Jewish Gangsters: Thoughts on the Tough Guys Series at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

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October 25, 2010

This year, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is featuring a special program on Jewish gangsters. It’s called “Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film.” As someone familiar with the field – let’s call it The Jewish Culture Industry – I thought the Jewish Gangster idea was great. I got it. Gangsters, boxers, and other Jewish tough guys from the early part of the last century have made a comeback in recent years in books, films, and retrospectives like this one. These dark figures of our past lend themselves to a certain fascination. They’re almost suave in their double-breasted suits and rakish fedoras, which are great material for a clever costume. At the same time, though, no amount of celluloid patina could cast their fame in a positive light. Jewish gangsters – like all gangsters – were violent, disreputable characters. They murdered, raped, robbed, exploited and terrorized ordinary folks, Jews among them. What is their allure?

The 1919 mug shot of New York (and Jewish) gangster Jacob Shapiro.

Part of the appeal is certainly no different than that of all gangster films (and books and music and TV shows). Grimy, tough, misunderstood thugs are made into complex heroes, inducing sympathy and disgust. It’s part voyeurism, part morality tale, and part old-fashioned suspense story. But why Jewish gangsters? Why the need to connect our collective history with the criminal underworld? And why now, in 2010?

In the post-Holocaust era, images of imposing Jewish men have had an obvious role in putting back together the pieces of a shattered identity. It’s become almost a given that stories and images of vengeful Jews compensate for the emasculated stereotypes of Ashkenazi Jewish men, the victim complex created by millennia of persecution and then genocide. But this explanation stopped making sense a while ago. If Jewish guys need heroes, there’s an entire nation of macho, straight-talking, muscular, and olive-skinned Mediterranean types. Israelis provide many versions of the Jewish hero to the degree that it’s become a worn-out cliche of the American Jewish imagination. (See “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”)

We could argue that the Jewish gangster is a counterweight to the Israeli tough guy, a way to prove the point that Jews don’t need ethnic nationalism to be powerful, commanding, embodied, and authentic. But when you think about it, this argument doesn’t make sense either because the basic fear that animates the victim-hero polarity has dissipated. Is there a need anymore for these compensatory heroic models of Jewish manhood? The wane exilic pallor, hunched back, and quivered awkwardness of the Talmud scholar is so much a thing of the past, it’s barely even recognizable as a stereotype. I doubt if most American Jews under the age of 30 would understand the reference. I was born in 1978, and for me, the image is mostly drawn from Isaac Bashevis Singer stories that – I’m told – I’m “really Jewish” for reading. The closest American equivalent, the “neurotic Woody Allen type,” has become more of a cultural myth than a real personality type. It’s a self-parodying ethnic charade that we keep in our repertoire to break out for endearment and humorous effect.

Most Jews are too assimilated for the paranoia that Woody Allen and his yeshiva bocher predecessors epitomized. Nowadays, Jews play sports. They use power tools. They work on organic farms. They’ve melted contentedly into the liberal upper-middle class. We simply can’t explain the pathological attraction to machismo and violence by looking to our past as an endangered minority. Jews have been in the this luscious country for too long. We’ve eaten from the fat of the land. We’ve obtained law degrees and medical degrees, made millions and have had numerous public works named in our honor. Jews now account for three out of the nine justices serving on the Supreme Court. As much as Abe Foxman tells us otherwise, people (generally) do not want to kill us. If anything, they want an invitation to our Passover seders. And maybe a family recipe for matzo ball soup.

The fascination with Jewish gangsters has less to do with our past and more to do with our present. As Americans, it’s impossible to think about gangsters without thinking, however subconsciously, about the images of gang violence in American cities that we’ve seen on the news, read about in the paper, watched on film, or heard in pop music. Gangsters today are mostly minorities in cities, as Jews once were. In contrast, today’s gangsters, by and large, are not white. The vast majority of American Jews are. The majority of gangsters today come from an economically disadvantaged background. Most Jews do not.

This gap between our past and our present offers some insight into understanding the allure of old-timey Jewish gangsters (and boxers and other ruffians) today. While it can’t be reduced to a matter of race and class, it’s impossible to look at the question without using these lenses. For much of their history, Ashkenazi Jews were not “whites.” Historians have traced their racial transformation to the Civil Rights movement when Jews became conspicuous allies, as white folks, in the African-American struggle for equal rights. There aren’t many people that can say something like, “I’m white, but my grandparents weren’t.” Ashkenazi Jews of my generation can. Even still, as Jewishness is attenuated and fading in our second- and third-generation, I know many Jews, like myself, who mark “Other” as their ethnicity in the multiple choice boxes on official forms, uncomfortable with the assertion that they are “White,” meaning “Caucasian” or “of European descent.” Are Ashkenazi Jews of European descent? The Europeans clearly did not think so. Come to think of it, neither did the Jews. As a result of the recent vintage of our “invisible” ethnicity, we must be the most ambivalent white people in the history of whiteness.

