pockmarked actor Neville Brand). Later I found out that many Italian-Americans complained about the show, which they felt demeaned their community by dwelling on the Mafia.
In reality, some of the most notorious racketeers in America were Jews. And not just Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.
While organized crime in New York City might have been dominated by the five Sicilian families, and in the Windy City by Capone, Detroit had the Purple Gang, founded by the four Bernstein brothers.
Cleveland had Moe Dalitz, who later became a powerful figure in Las Vegas. And Los Angeles had Mickey Cohen, who in the 1940s held fund-raisers for the Jewish undergrounds of Palestine and was then said to have pocketed most of the dough for himself.
These Jewish crime figures engaged in the genre’s usual activities – extortion, loansharking, gambling, prostitution, bootlegging and drugs. But for sheer terror there was Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, who ran what popularly was known as Murder, Incorporated, which primarily handled hits ordered by various branches of what had come to be called America’s “crime syndicate.”
The roster of Murder, Inc. executioners boasted such names as Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss and Irving “Knadles” Nitzberg. These men knew their way around machine guns, pistols, garrotes, shivs, ice picks and explosives the way others among their landsmen knew their way around scalpels, adding machines and the Corpus Juris Secundum. For this, quite a few ended up in the electric chair.
There were crime figures even in my own family. Well, sort of. A relative of my maternal grandmother was described as having been adept at breaking and entering (although perhaps not too adept, as he did time in Sing Sing). On the other side, a first cousin of my paternal grandfather had been a bootlegger.
Later on, when he and his wife came to visit my grandparents, I’d listen in on the conversation coming from the parlor in hopes of hearing stories of booze and mayhem, maybe even about the dapper Arnold Rothstein, the whiskey smuggler and gambler said to have put in the fix on the 1919 World Series.
Yes, crime has never been the preserve of any one ethnic group. David Ben-Gurion understood this, saying at one point that Israel would be a real state only when it had hit men and hookers, or something to that effect. If this is true, I guess we’ve achieved true statehood.
(And we most certainly are a Jewish state, judging by the way our shackled suspects haul out kippot every time they shuffle into a courtroom. Someday we’ll see a judge who gives them a Bible quiz before deciding on remand.) BEING SO fascinated by mob life, I’ve watched The Godfather more times than I’d care to admit, so some of its dialogue comes to me easily. Forget about “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” or “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
How about when Pete Clemenza is talking to Michael Corleone about gang wars: “These things gotta happen every five years or so, 10 years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.”
Clearly, bad blood has been building up among the mobsters of the Jewish state. Unfortunately, they are trying to get rid of it on our streets, no matter the time of day, how much traffic or the proximity to homes and even schools.
Don’t bother trying to reason with them. As Don Corleone says about Michael to the heads of the other New York families during a sit-down aimed at stopping their gang war: “I’m a superstitious man. And if some unlucky accident should befall him, if he should be shot in the head by a police officer, or if he should hang himself in his jail cell, or if he’s struck by a bolt of lightning, then I’m going to blame some of the people in this room.” Reason with these guys? Fuhgeddaboutit.
So the answer, it seems, lies with our police – whose chief blames the media.
“I’ve already stopped listening to the radio,” Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino told officers a few days ago. “I suggest you do the same.”
I myself sometimes do that. Of course, I’m not the country’s top cop, who right now must contend with a lot of things besides goombahs blasting each other in our streets. For example, there are goombahs trying to blow up our prosecutors.
They tried last November in Tel Aviv. That got everyone’s attention.
Even Danino’s boss, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, was moved enough to weigh in, although it was to suggest the highly unlikely scenario of administrative detention for our mobsters – a non-starter that was just enough to distract everyone until the smoke cleared.
And wait. There’s the August 2009 Bar Noar case, where it took the cops close to four years to haul in suspects for a high-profile hate crime that left two people dead and at least 10 wounded at a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender drop-in center in Tel Aviv.
It’s true that in an attempt to catch the perpetrators in the hours following the shooting, police shut down what seemed like the entire city. But after they finally, at long last, trumpeted the arrest of three suspects in June of last year, it soon became three suspects and a state’s witness. No, make it two suspects and a state’s witness. Sorry, one suspect and a state’s w… How about a state’s witness who, as of a couple of weeks ago, might – or might not – be the sole suspect? Granted, some of our police investigators have of late been distracted. You can’t really blame them, what with the recent resignation from the police force of Menashe Arbiv, who was ranked just below Danino and headed Lahav 443, which has been called Israel’s FBI.
While more rank-and-file investigators scurried about trying to nab the button men behind all the mob hits, it was Arbiv who was tasked with trying to nab the dons.
But then came allegations about bribes.
AS IS OFTEN said, life imitates art. Remember Michael Corleone? As he discusses a senior New York City police officer with his brother Sonny and Tom Hagen, he declares: “I’m talking about a, a, a dishonest cop, a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets…” Except that the alleged payoffs to Arbiv came not from a rough, tough racketeer, but from a pale, soft-spoken and very nebbishy rabbi who was said to have been fishing for information on an investigation against him in America by the FBI and….
Never mind. Suffice it to say we’re in mid-crisis with our cops, and even some of our rabbis, as much as we are with our mobsters. I’m not sure the Godfather would believe it.
I know I don’t. So wake me up when the ending credits begin to roll.