Jewish Gangsters: Heroes or Pariahs?

Jewish gangsters have long been a source of shame and pride for the Jewish community. On the one hand, they represented what author Rich Cohen referred to as "tough Jews" who, like Israeli resistance fighters, stood up to the "bullies" and anti-Semites who plagued recent immigrants. On the other, many of these mobsters were killers and thieves who brought scorn upon our heads. Certainly, the occasional gangster was "good to his mother," to paraphrase the title of Robert A. Rockaway's book. But most brought dishonor to their parents and to a Jewish community that, in the first half of the twentieth century, was struggling to win respect in the golden land.


In writing my masters of fine arts (MFA) thesis I assembled this list of books, websites, and articles about the “Yiddish” underworld.  I have not included material that focuses on individual Jewish mobsters, though there is plenty out there. I don’t promise this is up-to-date, but it was helpful to me.




Arons, Ron. The Jews of Sing Sing. This is a slightly narrower study of the Jews who were incarcerated at Sing Sing by a genealogist who learned of a “colorful’ relative through his own genealogical research.

Cohen, Richard. Tough-Jews-Fathers-Gangster-Dreams. Cohen, whose father grew up among the “tough guys” of New York, provides a non-fiction, semi-memoir about the Jewish gangsters of New York.

Friedman, Albert.  The rise and fall of the Jewish gangster in America.Probably the most in-depth and comprehensive guide to Jewish gangsters.

Gold, Michael. Jews without money. This memoir of growing up poor in New York’s Lower East Side provided insightful background on the community where many of New York’s notorious gangsters were raised.

Joselit, Jenna Weisman. Our gang: Jewish crime and the New York Jewish community, 1900-1940. One of the earliest explorations of Jewish crime and how the Jewish community dealt with it.

Konigsberg, Eric. Blood relation. Konigsberg’s investigation into his great uncle’s past as a gangster, and it’s impact on his family.

Rockaway, Robert. But he was good to his mother: the lives and crimes of Jewish gangsters. Historical and anecdotal information about key players, written with warmth and humor. A good place to start.

Rubin, Rachel. Jewish gangsters of modern literature. An academic study of how Jewish gangsters are represented in literature.


Jewish Gangsters in The Jewish Virtual Library. This provides context about the era in which the Jewish gangsters operated and their effect on the wider community of Jews.

List of Jewish-American mobsters. This is a handy and lengthy listing that provides short biographical roundups of gangsters. If you can’t track it down, search Wikipedia under Jewish-American mobsters, where you’ll find other related articles.

Fishman Orlins, Susan. These days, it’s almost cool to be related to a (dead) Jewish mobster. Moment, July/August 2008. A nice, brief round up of current attitudes toward having a Jewish gangster relative, and an exploration of the reasons there is less shame now in having ties to these criminals.

Steinhardt, Joanna. Jewish gangsters: thoughts on the tough guys series at the San Francisco Jewish film festival. Forward. I liked this author’s exploration of how Jewish gangsters were thought to be “compensatory heroic models of Jewish manhood.”

 Tough Jews blogspot. A series of write-ups about Jewish gangsters.


Babel, Isaac. Odessa Tales. A collection of short stories about Jewish “gangsters’ in the Old World.

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. A fictional alternative universe approach exploring the immigration of Jews to Alaska vs. Israel during the post-World War 2 era in which the Hasidic community is run by what are essentially gangsters.

Gilmore, Jennifer. Golden country. This explores the experience of Jewish immigrants in  New York as they made their way into different walks of life, including the world of Jewish gangsters.