Jews You Can Use

Reading between the lines.
April 12 1998 3:30 AM

Jews You Can Use

The so-called glamour of the Jewish mob.

Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams
By Rich Cohen
Simon & Schuster; 288 pages; $25

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Cohen hits bottom when he compares the gangster Louis Lepke's flight from justice to the plight of Anne Frank, and when he compares his own grandfather to a drug dealer. "When I think of someone like Tolly Greenberg, I think of my grandpa Ben," he writes. "The same restless energy drove both men toward invention. Ben worked in a diner and was tired of clunky sugar dispensers and so converted an existing piece of machinery, a tea bagger, creating the first sugar packet. Tolly worked in narcotics and knew there was a Southern market for drugs and so converted an existing piece of machinery, creating the first morphine pill. ... I would like to say Tolly was working for evil, my grandfather for good, but I don't know if it's that simple."

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This is stuff that defies analysis. Cohen has written a book that he undoubtedly believes extols heroes and explains a suppressed bit of Jewish history, but what he has done is expose the architecture of his own pathology. He wants desperately to be a thug, because that is the only way he knows to be Jewish. Instead of writing this book--and book-writing is surely a job for sissies--he should have gone out and beat someone up or sold drugs. Then his pathetic self-loathing might have been exorcised.

I am not opposed to Jewish toughness. Breines, in the original ToughJews, argues that the Holocaust disfigured the Jewish soul, turning the victims of fascist persecution into the fascist persecutors of another people, the Palestinians. But Breines is avowedly anti-Israel, and he sees any expression of Jewish self-defense as a sign of nationalism gone awry. To my mind, though, Jewish toughness of the sort that was in evidence in Entebbe, Uganda, 22 years ago, when armed Jews flew thousands of miles to rescue Jewish innocents from death, was one of the great moments in post-Holocaust Jewish history--a statement to the world that Jews will no longer sit idly by and watch themselves being oppressed. Jewish toughness was seen in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis and in the sacrifices of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi in 1964. Also, Lou Reed is tough.

The presence of Bugsy Siegel and Kid Twist in our recent history does not mean we are a tough people. At most, it means we are simply a people like any other.

If you missed our link to a comparison of two versions of Jewish mob history--Cohen's and Turkus and Feder's--click.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for the Jewish Forward.