Jewish Mobsters: A conversation with writer Robert Rockaway

The book 'But He Was Good to His Mother' is based on a vast amount of research and interviews that Rockaway did with old-time Jewish mobsters and their families.

Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/KIRKANDREAS)
Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel
As an avid reader and collector of books, there is nothing that I enjoy more than sifting through different titles and looking for the next great read. Being a student of history, I am always looking for a new angle that may shed light on historical figures who gained fame and even (at times) notoriety. Last year, I was at a book store in Jerusalem when I came across a book entitled But He Was Good to His Mother (Gefen Publishing House, 1993) by Robert Rockaway.
The book is based on a vast amount of research and interviews that Rockaway did with old-time Jewish mobsters and their families.
As he collected material from FBI files, newspapers and books, he looked for anything that would shed light on the personal and less publicized elements of the gangster’s life, such as family and relations with the Jewish community.
The gangsters dealt with in his book include Louis Lepke Buchalter, Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, Arthur Dutch Schultz Flegenheimer, Meyer Lansky, Charlie King Solomon, Max Boo Boo Hoff and Abner Longie Zwillman.
Throughout the book, Rockaway provides a captivating account of the warm, loving relationships many of the most notorious Jewish mobsters in the history of US crime enjoyed with their girlfriends, wives, children, and family, and especially their mothers.
The author wanted to write a book that covered the tales of lesser-known facets of the Jewish gangster in America while being lively, entertaining and (at the same time) factual.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Rockaway received his PHD in history from the University of Michigan in 1970 and taught at the University of Texas before coming to live in Israel in 1971. Since then he has been a member of the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University.
I recently spoke to Rockaway to see what inspired him to write about this unique and rare chapter in Jewish history.
What was your original inspiration behind writing this book?
I wrote this book because I believed that the portrait and histories of American Jewry was distorted. Scholars and historians writing about American Jews ignored the darker side of that history. They were insecure as Jews and worried that portraying Jews in a negative light would increase antisemitism. And the Jewish establishment censured any negative aspects of American Jewish history. I believed that Jews, like all other American ethnic groups contained good and bad people. I wanted to present a more true and realistic portrait. When I started my research and writing about this, I was asked by American Jewish leaders to please not do so because it was “bad for the Jews.” Memories of the Holocaust played a part in this. Thus Jewish scholars shied away from writing about the negative aspects of the Jewish story.
We see a family and community-oriented side behind many of the most famous Jewish mobsters in your book. What set them apart from their Italian and non-Jewish fellow mobsters and counterparts?
Two groups created organized crime in America: Italians and Jews. The major difference is that Italians brought their families into the business, while with the Jews it was one-generational. That’s why you have the Genovese, Luchese, and Gambino crime families today. But the Jews don’t have a Lansky, Buchalter, or Zwillman crime family.
What are some of the most memorable moments that you had interviewing these famous names? Is there a specific memory that sticks out that left a long lasting impression on you?
When I interviewed Meyer Lansky and some others, they told me about their actions against the Nazi Bund and antisemites during the 1930s. Many people did not know about that and few wrote about it. I believe I was one of the first to do so. This was an important revelation to me.
What are some of the biggest takeaways that you want your readers to be left with? What can we learn from these stories as future generations read about these men?
Among Jews, organized crime was one-generational. They kept their families out of the business. Thus you don’t have their descendants being involved in organized crime. It was a passing phenomena.
How did you come up with the title?
Many years ago I was talking to my mother about a mobster whose family we knew. I mentioned to her what a sleazy character he was. Her response was: ‘That may be true. But you know, he was always good to his mother.’ I said, ‘Mom, that’s the title of my book.’ Very Jewish!
The cover of Robert Rockaway’s book (Courtesy) The cover of Robert Rockaway’s book (Courtesy)
The writer received his undergraduate degree in business (cum laude) from Yeshiva University and his MBA with double distinction from Long Island University. He is a financial adviser who resides in New York City, and is involved in Israel-based and Jewish advocacy organizations.