It seems that memories of our past as American gangsters is a way to remind ourselves that we weren’t always the comfortable, accepted, middle-class white people we are today. It’s a requiem for a time when Jews were Jews and the brutal realities of this society were not cushioned by the social acceptance most of us enjoy today. The memory works to alleviate some of the liberal white guilt that floats around the American middle class. It also serves to anchor a sense of American Jewish identity in a period that seems more real than today. These were Jews without identity issues. They knew who they were. They knew who their people were. And as so many accounts intone, yes they were murders, but they supported their communities. They gave money to the Hagana. As one author put it, they were good to their mothers.

Jewish gangsters seem to blur the boundaries of whiteness and remind us that there was a time when all Jews were looked upon as alien, threatening, and violent. It puts us reassuringly in the place of immigrant, loathed and suspected, and removes, however virtually, the guilt that comes with our roles as white Americans, comfortable and complacent. Encoded in the image of the Jewish gangster is a glimmer of authenticity. It’s as if in this dark incarnation, we see the kernel of communal attachment that makes Jews Jews.

Class and questions of authenticity are often closely interwoven. Besides the polarizing discourse of race, the undercurrent of class division has also always haunted second- and third-generation American Jews. David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist and son to Jewish working-class radicals, wrote about this in his 2007 essay on taboo, “Manners, Deference, and Private Property: Or, Elements for a General Theory of Hierarchy” (in Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, AK Press). The word “taboo” was appropriated by early anthropologists from the Tongan word “tapu,” denoting something sacred, restricted or set aside by law or custom. Graeber attempts to trace modern manners to the origins of private property and the modern class system. He poses this question: why is it that lower classes, from medieval peasants to today’s urban underclass, are associated with a more bodily, authentic existence? In answer, he argues that this projection originates in the psycho-social structure imposed by hierarchy. Higher classes take on the role of the tapu elite, the social strata that is customarily avoided as a show of deference. This pattern is found throughout the world in different premodern societies. Leaders, chiefs, parents-in-law, or other superiors cannot be touched or looked at directly, or certain objects in their property are off limits. Extrapolating from this pattern into the modern class system, Graeber argues that the nature of hierarchy is to impose a one-way barrier between lower and upper classes. Upper classes can look in on the humanity of those below them – the mess of sex and death that is human life – while their own humanity, as the elite, is rendered invisible through a kind of cultural optical illusion. Leaders, gurus, royalty, and eventually the upper class are perceived as cleaner, more innocent, untouchable, whiter.

It’s the same social psychology we see at work today. The lower classes are consistently perceived as messier and dirtier. Even the polarity of black and white, closely interwoven with class divisions, imposes a subtle valuation of clean (white) against dirty (black or “colored”), when in reality we are all somewhere on the spectrum of light pink to dark brown. At the same time, in the American psyche, lower classes and racially marked non-whites seem to have all the fun, as if they have a monopoly on spontaneity, pleasure, and authenticity. It’s no wonder that suburban white kids want to be gangstas.

The fascination with Jewish gangsters is an instance of Ashkenazi Jews fetishizing their own working class, non-white past as a way of memorializing, and perhaps reclaiming, a spark of authenticity. Their misfit status, gritty animalism, and lack of self-criticism, coupled with an unapologetic and indissoluble Jewishness, makes these Jewish gangsters inherently fascinating to American Jews today. Otherwise, wouldn’t Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff have the same criminal appeal? But they do not and cannot. A movie about either of them would be a frightening mirror on our collective identity rather than an entertaining flight of imagination to the distant past. (Someone should make that movie, by the way.) Abramoff and Madoff weren’t gangsters; they were just crooks, and maybe sociopaths to boot.

In the end, the present-day Jewish fascination with the Jewish gangster is not so different from people’s fascination with gangsters in general, but with the added twist of Jewish neurosis, or what’s left of it. With all the sex, death, and violence, it’s a bourgeois fantasy of a non-alienated self. For Jews, it’s even more: it’s a requiem for our non-alienated past and self-evident ethnic identity in the swirl of social, class, and racial categories that make up American society. It’s nostalgia for the time before a deal with the (white) devil.

Our ambivalent historical memory has always made Jews uncomfortable in their comfort. Perhaps this is the latest permutation of Jewish guilt, or maybe the last glimmer of our collective paranoia. We’re incapable of fully enjoying our luck for fear of what’s around the corner. (Kayna hora.) Whatever the motivation, Jewish gangsters remind us that we didn’t always have it so easy. We were once considered the dregs of American society and we had to struggle to make it. Once upon a time, before we were white.

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