TOUGH JEWS: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams in Jewish America.<i> By Rich Cohen</i> . <i> Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $23</i>
Imagine that, like me, you had written a book entitled “Tough Jews,” published by BasicBooks in 1990. Then imagine this: The Los Angeles Times Book Review invites you--because you are the author of “Tough Jews"--to review a new book entitled “Tough Jews” by Rich Cohen, an associate editor at Rolling Stone. And imagine discovering its dust jacket features a clenched fist with brass knuckles--like yours does. Now you can imagine how I felt when this happened. After wondering what Cohen might say about my book in his, it occurred to me that he might not even know it exists. As it turns out, my book isn’t mentioned in Cohen’s. He, indeed, may be learning about my “Tough Jews” only now. If so, imagine how he must feel.
Imagine. Imagining is, in fact, central in both books, as the key words in their subtitles indicate: Cohen’s “Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams in Jewish America” and my “Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry.” In both books, dreams, fantasies and stories play vital roles in the making of identities, in this instance, Jewish identities; both books also share a common space, the increasingly shifting space of male Jewish identity in contemporary America.
Cohen’s “Tough Jews” participates in the emergence of new genres of writing and cinema: docudramas, blends of fact and fiction. The story he tells is “not so much one of facts as the noise those facts make passing through time. It is a story of shifting perspectives, the way a group of Brooklyn thugs, each with his own rise and fall, fills a need in the lives of my father and his friends, and also in my life. . . . Less a straight history than the story of a Brooklyn gang as seen through the eyes of my father and his friends, and then that story (my father looking at gangsters) seen through my eyes.”
Remarkably, Cohen never explores the genres, dreams, identities, contemporary gender flux, that constitute some of the very social and cultural frames that give his gangster dreams meaning. It’s as if his tough Jewish desires would be tainted (rather than enriched) by scrutiny of their roots, paradoxes and possible implications.
But Cohen could reply: “You got it, baby! That is my Jewish gangster dream: to get past the old cerebral way and on to the tough Jew way. It’s not my style to analyze.” Frustration with the stereotype of the brainy Jewish weakling and attraction to the gangster alternative drive Cohen’s writing. With relish, he recounts an argument between Kid Twist Reles and Pep Strauss, major players in the book, over the spelling of the word friend, their limited literacy being essential to their man-of-action style and a sign of the gangster’s distance from wimpy Jewish inclinations to analysis.
And Cohen’s “Tough Jews” is about image, style, pose and performance. The main stage is a booth at Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills; the book opens and closes with Nate ‘n’ Al scenes, which are also interspersed throughout the accounts of Brooklyn Jewish and Italian gangsters. Cohen’s father and his three Brooklyn pals, now all quite successful (and one of whom is talk show host Larry King), periodically reunite and reminisce.
They do so “with the ease of old friends. Late nights. Stories by now more fiction than fact. Stories set on the stoops and corners of Bensonhurst, Flatbush, Brownsville, in a time when Jewish gangsters, that lost romantic breed, still roamed the streets, when Italians had no monopoly on hooliganism, when a Jewish boy could still fashion his future as murderous and daring and wide open, a future shot full of holes. Alleys. Blue smoky rooms. Basements. The ominous echo of footsteps. Leather shoulder holsters.”
This style is the dream that’s passed from father to son. The era of Brooklyn Jewish gangster crime and killing ended by the mid-1940s. But the men of Murder Inc., the crime syndicate launched by Arnold Rothstein, bequeathed to the next generation of Jewish Brooklyn boys--Cohen’s father’s generation--an ethos of fighting and scraping that could be applied in the business world, and a way of talking, cursing, thinking, dressing, eating whitefish, saying “brisket” from time to time, walking into a deli. With his new book, Cohen makes this Bensonhurst styling and profiling into a way of being Jewish.
“It’s all about Jews acting in ways other than Jews are supposed to act, Jews leaving the world of their heads to thrive in a physical world, a world of sense, of smell, of grit, of strength, of courage, of pain. . . . It’s about being savvy, about never letting anyone know if you’re real or fake, crazy or sane, righteous or fallen, good or bad. It’s about risks.”
Cohen’s book takes a risk: spreading the supposedly unfiltered language, a language “filled with obscenity, with [the foulest, most vulgar epithets imaginable].” But today such language and style aren’t risky because they’re transgressive, as Cohen seems to think, but because they participate in the general decline of civility in American life in recent decades.
Throughout “Tough Jews,” Cohen reads himself into the action, imagining the words and feelings of his gangsters in triumph and in defeat. A sample: “As he ran, the Kid [Abe Reies] must have been thinking, Shit. Joey. Joey Silver. [Multiple epithets.] Set us up. Chose the wrong gang. Better hope we don’t live.” Many of the book’s crucial moments are of the “must have been” sort.
The main archive for Cohen’s findings is, then, explicitly internal. Yet his “Tough Jews” also has pretensions of being an original study of Brooklyn gangsters, Jewish and Italian, in the first half of the 20th century. When Cohen asserts that “Jews themselves have suppressed the memory of Jewish gangsters,” he is suggesting that his book disrupts that pattern of denial.
He has done research. This includes some secondary sources, interviews with retired government officials and examination of New York city archives from the trials in the early 1940s of key figures in the Brooklyn underworld, which was then being broken by the up-and-coming New York Dist. Atty. Thomas E. Dewey. But as a study of Jewish gangsters, Cohen’s research is thin.
Cohen cites “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America” (1980), for example, but doesn’t notice that Albert Fried’s book was itself written to revise Jewish denial of Jewish gangsters. So was Jenna Weissman Joselit’s “Our Gang” (1983), the main scholarly study of New York Jewish gangsters, which is not in Cohen’s bibliography. Cohen doesn’t ask why such historical revisions appeared in the early 1980s.
From the late 1960s through the early 1990s, American Jews experienced a shift in self-perception. The stereotype of the brainy, Jewish weakling gave way to a new stereotype, that of the tough Jew. Amid the profound assimilation of Jews into American society during the 1960s and the Israeli victory over Arab armies in the June 1967 Six Day War, which came on the heels of the controversy ignited among American Jews by Hannah Arendt’s having raised the question, in her “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1961), of Jewish passivity and complicity in Nazi mass murder, American Jewish consciousness transformed itself. At the very historical moment when Jewishness as an ethnicity was dissolving, American Jews found two new sources of identity: the Holocaust and Israel.
During the 1970s and 1980s, scholars (like Joselit and Fried) and publicists, espionage and family-saga novelists, filmmakers and politicians, mostly Jewish, of course, but not always, began finding and often romanticizing tough Jews everywhere: Jewish anti-Nazi partisans, Jewish gangsters in late 18th century Germany and in late 19th century pogrom-era Russia, Jewish jocks and Jewish cowboys, ancient Zealots, Bar Kochba, Massada martyrs, the Golem and Zionism, not least the then-vaunted Mossad.
Of such predecessors, Cohen is, apparently, not aware. He also draws some unfortunate connections between the Brooklyn gangsters and European Jewish reckonings with Nazi genocide. Louis Lepke’s flight from criminal indictment in New York is compared with the efforts of Anne Frank’s family to find refuge from the Nazis. Cohen likewise speaks of the night Reles was to “take” the Shapiro brothers, leaders of a rival gang, but failed and thus brought about Meyer Shapiro’s revenge by abducting, beating and raping Reles’ girlfriend, as the Kid’s “own personal Night of Broken Glass.”
Cohen also links his gangster dreams in Jewish America to unstinting support for Israel military occupation of the West Bank. Having found old photos of his father stationed in Bad Kissengen on the East German border during the Korean War, the son asks if the father was scared “being surrounded by men who may have been Nazis so soon before.”
“ ‘Scared?’ he repeated as if I were a fool. ‘Hey, baby. I had a thirty-eight on my hip. That means when I talk, you listen. Army of occupation, baby. I wasn’t the one who had anything to be scared about. The Kraut, then Gerry, the Hun, that’s who was shaking.’ ”
Everyone, Cohen concludes from this, “needs someone to give them the illusion of strength. How else to explain the sacred position in which American Jews hold the Israeli army? Army of occupation, baby!”
For Cohen, then, “the gangsters were a prototype of a new kind of Jew, the sporty, all-terrain model that would emerge from the ashes of World War II. . . . These men were not religious in the go-to-temple, keep-the-Sabbath way, but they were all for the Jews. The best of them knew there was no running away, that you either become more of yourself, running toward your identity, or become nothing at all. Job fleeing God.” Such passages suggest one way in which Cohen’s book achieves a kind of greatness--as a document of a man’s love affair with a male stereotype.
From the exploits of the gangsters to Cohen’s father and his pals, the Warriors, sustaining and honing the art of hanging out, once on Brooklyn street corners, today at Nate ‘n’ Al’s, the dream is kept alive. Cohen was born and grew up in Glencoe, Ill., separated from what he believes are his roots. He has now found them in his dream of Brooklyn. “It’s a legacy of the gangsters,” he writes; “it’s what men do.” It’s a dream of a world, without women and without gayness, where men bond, betray and break heads.
Cohen wants to preserve “the very otherness that makes a Jew a Jew,” but he’s produced a kind of Jewish gangsta rap, where poses of otherness are suffused with traditional American tough-guy sameness. The book’s most interesting sentence underlines this: “I want the freedom to be a bully.” I believe Cohen has that freedom. In spite of itself, his “Tough Jews” is a reminder of something astonishing, probably unprecedented: In America today, Jewishness and how one enacts it are increasingly matters of choice--for Gentiles as well as for Jews. And Cohen? He’s doing the tough Jew thing.